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.
From the earliest days of Schubert’s reception history, (excessive) repetition comes to the fore as perhaps the most commented upon aspect of the composer’s instrumental music. Repetition is especially problematic with regards to sonata forms, for there are set expectations for when and how thematic material should be repeated; in comparison, Schubert’s compositions break from the mold. According to critics, they repeat too much, too often, scarcely develop thematic material— and in so doing, fail. Such critics were not reticent to point out these shortcomings, and in so doing established a tradition of faulting Schubert’s repetitions in sonata forms. Consider, for example, the following remarks by Henry Heathcote Stratham, published in 1883:
[Sonata form demands] something more than beautiful melodies. A grasp of the whole materials as subordinate to one complete design must be evident; the constituent elements of the composition must be linked together as parts of an organic whole, presented in new and varied combinations, so as to bring out all their latent expressiveness as well as their harmonic or contrapuntal relationship … [In Schubert’s sonata forms] lovely melodies follow each other, but nothing comes of them; or he repeats an idea without apparent aim or purpose beyond the wish to spin out the composition to a certain orthodox length.