Piano Trio in E-flat major, D. 929, op. 100

October 30, 2016: Wu Han, piano; Philip Setzer, violin; David Finckel, cello

Schubert made four contributions to the piano trio literature, two full-fledged trios—B-flat major, op. 99, and E-flat major, op. 100—and two one-movement pieces—the early Sonatensatz, D. 28 (1812), and the Adagio in E-flat, D. 897, sometimes called Notturno. Though the precise dating of the B-flat major Trio remains somewhat of a mystery, both the B-flat and the E-flat trios are known to have been composed close to the same time, about a year before his death. The manuscript of the E-flat Trio states that it was begun in November 1827; the finale was probably completed in December. The two trios, though considerably contrasting in character, show a typical Schubertian tendency to work on more than one major work in the same genre, if not simultaneously then in quick succession. The Notturno, which may have been intended as a movement for the B-flat Trio, was also composed around that time.

Outside of songs and a few operas, most of Schubert’s compositions were not performed publicly during his lifetime, though many were heard at the private musical evenings known as “Schubertiads.” The E-flat major Trio was one of the few that received a public performance, at the only public concert of his works that Schubert instigated before his death. The concert took place at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna on March 28, 1828, to an overflow crowd containing many ardent Schubert supporters who loudly voiced their approval; the concert also helped Schubert’s ailing finances. The Trio—played by pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet, violinist Joseph Böhm (not Schuppanzigh as is sometimes reported), and cellist Josef Linke—formed the centerpiece of the concert, which also included a string quartet movement, several songs, and a piece for double male chorus. Despite the success of the concert, the event was largely eclipsed by the Paganini frenzy that soon held Vienna in its grip.

Schubert’s growing recognition, however, was reflected in the fact that two publishers outside Vienna—B. Schott of Mainz and H. A. Probst of Leipzig—began asking Schubert for works to publish, hoping mainly for “easy” pieces that would sell well, such as songs and piano duets. Probst eventually offered to publish the E-flat Trio for about one-quarter of the going rate for piano trios, saying “a trio is a luxury article that rarely brings in a profit.” Schubert felt obliged to accept the offer on May 10, 1828, in view of his financial situation, asking only for “the swiftest possible publication.” Schubert wrote to Probst on August 1 that “this work is dedicated to nobody but those who find pleasure in it.” On October 2 he still had to “beg to inquire when the Trio is at last to appear. . . . I wait its appearance with longing.” Regrettably, Schubert died one month before the first copies reached Vienna.

Both the B-flat and E-flat trios show Schubert’s expansive approach to Classical forms, the B-flat lasting approximately thirty-six minutes and the E-flat about forty-four, which as Joseph Braunstein pointed out is longer than all the Beethoven symphonies except the Third and the Ninth. The sonata-form first movement of the E-flat Trio is built on four themes—the unison opening, which returns to signal the recapitulation and to conclude the work, the scherzo-like main theme, a more hesitant second theme, and a lyrical closing theme. One of the most striking aspects of the movement is that Schubert uses the last of these as the basis of the development.

Schubert’s friend Leopold von Sonnleithner reported that the composer had made use of a Swedish folk song in the Andante con moto, and, indeed, Schubert had heard several Swedish folk songs sung by Isak Albert Berg (later the teacher of the famous Jenny Lind) at the home of his musical friends the four Fröhlich sisters. Eventually, in 1978 musicologist Manfred Willfort showed the source of Schubert’s material to be “Se solen sjunker” (The Sun Is Setting) from a manuscript “5 Swedish Folk Songs . . . composed by Mr. B.” Schubert’s use of the folk song constitutes an absorption into his own expressive style rather than a simple quotation as seen in the example below.

Despite his “Scherzo” label, Schubert referred to the third movement in a letter to Probst as a minuet, which was to be played “at a moderate pace and piano throughout.” And indeed the Scherzo, which opens canonically, suggests older models. “The trio, on the other hand,” wrote Schubert, should be “vigorous except where p and pp are marked.” Its heavy accents provide great contrast to the more graceful outer Scherzo sections.

Schubert’s finale is remarkably progressive in its recall of earlier movements—such “cyclic” procedures were to become common with Romantic composers. The movement has often been criticized for its length, and Schubert himself made cuts in it which he told Probst “are to be scrupulously observed” in the engraving. In a reversal of his usual editorial practice, Brahms restored Schubert’s cut material when he prepared the movement for the new critical edition of Schubert’s works, making the finale over 1,000 measures(!), and adding to the decisions modern performers have to make. The movement’s expansiveness also brings to mind Schumann’s notorious phrase “heavenly length” in regard to Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, or the quip about Schubert often attributed to Stravinsky: “What does it matter if, on hearing these works, I doze off now and then, so long as, on awakening, I always find myself in Paradise?”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

< Return to Parlance Program Notes