Schubert: Trio in B-flat major for Violin, Cello, and Piano, D.898

Schubert: Trio in B-flat major for Violin, Cello, and Piano, D.898

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote two piano trios, both of them intimate yet towering masterpieces, both summations of his music at its best, both created by a composer who was only thirty years old, both the products of a genius who had little more than a year left to live. We know that Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-flat major was completed in November 1827, since he inscribed that date on his manuscript. Dating its B-flat major companion is trickier, but evidence suggests that it was composed immediately beforehand.

Schubert seems to have esteemed the E-flat major work more highly, since he chose it to be the centerpiece of the only public all-Schubert concert to be held during his lifetime, in March 1828. It is a splendid piece, but it has come into a fair share of criticism for being overly luxurious in its length, and modern performances usually involve some judicious trimming. The B-flat major Trio, on the other hand, comes across as more perfect in its proportions, although it, too, is leisurely, evolving over the course of some forty minutes. But what forty minutes they are! Nowhere does Schubert’s melodic inspiration wear thin, and the work’s structural felicities keep the alert listener perpetually engaged. Wearing his critic’s hat, Robert Schumann described it as “passive, lyrical, and feminine,” as compared to the “more spirited, masculine, and dramatic tone” of the one in E-flat major. “One glance at Schubert’s Trio,” he continued of this piece, “and the troubles of our human existence disappear and all the world is fresh and bright again. . . . Let the work, which he bequeathed to us, be a cherished inheritance. Time, though producing much that is beautiful, will not soon produce another Schubert!”

The B-flat major Trio manages to be profoundly charming without ever descending to nostalgia or kitsch. It is for such a piece that the Viennese press into service the word gemütlich, with its overtones of hearth and home, of unpretentious honesty, of unthreatening benevolence. The first movement (“graceful and virginal,” by Schumann’s assessment) opens with a positive, noble theme, given out by the strings in octaves and propelled by upward bursts of notes. The cello, playing in its high register, introduces the spacious second melody to provide lyric contrast. As in the much earlier Trout Quintet, the piano often doubles its lines in the two hands when entrusted with melodic material. Formalists will take delight in Schubert’s inventive manipulation of sonata form, especially when the recapitulation makes not one, not two, but three false starts in different “wrong keys” before finally plowing forward in the tonic B-flat.

The cello again takes responsibility for the songful, gently rocking utterance that opens the second movement, which (like the first) involves some “wrong-key” explorations toward its conclusion. This follows a brooding central section that simmers with unease, though not enough to make that the movement’s overriding mood. This exquisite Andante un poco mosso came as an afterthought. Initially Schubert had written a dreamlike Adagio in which time seems to stop. The replacement movement holds up more strongly in the context, but the original Adagio continued in an independent life of its own as Schubert’s Notturno in E-flat major (D.897), that being the title assigned to it in 1845 by its posthumous publisher. Musicological research has confirmed that the paper on which it is written displays the same watermarks as other works from the period of the two piano trios, which helps cement its connection.

Where the opening movement was built on rising phrases, the Scherzo plays with a falling motif, often injecting rhythmic displacements to humorous effect. The Trio section is a spacious waltz, but its airy quality is blown away with the return of the Scherzo’s whirlwind.

Schubert calls his finale a Rondo, but it isn’t a terribly strict one since the main theme undergoes considerable alteration when it returns to punctuate the proceedings. The musicologist Alfred Einstein seems to have been the first to note that the Rondo theme bears considerable resemblance to Schubert’s song “Skolie,” composed in 1815, a gather-ye-rosebuds sort of song that admonishes the listener to “take delight in the brief life of the flower before its fragrance disappears.” Few works of Schubert’s final fruition provide more poignant illustration of that sentiment.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, as well as Contributing Editor to Chamber Music magazine. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.

(November 2017)