Schubert’s delicate ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata was written for an instrument that is virtually extinct. Why has this piece endured and why do modern players like violist Antoine Tamestit and cellist Gautier Capuçon love to play it?

By Inge Kjemtrup

Within the three movements of Franz Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata in A minor, D. 821, are poignant melodies from the great master of the lieder set alongside sparkling virtuosic passages. The sonata is a satisfying piece for performer and audience. It’s hugely popular, even though the arpeggione, the instrument for which it was originally composed, is now almost forgotten.

The best performances of the sonata make it sound effortlessly beautiful, a result that can only come about through long hours of practice. “The most difficult thing is to reach simplicity with beautiful expression,” says Madrid-based violist Wenting Kang. “It’s easy to do too much and it’s easy to do too little.” It’s also essential to capture the tender character of the sonata, which was written when Schubert was already ill with what was almost certainly syphilis, which would kill him four years later. “You can feel the fragility in the music and I think it’s very touching,” comments cellist Gautier Capuçon. Violist Antoine Tamestit, who made the sonata the centerpiece of his 2010 release, says that it is “not a showpiece. It’s an intimate piece.”

Schubert wrote the sonata in 1824 and dedicated it to Vincenz Schuster, a virtuoso and champion of the arpeggione. The fretted, six-stringed arpeggione—then known as bowed guitar, violoncello guitar, or guitarre d’amore—is connected to the viol family. The instrument seems to have been devised concurrently in 1823 by Viennese luthier Johann Georg Staufer (or Stauffer) and Hungarian luthier Peter Teufelsdorfer. Tuned E-A-D-G-B-E like a guitar, the arpeggione is held between the knees without the support of an endpin. A scant handful of the original instruments have survived, and can be seen in museums, including the music collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Schuster commissioned other composers to write for the arpeggione and even wrote a tutorial himself, but the instrument’s fame was fleeting. After Schubert’s death in 1828, the sonata was also forgotten. It did not appear in print until 1871, and included a transcription for cello.

British viol maker Shem Mackey was commissioned to build an arpeggione by a viol player and shares some of his extensive research with me. Mackey observes that Staufer’s arpeggiones reflect his work as a guitar maker (Schubert owned one of his guitars) and his first arpeggiones had guitar-shaped bodies and sound holes. By 1825, however, his arpeggiones had taken on cello attributes, such as the body shape and f-holes (the Met Museum arpeggione, from 1831, is of this type). All of Staufer’s arpeggiones had flat backs, like the viol.

Today the arpeggione is played by a very small number of people around the world. UCLA music professor, guitarist, and composer Peter Yates is one of them, though he didn’t set out to be an arpeggione player. “I needed a bowed guitar,” he explains, and so he built his own. Talking to Yates, I begin to understand why the arpeggione didn’t endure. “Finding the right strings and stringing them is difficult,” he says. Plus “holding the instrument is awkward.”

But Yates enjoys performing Schubert’s sonata on his arpeggione. “The fingerings, the shape of the arpeggios all fall gracefully.” The instrument is softer than a modern stringed instrument and the strings resonate sympathetically. “With six strings you can’t play as aggressively,” Yates says. “You can’t set a degree of pressure on one string because you’d get two strings instead of one.” Unfortunately, the arpeggione’s gentle sound also contributed to its short life, as it couldn’t compete against increasingly louder violin-family instruments, nor could it be heard in the new, bigger halls.


I ask Yates what advice he would give a modern player, based on his experience
on the arpeggione. He advises “articulated nuance,” something that’s easier to accomplish on a fretted instrument. He also urges that a modern player “stay away from bel canto, smeared-on sound as much as possible” and study Schubert’s articulations in the manuscript. “There’s lots of detail in the notation,” he says.

All of the modern players I speak to have studied Schubert’s manuscript. Tamestit takes it one step further. “I play directly from the manuscript. It is so full of information,” he says, although he finds the Henle iPad app, with its many links and notes, to be useful, too. Capuçon works from the latest Bärenreiter edition, though he comments that “even if you have an urtext edition, some things are still unclear. I teach my students that they have to use their brains!”

