Schubert: Trio No. 1 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 young composer who was only thirty years old. He inscribed the date of November 1827 on the manuscript of the Piano Trio in E-flat major; its B-flat major companion was composed immediately beforehand. The B-flat major Trio, evolves leisurely over the course of some forty minutes. Nowhere does Schubert’s melodic inspiration wear thin, and the work’s structural felicities keep the alert listener perpetually engaged. 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.”

“Charming” is not always a compliment, at least in the description of music, but this work manages to be profoundly charming without ever descending to cheap 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 opens with a positive, noble theme, offered 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 Schubert’s 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 (Andante un poco mosso), which, like the first, involves some “wrong-key” explorations toward its conclusion. This exquisite movement came as an afterthought. Schubert initially wrote 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 a life of its own as Schubert’s eight-minute 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 periodically 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 Skolie, D.306 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.

Schubert had little more than a year left to live when he penned this masterwork. In 1822 he had contracted syphilis, and within months he grew so ill that he required a lengthy hospitalization. His symptoms subsided somewhat, but he could have had no delusions about where the disease was likely to lead; the time between diagnosis and death rarely exceeded ten years. In 1824 he wrote to a friend: “Imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain. . . . ” Of the many miracles of Schubert, far from the least is how little his tragic circumstances are reflected in such a work as the B-flat major Piano Trio.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.

(June 2019)

(June 2019)