The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, D 898

About the Work

Franz Schubert Composer: Franz Schubert
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

On January 31, 1827, Franz Schubert turned thirty. He had been following a bohemian existence in Vienna for over a decade, making barely more than a pittance from the sale and performance of his works, and living largely by the generosity of his friends, a devoted band of music-lovers who rallied around his convivial personality and extraordinary talent. The pattern of Schubert's daily life was firmly established by that time: composition in the morning; long walks or visits in the afternoon; companionship for wine and song in the evening. The routine was broken by occasional trips into the countryside to stay with friends or families of friends - he visited Dombach, near the Vienna Woods, for several weeks in the spring of 1827, and Graz in September. A curious dichotomy marked Schubert's personality during those final years of his life, one which suited well the Romantic image of the inspired artist, rapt out of quotidian experience to carry back to benighted humanity some transcendent vision. "Anyone who had seen him only in the morning, in the throes of composition, his eyes shining, speaking, even, another language, will never forget it - though in the afternoon, to be sure, he became another person," recorded one friend. The duality in Schubert's character was reflected in the sharp swings of mood marking both his psychological makeup and his creative work. "If there were times, both in his social relationships and his art, when the Austrian character appeared all too violently in the vigorous and pleasure-loving Schubert," wrote his friend the dramatist Eduard von Bauernfeld, "there were also times when a black-winged demon of sorrow and melancholy forced its way into his vicinity; not altogether an evil spirit, it is true, since, in the dark concentrated hours, it often brought out songs of the most agonizing beauty." The ability to mirror his own fluctuating feelings in his compositions - the darkening cloud momentarily obscuring the bright sunlight - is one of Schubert's most remarkable and characteristic achievements, and touches indelibly the incomparable series of works - Winterreise, the "Great" C major Symphony, the last three Piano Sonatas, the String Quintet, the two Piano Trios, the Impromptus - that he created during the last months of his brief life.

Though there exists no documentary evidence concerning the provenance or purpose of the Piano Trio No. 2 in B-flat, it was apparently composed during the summer or early autumn of 1827; its companion, the Trio No. 2 in E-flat, was written quickly during the following November. Schubert himself assigned the works the consecutive opus numbers 99 and 100. These compositions, like many of the creations that cluster around them, show Schubert turning away from the modest song and keyboard genres that had occupied the center of his early work in favor of the grander instrumental forms with which he hoped to expand his reputation. It is likely that the Trio No. 2 was conceived with the expectation of introducing it at a public concert entirely of his own music mooted for the following spring, but Schubert seems to have had no similar plans for the B-flat Trio. The only time when he is known to have heard the piece was at a private gathering on January 28, 1828 at the home of his old friend Josef von Spaun to celebrate Spaun's engagement. Three of the best players in Vienna, the same ones who were to perform the E-flat Trio to excellent acclaim at the concert in March, took part - pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet (to whom Schubert dedicated the D major Piano Sonata, D. 850 and the Fantasy for Violin and Piano, D. 934), violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (noted for his interpretations of the quartets of Beethoven, who had died just months before this Trio was composed) and cellist Josef Linke (a member of Schuppanzigh's quartet). When the performance had ended, Bocklet fell upon the composer with embraces and congratulations, and told him that the Viennese little realized what a treasure they had in him. Though Schubert took much trouble to get the E-flat Trio published, there is no indication of similar efforts concerning the Trio No. 1. It was not until 1836, eight years after the composer's death, that Diabelli issued the parts in Vienna. One of Schubert's earliest and staunchest champions, Robert Schumann, in a review for his journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, wrote glowingly of the two Trios: "One glance at them - and the troubles of our human existence disappear and all the world is fresh and bright again." The Trios have remained among the most popular and beloved of Schubert's creations, "the purest blend of the ‘sociable' spirit with that of true chamber music," according to the distinguished scholar Alfred Einstein.

As are many of Schubert's instrumental works, the B-flat Trio has been accused of being prolix and overly long. Yet there is in the music of Schubert, perhaps the most easily lovable of all the great composers, not so much the sense of longueurs in his lengthy flights of wordless song as one of generosity, of an unstinting gift of the tones that welled up, day and night for his entire life, in his fecund imagination. Indeed, these works have delighted generations of music lovers precisely because the qualities of abundance and friendship and joie de vivre overshadow any faults of form or technique. The sense of conviviality and expressive bounty floods from the opening theme of the B-flat Trio, a sweeping melody for the strings that paraphrases Schubert's song Des Sängers Habe ("The Singer's Possession") of February 1825, whose text virtually summarizes his music-bound existence: "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!" The piano's dotted-rhythm accompaniment to this theme provides material for the transition to the subsidiary subject, a lyrical inspiration sung by the cello above rippling piano triplets. Both themes figure in the development section. One of the marks of Schubert's Romantic stylistic tendencies was his wide-ranging, sometimes daring, use of unexpected tonalities to extend his music's emotional expression. This adventurous quality is here apparent in the surprising areas that the main theme is made to traverse - G-flat major (violin) and E-flat minor (cello) - before the piano finally achieves the "proper" recapitulatory tonality of B-flat. This technique allows both the exploration of a glowing range of harmonic colors as well as several additional opportunities for Schubert to share his lovely melody. The second theme is reiterated by the violin before the movement works itself up to a dramatic climax, which is brought into perfect emotional balance by a brief, quiet coda.

The Andante is one of those creations of ravishing lyrical beauty that could have been conceived by no one but Schubert. Its outer sections, calm and almost nocturnal in expression, take as their theme a flowing cello melody that may be the most gentle of all barcarolles. An agitated, minor-key central section provides formal and emotional contrast. The Scherzo and Trio comprising the third movement juxtapose the two most popular Viennese dances of the day - the Ländler and the waltz, just the sort of thing that Schubert loved to improvise to accompany the dancing of his friends at their soirées. Schubert called the finale a "Rondo," but its theme returns with such extensive alterations that the movement's formal type is closer to a developmental sonata form than to the traditional refrain-based rondo structure. Here, also, Schubert hinted in the main theme at an earlier song, Skolie (1815): "Let us, in the bright May morning, take delight in the brief life of the flower, before its fragrance disappears."