Franz Schubert, 1797-1828
Schubert spent the majority of his brief but prodigious life writing and performing music within the intimate and convivial company of family and friends. Almost entirely without patrons, commissions nor aristocratic associations, he flourished within a small, cultured middle-class Viennese community where the majority of his music would remain, unknown to the larger world until after his death. Schubert wrote reams of music ideal for the setting: over six-hundred songs, numerous piano works for two and four hands, and a sizable canon of chamber music. In his final decade, Schubert produced a mature series of highly original chamber music that ranks among the greatest ever created including the Trout Quintet, the last four String Quartets, two Piano Trios and a breathtaking final work, the String Quintet in C major. Despite his rapidly declining health, his final year yielded the Piano Trios, the Quintet, three Piano Sonatas and a towering Symphony in C major. It would seem that Schubert’s music just got better and better right until the end. Dying at the age of only thirty-one, Schubert may have departed with still “fairer hopes”, but the music he left behind could easily occupy a much longer life in the service of appreciating it all.
The last Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 100, D.929, is a gigantic masterpiece that, with Beethoven’s Archduke, could be considered among the few greatest piano trios in the traditional repertory. It is gigantic in length and breadth, wealthy in thematic ideas, constant transformations and ingenious details of construction. A typical performance runs to nearly forty-five minutes and this without taking the repeat in the first movement, and, after Schubert’s edits in the finale, removing its repeat as well as some one hundred additional measures. “Heavenly lengths”, as Schumann would write. Like much of Schubert’s “late” music, it is grand and profound in a way that goes well beyond the relatively modest context in which he wrote. It was among the few pieces performed in the only public concert featuring Schubert’s music held during his lifetime, the only work published outside Austria before his death. Schumann wrote, “a Trio by Schubert passed across the musical world like some angry comet in the sky”. More intense than its worthy companion, the Piano Trio in B-flat major written around the same time, it flairs with passion, pathos, perhaps even anger, but it is equally saturated with joy, grace and triumphant beauty.
The first movement sonata in moderate tempo is full of Schubertian lyricism and energy, with as many as six separate thematic ideas in the exposition alone. Careful inspection reveals that they are related. Swept along within Schubert’s typical flow of songlike themes, it is easy to overlook the ways in which he equally excels with a set of key motives that interrelate and recur throughout the trio in a wonderful organic unity. While vast, the trio is also highly integrated. The development is concerned chiefly with the last theme working this generous sonata into surprising dramatic heights.
The slow movement begins with a somber, poised march with a singing cello lament in a minor key. A second theme melts the chill into a tender, bright warmth of smooth motion, a contrast that generates another unexpected epic, the most memorable movement of the trio. Twice, it swells into a blinding heat of monumental passion before cooling again into the restrained, unforgiving march. The Scherzo delights with sparkling play and clever invention: it is a canon throughout with piano and strings imitating each other in a variety of shifting combinations interlacing two and three-part textures in a genial dance like so many Schubert wrote for his Viennese friends. The trio section is more rustic and bold with heavy accents and a recall of one of the troubled, rhythmic themes from the first movement charmed into dance through a loving contrapuntal embrace.
The finale is combination of rondo and sonata forms with no less than three additional melodies, as though Schubert had an inexhaustible font of new music pouring out of his racing, mortal imagination. Midway through, Schubert reintroduces the march theme from the second movement, reminding us of something important we may have forgotten. Now, at least four distinct themes weave in an out of a tapestry of dazzling color and virtuosity with music that perhaps exceeds even Mozart with its lyrical bounty. For a final transformation of tremendous effect and compelling unity, Schubert returns to the march theme yet again, this time reborn in a final triumphant major key.
A casual listen to Schubert sometimes provokes the reaction that he is a bit long-winded, maybe even a bit repetitive. A more attentive listening reveals that Schubert never says the same thing twice. With his masterful handling of an ever-changing texture, his uncanny use of color within a chamber ensemble, his expert rhythmic sense and his exotic, emotionally keen harmonic modulations, Schubert always invests his recurring thematic material with new meaning, ultimately building a large-scale narrative where nothing is redundant and everything necessary. His music demands from the listener only an equivalently generous presence of heart and mind.
© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion. All rights reserved.