Schubert: Piano Trio B flat major D898

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Trio in B flat major D898

Allegro moderato
Andante un poco mosso
Scherzo: Allegro
Rondo: Allegro vivac

franz-schubertIt is said that Stravinsky, when once asked if he were not put to sleep by the prolixities of Schubert, replied, “Why should it matter if, when I awake, it seems to me that I am in Paradise?” This is the great paradox of Schubert’s instrumental works.

He, more than any other composer, wrote pretty music and lots of it. Schubert’s gift for melody is well known and it only takes a few bars to identify a piece as his. Despite its charm, publishers rejected nearly everything he wrote. Part of the problem was Schubert’s penchant for writing lengthy works. Both of his mature piano trios and the Cello Quintet are over three quarters of an hour long.

In the autumn of 1827, less than a year before his death, Schubert probably composed, or at least began, both of his piano trios. His first effort in this genre, D.28, was written for the Schubert family string quartet but 15 years later, he became friends with pianist Bocklet, the violinist Schuppanzigh and the cellist Linke, which likely rekindled his interest in the medium.

The final three years of Schubert’s life were not happy ones. Beethoven is famously quoted as saying, “Truly in Schubert there dwells a divine spark.” This may have been true but contemporary concert promoters and music publishers almost universally failed to take note.

His constant campaigns to have his works published and performed in public were all rebuffed, his close circle of friends got married and were no longer able to support him, spend the night in the pub or participate in his beloved Schubertiads. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the young Schubert was, after a two-year respite, suffering once again from terrible headaches, a common symptom of secondary syphilis.

When Beethoven knew he was nearing death, he wrote very serious, intense compositions. Not so with Schubert. His entire life was an exercise in avoiding responsibility and denying the inevitable, so it should come as no surprise that his last compositions are untouched by melancholy or self-pity. Op.99 is good-natured from the start, opening with a convivial and expressive melody in the strings.

The forty years between Mozart’s K548 and this trio was a period of extraordinary change, mostly thanks to Beethoven. Perhaps the most immediately noticeably is the equal status afforded to the cello. Schubert’s father was a cellist and the instrument is given prominence in many of his compositions.

About The Trio
Some commentators think that the opening theme of the first movement is a paraphrase Schubert’s song Des Sängers Habe: “Shatter all my happiness in pieces, take from me all my worldly wealth, yet leave me only my zither and I shall still be happy and rich!” With over 1000 works to his name, 600 of them songs, it would be more remarkable if the melody didn’t sound vaguely like something he had already written.

In the slow movement Schubert gives the cello pride of place, scoring a gently flowing melody that is then taken up in turn by the violin and piano. The strings parts are delicately intertwined as if the lines could have just as easily been a vocal duet.

The third movement Scherzo and Trio contain a clever juxtaposition of the two most popular Viennese dances of the day. The Ländler and the waltz are exactly the sort of thing that Schubert loved to improvise at soirées in order to accompany his friends’ dancing.

Schubert labelled the final movement a rondo but it is really a hybrid of this form and a theme and variation set. Another of his now-popular pieces, the Trout Quintet contains an extensive variation set, something that Schubert was very fond of and most certainly very skilled at. In the final variation, he deftly changes the meter to ¾ before reverting back to 4/4 for the final statement and cadence.

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