In the words of scholar/musicologist/journalist and Schubert biographer Alfred Einstein, Schubert "is a Romantic Classicist and belongs in the great company of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven." And with eloquent insight, Einstein wrote further: "He left no successors. The feeling that he inspires in later ages is an infinite longing for a lost paradise of purity, spontaneity, and innocence."
Schubert composed two piano trios, both the objects of admiration by Robert Schumann, who characterized the B-flat Trio as "passive, feminine, lyrical," and the E-flat Trio as "active, masculine, dramatic." Of the three adjectives Schumann used to describe the B-flat Piano Trio, the last one - "lyrical" - is irrefutable. But lyrical in ways that are sunny, smiling, gracious, ingratiating, quite unlike those of the song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), which Schubert composed early in 1827, the year attributed to the Trio. The "winter" of the song cycle's title is both seasonal and emotional; the mood of the songs is one of loneliness, grief, and despair, a mood that reflected Schubert's state at the time. It had been some four years since he had been diagnosed with the venereal disease that was to claim his life, and understandably his suffering since that time had been mental as well as physical. The composer's good friend Josef Spaun left a description of the scene when Schubert presented the song cycle to his friends: "Schubert had been in a gloomy mood for some time and seemed unwell. When I asked him what was wrong, he would only say, 'Now, you will all soon hear and understand.' One day he said to me, 'Come to Schober's today. I shall sing you a cycle of frightening songs. I am curious to see what you will all say to them. They have taken more out of me than was ever the case with other songs.' He then sang us the whole Winterreise with great emotion. We were taken aback at the dark mood of these songs... Schubert said, 'I like these songs better than all the others and you will like them too...'"
Like composers before and after him who gave expression to personal distress, Schubert was able to dispel gloom and produce music that exists on a wholly different level of expressiveness. Schumann, again: "One glance at the B-flat Trio and the troubles of our human existence disappear and all the world is fresh and bright again." There is absolutely no room for argument here. The Trio is redolent of springtime, of a warm and effusive spirit that speaks volumes about Romanticism in its innocent youth. Who can imagine music more buoyant than the plain theme of the first movement, or more blissfully tender than the subordinate theme, whispered first by the cello?
The scheme of the movement is virtually by-the-rulebook sonata allegro form: The two themes are developed in the middle section and restated in the final one. Here and throughout the Trio, the scoring for the three instruments is as generous as the music itself. The piano part sings blithely and disports itself with plenty of bravura; of the two strings, the cello is favored somewhat, but both are fully and gratefully employed.
The slow movement has one of those miraculous Schubertian melodies that is at once touchingly human and serenely detached from the mortal realm. In providing contrast to this lyricism, Schubert reaches out in the middle section for some dramatics and - let's say it - fussiness that are a bit excessive. This is not to say that this music does not hit its mark, only that it may exceed it. But, in the end the detour serves to intensify the pleasure of the return of the main theme.
The Scherzo is sheer joy, and it is matched smile for smile by a finale for which Schubert might only have considered exercising some restraints in the matter of scope and repetition. So often in Schubert there is the element of "heavenly length."
- Orrin Howard, who served the Los Angeles Philharmonic for many years as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute to the program book.