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The Piano Trio in B-flat is a large-scale work – over three-quarters of an hour in length – which doesn’t feel like one; it feels intimate. Schubert began composing it in 1827, the year before his death, and worked on it simultaneously with the song cycle Winterreise. Perhaps Schubert needed a lighter project to divert his attention, and from the illness and melancholy that filled the composer’s life in his last months; Op. 99 is a lively, buoyant work, with unrivaled lyricism throughout. It paraphrases Schubert’s song, “Des Sängers Habe.” (“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 first movement, an Allegro moderato, is supremely balanced, perfectly orchestrated. The piano takes the first theme with strings providing staccato accompaniment. An upward scale on the piano leads to the second theme, first stated by the cello. Minor incarnations of the theme ensue with increasing longing. The movement is both vigorous and mellifluous, and is the longest of the four in the Trio.
The second movement, marked Andante un poco mosso, starts with a beautiful lullaby-like melody on cello that moves to the violin. After growing and increasing in tempo, passing the theme among the instruments, a more elegant section starts, then becomes more agitated, moving through minor keys, developing ideas. There is a return to the lilting melody from the beginning of the movement and the Andante ends sweetly.
The third movement is a Scherzo Allegro that borrows from the Ländler – a folk-dance in 3/4 time that features hopping, stomping, and, occasionally, yodeling. The Ländler was popular in Austria at the end of the 18th century, and is thought to have contributed to the evolution of the waltz. A mellower, more refined Trio section in the middle shows off violin and cello trading the melody, while piano plays staccato pairs of chords. The more rugged Scherzo returns with a piano call and twirls to the finish. The movement is vintage Schubert – just the sort of music he loved to improvise to accompany dancing at his regular soirees.
The finale is a rondo though it is closer to a developmental sonata form. It is also dance-like and the three instruments follow one another throughout, playing tripping dotted figures, arpeggios, and trills. The music continues to develop and vary, changing keys, making declarative pronouncements and adding to the picturesque flight – one of the most unique and beautiful in all Schubert. After whirlwinds of material, the finale settles, walks merrily along in a conversational way, then interrupts itself loudly and leaps to a cadence.
Robert Schumann said of it: “One glance at Schubert’s Trio (Op. 99) and the troubles of our human existence disappear and all the world is fresh and bright again.” The Trio is suggestive of things to come in the genre – composers such as Brahms and Dvor?ák would go on to write piano trios in a similar, intimate vein. And although the Op. 99 Trio is now one of the most revered chamber works in the classical repertoire, it was never performed publicly during Schubert’s lifetime; the only performance Schubert heard was in the context of one of his “Schubertiad” evenings.
Jessie Rothwell is a composer, musician, concert curator, and writer.