Thursday, September 8, 2016

Outside the Box: One-size-fits-all creative expression

Thoughts on Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione

By Geoffrey Dean

Reading the description of the new “Outside the Box” column while listening to Franz Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano, I remembered my own dismay when studying this piece at what I took as Schubert’s inconsistencies. My “inside the box” thinking at the time was to try to minimize the variations in intervals, dynamics, articulation, rhythm found in Schubert’s score – to move toward standardization, so that each appearance of a given musical gesture would resemble every other as closely as possible. In pursuing this standardizing impulse, I was unwittingly following the example of a long line of music editors who had purged Schubert’s (and others’) works of their native quirkiness, putting them back into the box of one-size-fits-all creative expression as they confined them to the narrowly drawn parameters of “tasteful” interpretation.
    What ultimately saves this particular work is the fact that Schubert composed it for a newly-invented instrument, a cello-guitar hybrid that never caught on, thereby spurring performers on standard instruments to reimagine the sonata as they adapted it to other instruments. Their freedom from any idea of an incontrovertible, definitive original text gave them space for a much wider range of interpretations. The two cello recordings that I happen to have in my iTunes library – with Queyras and Rostropovich, respectively – are delightfully different. And to think that this piece is just as often performed on viola or double bass, and that flautists and violinists have also included it in their repertoire! I was only a little surprised to find a very respectable performance on euphonium among the offerings on YouTube (link below). So many areas for interpretative freedom, opened up because a Viennese guitar maker dared to move outside the box, and Schubert was ready to move too.
    I invite you to explore some of the many versions of Schubert’s sonata. Let me know your favorites!

Cello: Rostropovich/Britten (audio only)

Flute: Galway (live, video)

Bass: Božo Paradžik (live, video)

Euphonium: Warden (audio only)

Arpeggione: Deletaille/Roudier (video) – finally, as performed on the instrument it was actually written for!

    Here’s a good website for more detailed information about the instrument and the sonata: “Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata Revisited.”

Copyright © 2016 by Geoffrey Dean


  1. You are certainly a honest student of the pure intent in music by the creator of it. I applaud you, Geoffrey. Well done!

  2. Whoever would have thought there are MUSICAL boxes we can confine ourselves in? Geoffrey Dean identifies one - and provides examples of the joy of getting outside the box.

  3. But to answer your question - I like Bass: Božo Paradžik (live, video), the best. Personally, you can't beat the depth and warmth of a bass cello. But then again I sing bass in choirs. My second favorite was the horn of Dave Werden. For similar reasons but perhaps with more "attitude". Thanks so much for sharing these examples.

  4. What glorious music for an early evening, looking out onto the darkening garden, with lingering traces of memory of carrying the bird feeder into the house after dinner and discovering that a young finch had ridden in with it, and taking the feeder out to let it fly home. The Rostropovich so dynamically tranquil in the master's command of the MUSIC, Mr. Galway hurried and impatient, Božo so captivating I never wondered how much longer he would go on (although I did wonder how hard the performance might be on his back), the euphonium rich as a whole chamber orchestra, the arpeggiome clear but at a disadvantage against the cello and the bass. Thank you, Geoffrey!

  5. Great article highlighting an important realm of musical interpretation: ostensible inconsistencies in scores which may actually be a gateway to expanded and heightened musical expression.