Franz schubert’s C major Fantasie for violin and piano has a simple musical premise, but, emotionally and technically speaking, an extremely complex realization. The piece is roughly in four movements, and approximates the basic topography of a four-movement sonata (slow-fast-slow-fast) played without breaks. The third section, marked Andantino, contains the germ and crux of the piece: a set of variations on a tune from a song Schubert wrote in 1821, entitled, simply ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ (‘I greet you’). The song alone contains far more than its title indicates: the ‘du’ is someone who has been taken away, and can no longer be greeted, or kissed – indeed, if the song is not heard as maudlin (which is entirely possible), it can come across as quite a difficult fantasy in its own right, with strange and magical emotional modulations.
In the C major Fantasie, Schubert causes a simple rising line (on which the tune of ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ is based) to emerge very gradually. It appears first in a psychedelic sort of opening (Andante Molto), in the violin part over tremolos in the piano. It appears again in the second and fourth movements; and of course it appears fully in the third movement, where the song itself is the subject of variations. In a way, the ‘rising line’ idea is so simple that it doesn’t even count as a motive- it is not developed systematically as the motive of a sonata would be. Instead, it is, as advertised, the subject of musical fantasy.
More externally it is important to acknowledge the sheer virtuosity of the Fantasie, for both instruments. The music is crammed with notes. Moreover, the piece asks for a very particular, and very demanding, sort of virtuosity: fantastic elements in both violin and piano usually have very specific effects and relationships to one another, and Schubert uses them quite carefully to decorate crucial elements below. Only occasionally does the virtuosity seem simply celebratory- but when it finally seems so, it is a most welcome development, for the performer, the listeners, and even, possibly, the narrator of ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’.