Complete Pianoforte Sonatas

Schubert: Complete Pianoforte Sonatas, edited, fingered and annotated by Howard Ferguson. Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music


The Associated Board's editing standards hake proved so variable over the years that the Board itself might welt he imagined as a sort of seesaw. The present effort reaches a high level – an achievement the more remarkable for being attained by only one person. Formerly, a four-man committee sat on the editorial board. Nowadays the Mozart editors for example have been reduced by two; and so, no doubt coincidentally, have his sonatas. But this single-handed Schubert project enters about twice as much ground as ever before; and much of it will be unknown territory to all but the most devoted Schubertians. This first volume is so well produced, so reasonably priced, and for the most part so unfamiliar, that all concerned, however marginally, will just have to place their orders instanter.

    But there are reservations of another kind to be made. The three pages of introduction, like the page of notes on each separate work, are mainly devoted to questions of study and performance. The approach, argumentation and apparatus are all admirably apt for that purpose. But by the same token they are unlikely to please professional performers at all points, let alone purists or pedants. Thus it is far from clear why the unfinished sonatas should he excluded from the main chronological sequence. Such a procedure could hardly have been countenanced in an edition of the symphonies, and it seems to me in need of justification here especially since the whole point of Maurice Brown’s  exemplary essay “Towards an Edition of the Pianoforte Sonatas” (in his Essays on Schubert, 1966), which is an acknowledged source, was to give “the student, performer or researcher the whale chronological process of Schubert's work” in this genre. Again, the argumentation offered is not always entirely clear. Thus the volume begins with the posthumous Fünf Klavierstücke d459, promoted to Schuberts first sonata on the ground that the only extant autograph (incomplete, containing I and only 1-142 of II) is headed “Sonate”. This is held to prove that d459 as it stands was intended as a sonata. But of course it proves nothing of the kind, as the commentary then proceeds to point out by suggesting that Schubert might well hake omitted II had he prepared that work for publication. And where is the evidence that III, IV or V were intended as part of this or any sonata?

    Assumptions and preconceptions may sometimes colour other judgments, and in ways that more directly affect performance. Thus the reasons given on p.110 for supposing that the first grace-notes in bars 537, 99, 244 and 246 of d157/1 should, unlike all the others, be played on the beat, seem to me illogical and unpersuasive. Here and there, too, the tone of the commentary suggests the marking of an exercise rather than the editing of a text; and there is an occasional tendency to talk down, as if to younger pupils. I dare say that some older performers might well prefer not to “think of a pair of horns” despite the admonition on p.150.

    Still, the final balance is firmly in favour of the Board. Dr Ferguson’s constant theme is that in the last analysis users of this new volume must think, feel and decide for themselves, in the light of his considered advice and the factual data that he has striven so hard to present. He is thus not seeking easy acquiescence. But most of his views inspire confidence; and all are entitled to respect. The students, teachers and performers to whom his work is addressed will surely give it the welcome it deserves; and they can he certain that every bar has been examined and adjudicated with insight and devotion.


The Musical Times, Mar.1979 (p. 249) © the estate of eric sams