Scholars of Franz Schubert’s instrumental music have long felt pressured to justify their affinity for, and subsequent investigations of, this particular repertoire. The urge to defend Schubert is understandable given the tepid, and at times dismissive, reception of his instrumental compositions—especially those in sonata form. Compounding the problem are analyses that frame differences between Schubert’s sonata forms and theories of musical form as compositional faults, or failures. Complaints of this ilk, published in both academic and popular presses, abound in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature on Schubert and his sonata forms.
Thus, throughout Schubert’s reception history the friction between musical work and analytical method has resulted in the marginalization of both the man (as a composer of instrumental works) and his compositions (in sonata form) for over a century. As Julian Horton notes, such “perceptions of structural inadequacy invoke the authority of an ideal type, which is validated through reference to a benchmark repertory”—a repertoire from which Schubert was, for many years, conspicuously absent.
The consistent othering of Schubert’s sonata forms was due, in large part, to the rise of organicist aesthetics in the nineteenth century, combined with the championing of the sonata forms of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (especially those from Beethoven’s middle period). With the crystallization of sonata form as a teleological, goal-directed, and organically unified entity, the lyrical and repetitive characteristics of Schubert’s compositions stand in stark contrast.
As Scott Burnham notes in summarizing Adorno’s seminal essay on Schubert, many qualities of Schubert’s sonata forms are in conflict with the mores of the formal genre: “Schubert’s themes are self-possessed apparitions of truth rather than inchoate ideas that require temporal evolution; his repetitive, fragmentary forms are inorganic rather than organic, crystalline rather than plantlike.” Above all, it is Schubert’s treatment of repetition in sonata forms that emerged as a critical point of weakness.