Composers, like doctors, have a reputation for illegible writing, and Schubert is no exception. His accents, which resemble a child’s drawing of a bird in the sky, are a puzzle. “Some are crescendos, some are accents,” says Tamestit. “That accent plus fortepiano: Is it a double accent? Is it a decrescendo?” asks Capuçon. “All this is written by the composer to emphasize one syllable in a phrase. It’s like when we talk and we take more time with one word. So does the accent fit in a phrase, does it work? Do you do crescendo until ff or until the middle of the phrase? The music gives us the answer.”

Like so much of Schubert’s music—especially the lieder—the “Arpeggione” sonata’s mood shifts rapidly. “It goes between A minor and A major,” says Tamestit. “It’s hopeful, sad, nostalgic, and sweet.” It’s also very quiet throughout. “The fortes are moments of great passion that don’t last,” he adds.

How much or how little vibrato to use is another issue for a performer. Kang uses little vibrato, adding expression with the bow instead. “I always imagine how the composer heard it. [The arpeggione] is not a Romantic instrument. The right hand can do so much with sound and color change.”

The sonata’s first movement shifts between the tender melody and brilliant virtuoso passages, making it hard to decide on the opening tempo. For Kang, her sense of the “foggy, rainy mood” and her view that “Allegro moderato means never too fast” helps her with this. Capuçon uses his tempo in the virtuoso passages to determine the tempo of the opening. Tamestit’s tempo choice is based on his observation that the opening melody is in four, while the virtuoso passages, which must be “made as fluid and light as possible,” are in two.

A modern player must diverge from the score at several points because of the tessitura of the original instrument. This comes into play particularly with multi-octave runs (m. 79 in the first movement, for example) and octave jumps (m. 115 in the first movement). At m. 115, some players go an octave higher to underscore the drama of a rare ff moment, which is then followed by a mini-cadenza. “For me it has to work musically,” says Kang. She does all she can to avoid breaking up Schubert’s “beautiful long slurs.”

The second movement is an Adagio in E major and it requires the long legato line be maintained. The Adagio is followed immediately by the Allegretto third movement. The Allegretto’s rondo form provides plenty of opportunity for contrast, from a Hungarian style to a Viennese dance—in the latter “you need a little delay and lift,” says Tamestit. The arpeggios in the third movement would have a rolling barcarolle effect on the arpeggione and modern players must work harder to achieve this. Unlike the arpeggione players, Tamestit notes, “we cannot play full chords—it’s awkward.”

Would the sonata be less awkward in a different key? That was the idea of German violist Hartmut Lindemann, who transcribed it from A minor to G minor. In G minor, he writes on his website, “The open strings of the viola assume the same role as did those of the arpeggione in the original A minor.” Furthermore, “most of the difficult passage work can now be more easily executed.”

Many professional musicians begin their study of the “Arpeggione” early in their careers. “The ‘Arpeggione’ has been one of my favorites since I was little,” Tamestit explains. “At 12, I wasn’t allowed to play it, but I did anyway, just to find the right sound.” Capuçon comments that “Schubert is a composer that I always felt close to as a child.”

For Kang, after having put the sonata to one side for many years, it was playing through the sonata recently with a sympathetic pianist—Paul Coker who had worked with Yehudi Menuhin—that made her return to it. “If the pianist doesn’t understand Schubert, then it’s just not good,” she says.

Like Kang, Tamestit’s interest in the sonata was revived by a pianist, in this case his long-time collaborator Markus Hadulla. Hadulla works with many singers, and when Tamestit came to rehearse at Hadulla’s home, he found his gaze straying to the lieder scores atop the piano. He and Hadulla began playing the lieder “just for practicing” and then hit upon several that suited viola and piano, “making our own little lieder cycle.” The two eventually recorded the “Arpeggione,” along with a handful of lieder, and the stirring Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“Shepherd on the Rock”), D. 965, with French soprano Sandrine Piau.

Were he alive today, Vincenz Schuster would no doubt be disappointed by the arpeggione’s limited popularity. But he could only be delighted that Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata—“a propaganda piece for an instrument,” jokes Tamestit—lives on.