Fantasie, Piano and Violin, C Major, D.934 (1827)

Born 31 January 1797, Vienna, Austria.
Died 19 November 1828, Vienna, Austria.

On January 20, 1828, at a mid-day concert in Vienna, the Fantasie for Violin and Piano, D. 934, was performed by the Bohemian musicians, violinist Josef Slavik (1806-33) and pianist (and former violinist) Karl Maria Bocklet, both then living in Vienna, where they were members of Schubert’s circle.  Slavik was apparently quite a virtuoso (described by no less than Chopin as “a second Paganini”), for whom Franz Schubert (1797-1828) may have written the Fantasie;  Bocklet, regarded as the “most professional pianist” in Schubert’s circle (David Montgomery), had been the dedicatee of the D major Sonata (D. 850), and had premiered the “Wanderer” Fantasie, Op. 15 (D. 760).

Despite the eminence of the performers, however, the Fantasie was met with general disapproval, both by the public (some of whom walked out during the performance) and the critics.  One of the latter generously allowed that it would work better in a smaller room with true connoisseurs as hearers; another found it too long for Viennese taste (which is why he joined some listeners in leaving early);  another simply considered the work a failure.  Interestingly, only a review appearing months later in London considered the work “far above the average.”  This lack of popular and critical enthusiasm undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the Fantasie was published only in 1850 as Op. posth. 159.

Modern writers and musicians (even including Alfred Brendel) have continued the tradition of deprecating the work, citing its ungainly technical difficulties or excessive virtuosity, the supposedly less than masterful handling of the song “Sei mir gegrüβt” as a set of variations in the middle of the work (Maurice Brown calls them “worthless display”), and the seeming lack of large-scale formal  coherence, interpreted as a lack of craft.

These opinions are in sharp contrast to the overwhelmingly positive view of Schubert’s other “late” works.  However, finally in 1997 Patrick McCreless came to the defense of the Fantasie in a study that viewed the work as a Fantasia in the context of changing musical taste c. 1830 and subjected the piece to a more thorough structural analysis than it had previously received.  With respect to the first point, McCreless pointed out that the Fantasie as a genre was undergoing a transformation from the mid-18th-century emphasis on stylized improvisation (phantasieren, could mean after all, “to improvise”) to the concept of a multi-movement  work comparable to a sonata but in one large movement (like the earlier “Wanderer Fantasy” or even the later Op. 17 Fantasie by Schumann); moreover, with the 1830s came the age of Chopin and Liszt and of the structurally loose free fantasies—explicitly intended as virtuoso showpieces for public concerts—based on operatic themes and the like.  Schubert’s Violin and Piano Fantasie (although Schubert designate it for “Piano and Violin”) finds itself with a foot awkwardly planted in both of these early-19th-century traditions of the Fantasie.  Therefore, on the one hand, it looks backward as a kind of continuous multi-movement sonata, in this case consisting of a slow opening section in C, followed by a faster, larger section in A minor (McCreless calls it “all’ongarese” but one might also imagine a hunting scene with galloping horses and horn calls), a set of variations on “Sei mir begrüβt” in A-flat, a return of the opening material (varied) in C leading to a final C-major section with brilliant coda.  On the other hand, the work looks forward to a new style of loosely structured virtuoso music intended for large concert halls.  Consequently, despite its multi-“movement” structure, the work lacks sonata-like tonal and structural relationships, although McCreless points out previously overlooked factors that unify the work musically.

Understanding what the term “Fantasie” implied in the early 19th century can lead to a deeper appreciation of what Schubert was about in composing his Violin and Piano Fantasie.  Compositions so titled, which could still exhibit the free and original improvisational style inherited from the eighteenth century, now often included variations on a theme (e.g., Beethoven’s Choral Fantasie, Op. 80 and Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasie)—an adumbration of things to come in the later pot-pourri fantasy on operatic tunes.  Moreover, the original invention was not limited to free, cadenza-like improvisational material but also to unconventional sequences of sections of varying character, different from what was typically used in sonatas.  Schubert’s Violin-Piano Fantasie has all these features:  an unconventional sequence of independent sections, one of which is a set of variations, and, in transitions and fermata elaborations, moments of stylized improvisation that recall the previous century.  As McCreless puts it: “phantasieren [in the early 19th century] suggests more the skill of combining elements that do not really belong together than it does to improvise freely.”

Schubert wrote his Fantasie, D. 934, in 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death, and would himself die the year the Fantasy was premiered.  A new era of full-blooded romanticism was about to be ushered in.

Raymond Erickson (2009)