Slipping between Hexatonic Poles: Clara Schumann’s Piano Sonata in G minor

Clara Schumann and her World, University of Oxford, June 2019


Clara Schumann’s little-explored Piano Sonata in G minor (1841), is one of her few large-scale works that can be heard in dialogue with sonata-form traditions. Written during a period when the form was becoming increasing reified in pedagogical Formenlehre, Clara Schumann’s work paradoxically eschews middle-ground diatonic polarities – arguably a crucial feature of sonata architecture – in favour of slippages between tonics and their hexatonic relatives. These slippages irrevocably change the expected course of its movements.

This paper will provide a rigorous and long overdue analysis of what Robert Schumann described as Clara’s ‘first sonata’. To map the tonal trajectory of the entire work, a full Schenkerian analysis of all four movements will be presented in conjunction with a Sonata Theory approach. Not only does the secondary zone of the first movement slip to the global tonic’s hexatonic pole, B major, but the multimovement cycle works its way, parsimoniously, around what Richard Cohn has termed the Western hexatonic cycle. What is more, the Scherzo’s (III) small ternary form moves from D to G major, thus acting as a global preparation for the hopeful outcome of the entire work: the ‘emancipation’ of the minor mode in the finale. The paper feeds into the gradually expanding analytical interest in Clara Schumann’s music (Michael Baker, 2018), as well as music-theoretical scholarship on nineteenth-century tonality.