There’s this great moment in the movie Yesterday when our hero, Jack, a competent-but-not-superstar guitarist and singer, first wakes up after his accident and finds himself in a world where The Beatles never existed and he is the only person who remembers their music. He plays “Yesterday” for some of his friends, and after the first reaction of “Oh my!”, he tells them that it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. They look at him a bit askance, and his friend says, “Well, it’s not Coldplay. It’s not ‘Fix you.’”

In 2020, in a world where the great works of classical music are largely unknown to many of my closest friends, I can relate. I played the first movement of the Schubert B-Flat Major Sonata at a small gathering earlier this year, and afterwards someone came up to me and said, “That was so pretty. What was that?”

“Oh!” I replied, “This is Schubert’s last piano sonata. It’s one of the greatest pieces ever written!”

“Hmm.” He thought about it for a minute. “I guess I could see that,” he conceded, but I could tell he was comparing it to an earlier performance and thinking, “Well, it’s not Liszt. It’s not ‘Liebestraum.’”

Our world today is not exactly the world of Yesterday. We remember The Beatles, and we remember Franz Schubert. The B-Flat Major Sonata, squarely “in the canon”, has been played by virtually every great pianist, and is known to virtually every lover of the classical piano repertoire.

But that last qualifier, “lover of the classical piano repertoire”, makes all the difference. Those that identify themselves as such are becoming fewer and further between. And so we have a world of people that are perhaps too familiar with the piece and another world who would just as well listen to Liebestraum No. 3 – a beautiful piece, absolutely, and an order of magnitude shorter, but… it’s a piece of pie, not the turkey dinner.

Where the comparison to The Beatles’ “Yesterday” breaks down is when we talk about “accessibility” – that loaded word that is to classical music what “drinkability” is to alcohol. In its optimism (and in search for a good story), Yesterday proposes that the merit of The Beatles’ songwriting is enough to propel Jack to fame. In the classical music world today, it’s uncertain what would happen if the Schubert B-Flat Sonata had never been written and someone played it in a major piano competition today as their own. Depending on the judges, their moods, whether the instrument and the hall suited the particular performance of the piece, and a number of other factors, that might be the end of it. And in fact, this sonata does happen to be one of those masterpieces that wasn’t recognized as such until over a century after its composition. Perhaps there’s some luck involved in getting all these factors to line up just so.

For better or for worse, this particular Schubert requires the listener to be properly primed. The listener needs to be open to the transcendent, prepared to be present with the music rather than their worldly lives for the three quarters of an hour to come, and curious enough to be an active listener in the sense that English teachers speak about active readers. The listener needs the permission to think critically, to agree and disagree. The listener needs to be empowered to trust their own feelings, even when it’s boredom.

I had a teacher say to me once, “You know, we’re never bored when you play this piece, but we almost should be,” and I actually understand what he’s getting at. The piece must be allowed to unfold like a great Russian novel – think Anna Karenina. That is to say, it develops like life itself. It might not go out of its way to catch your eye; you must watch it. In meditation, there is a notion of toeing the line between the mind being too active and too passive. Schubert found this balance, but in this art form, the performer must find it as well, and then even that is not enough. For the experience to be successful, the audience too must find this balance. The performer may guide the listener, but the listener must be receptive to the journey and may even be required to actively participate themselves.

Some attempts to supply the right environment fail, and in fact worsen the experience. Program notes and lectures that take themselves too seriously are a pet peeve of mine. Too often, program notes are lessons in history or theory that are not in service of the music to be played; rather, they are treated as an end in themselves. While I love a good history lesson from time to time, this tends to prime the audience for an academic experience rather than a personal one.

Sometimes the right environment makes itself. If you’re going to watch Alfred Brendel play D. 960 in an intimate hall – and you know what this means – then that alone is likely sufficient to put you in the right state of mind. While I do have the pleasure of playing in small halls, I’m no Alfred Brendel.

I have some practical ideas that might work, or might fail spectacularly.

  • Begin playing only after a short breathing-focused meditation has helped the audience become more relaxed, focused, and receptive to what they are about to hear.
  • Give the audience enough technical knowledge to follow along, but not so much that it overwhelms. For instance, a digital blueprint of sonata form that they can follow along with.
  • Prompt the audience with open-ended questions to ponder, like “what could this trill represent?” If this is done inconspicuously during the performance, it also serves the purpose of bringing the audience back to the present.

My biggest question is whether we tell the uninitiated audience that this is Schubert’s swan song. Those of us in the other half of the audience – those of us who know this music – have no choice but to listen to the music with this knowledge. Shouldn’t we bring the other half up to speed? It is likely the quickest, most accurate way to signal to the audience what kind of a mindset they’ll need to be in. Avoid the old cliches of describing the piece as “cosmic,” “sublime,” and “timeless,” (true or not) and maybe this is good enough – not overly leading in itself.

Knausgaard wrote in his book about Edvard Munch, “A painting addresses itself directly to the emotions, and when the emotions are explained and words assigned to what is wordless, it becomes something else.” I believe the same about music. If Schubert could have said what he wanted to with words, he would have. And to some extent it’s presumptuous to say that we, with our words, can strengthen Schubert’s message.

Nonetheless, we know that context does change perspective. In a thought experiment, you’re shown a pair of old, raggedy pants, too small, and asked how much you’d pay for them. You say you wouldn’t. Then you’re told that Napoleon wore them to battle. All of a sudden they’re invaluable, on display in a museum. You can substitute various works of art for “Napoleon’s pants” in this experiment, and get a spectrum from things that don’t change value with context to things that drastically change value. (Try a few on your own: the Mona Lisa, a forgery of the Mona Lisa, a Jackson Pollock forgery, Burden’s Shoot, Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, Schoenberg’s first 12-tone works, 12-tone works generated by a computer.) In fact, this may not be a bad proxy for the concept of “accessibility” – whether something can be appreciated without being explained.

When we think about the Schubert B-Flat Major Sonata specifically, I think we’re left with the unsatisfyingly trite conclusion that it depends on the individual listening. We’ll never be able to say whether a given individual would have had a more meaningful first encounter with Schubert’s work if they were told about its history or not. For me personally, I was told it was Schubert’s swan song before I first heard the piece, and in a way, I now feel robbed of experiencing the music “purely.” Then again, I fell in love with it.