When Schubert (1797-1828) was alive, serious music and light music were not regarded as separate entities as they are today. In fact, contemporary people would probably not even have understood what these terms meant, and it was only later that people began to think in terms of “applied” music. But even this concept would have been alien in the early 19th century because all music had a use. Naturally, there were differences between one occasion and the next, for which different genres and degrees of gravity were required. Music for a burial was different for that written for birthday celebration. Music for a public concert was different to music for domestic chamber music. Naturally, dance gatherings also required music, be it a representative courtly ball or for a party of friends who combined dance with an countryside excursion. There were composers who specialised in the dance music genre, for example the Strauss family, but sometimes, even the finest composers contributed works designed to get toes tapping and feet stepping. The genre allowed for quality work and dance compositions generally commanded a far higher price from publishers than more complex and difficult to perform pieces.
Schubert's contemporary, Leopold Sonnliethner was an eye witness. He recalled that “Schubert frequently attended the home balls and dances of acquaintances and friends. He never ever danced but would skilfully place himself at the piano and improvise the most beautiful waltzes. If he liked one, he would be only too happy to play it again and he later wrote quite a few of them down.”
The coversheet of the B flat major polonaise (which was later lost) bore the date September 1817. This composition for solo violin and orchestra was first performed on September 27th 1818 at the Vienna orphanage, where the soloist was Schubert's brother, Ferdinand.
The polonaise, as we can guess from its name, was originally a Polish dance. There are printed examples from as early as the 16th century, but from the 17th century it spread like wildfire across Europe. It was accepted as a courtly dance, with its largely two beat metre, modest tempo and pleasant atmosphere. The polonaise existed as an independent instrumental genre even in the 18th century but only reached its zenith in the music of Chopin. Interestingly, Schubert only uses it for practical dance music.
We don't know for what occasion Schubert composed and orchestrated the polonaise in B flat major. He had very few opportunities for orchestral performances of his works, and as we know, was happier improvising dances at the keyboard. The polished orchestral sonority, and the mature and restrained use of colours demonstrate that the young Schubert could already treat the orchestral superbly. The work is a simple ABA form with numerous internal repeats, but the beauty of the minor key central section and its musical inventiveness demonstrate that this small work was composed by a true master.