Schubert, Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 99, D. 898

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 99, D. 898 (1827-28; published 1836)

Franz SchubertWhen Schubert turned 30 in January 1827, his native Vienna was in the thrall of what might then have been called the “Age of Beethoven and Rossini.” Schubert had achieved some renown for his work, but he was still publically regarded as a gifted “song and dance man”, a notch or two below the pantheon. Schubert was warmly admired for his Lieder (German songs), dances and piano duets including a few genuine hits. But he was not (yet) held in the same esteem as Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn largely because Schubert had not written (to the public’s knowledge) a “serious” concert work. He knew this, and his scant correspondence finds him yearning to compose a long-form instrumental work, to enter the great foray.

In March of that year, Beethoven died. Schubert was deeply moved and literally carried a torch in the funeral procession. Although we don’t know if they actually met, Schubert was intimately aware of Beethoven’s music including the final works – the piano sonatas, symphonies and quartets – and held him in the highest esteem. Schubert himself was a ticking time bomb: he knew he was battling a fatal but unpredictable illness. Beset with fragile, volatile health, his mortality quite real. With no time to lose and a vacancy now left by Beethoven, Schubert entered his “last year”, one of the most astonishing in the history of classical music. Although his unparalleled creative surge would not be fully appreciated for decades, between the winters of 1827 and 1828 just before he died, Schubert produced a torrent of long-form instrumental masterpieces including the three late piano sonatas, two towering piano trios, the transcendent string quintet and drafts of a 10th symphony. If only he could have known that, today, we look back upon these magnificent years as the “Age of Beethoven and Schubert.”

Schubert’s two completed piano trios were likely composed between November 1827 and January 1828 although precise dating is impossible. The second trio in E-flat enjoyed a public premiere and was published one month before his death (it is unlikely that Schubert saw it in print). The first trio in B-flat lay fallow until it was published in 1836, nearly a decade later. Years later, Schumann would famously write about this pair of epic trios in the “grand sonata style” regarding the first as feminine (lyrical, sensuous, bright and nuanced), the second as masculine (strong, dark, an angry comet streaking across the sky). Today they are both keystones of the canon, Schubert, light and dark.

The radiant Piano Trio No. 1 in B Flat luxuriates across some forty minutes with the requisite four-movement program writ large in Schubert’s “late” romantic style. The sprawling first movement is an epic two-themed sonata form that begins grandly with signing octaves and dotted rhythmic lilt that propels the music throughout. A lyrically winning second theme introduced by the cello establishes the signature polarity between which Schubert will lavishly oscillate until, towards the end, both themes briefly join in counterpoint. The trio textures are rich and colorful, yet transparent and perfectly balanced in a fluid dialog that always redresses the return of familiar themes with new clothes. As throughout the trio, Schubert uses his “magical” modulations (surprising chord and key changes) to articulate and extend his passages with indescribable emotion nuance.

The slow movement finds Schubert in his finest lyrical hour, a “song without words” in the deepest sense. An amorous duet of intimately entwined strings sings over a gentle triple-meter piano accompaniment that will eventually join in sparkling three-part textures. It follows a “simple” three-part form with a more rousing, dramatic interlude briefly interrupting the serenity. Graceful, yet deeply expressive, it is all the more mesmerizing for its constantly changing instrumental color. This was Schubert’s second version of the slow movement for this trio; his first, quite different in character, is now published separately as the Notturro, D. 897.

With well over half the trio spent on the first two epic movements, Schubert completes this masterpiece with the classically familiar scherzo and rondo finale. The equally large-scale scherzo features a lively dance full of three-part imitations, humorous digressions, playful dynamics, rhythms, and silences, all based essentially on simple scales. The trio is more posed, a Ländler for violin and cello.

Though Schubert titles his last movement “Rondo”, many have commented that the musical form is more complex than that. The primary themes serve as a rondo refrain and episode, but they are subjected to variation and development in the manner of a sonata and a theme and variations combined so the iterations are less obvious.. Yet again, beautiful long-limbed themes, colorful, spacious scoring, feints, modulations and counterpoints create an epic tapestry that ends with big, extended cadences. As Schubert was loved and recognized in his time, this music is full of “song and dance” but, as yet unbeknownst to his contemporaries, here is a masterpiece of “serious” instrumental music, one of many that last year for the pantheon.

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