Franz Peter Schubert - Life and Music


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Franz Schubert - String Trios

Music > Chamber Music

A distance of nearly ten years separates the dozen or so youthful string quartets composed by Franz Schubert during his initial teenage plunge into the realm of chamber music and the three late quartet masterpieces of 1824-1826.

Schubert's mind was little occupied with string instruments between these two peaks, but he did find time in his astoundingly busy schedule to come up with two string trios, D. 471 and D. 581, both in B flat major and both composed during the month of September: D. 471 in 1816 and D. 581 in 1817.

Trio in B flat major, D. 471

The String Trio in B flat major, D. 471 is, like so many of Schubert's instrumental works, an incomplete composition, comprising only a first movement and some thirty-nine bars of a second, slower one. It is nevertheless a much-loved piece of music in which we can fully hear the nineteen-year-old composer's deep admiration for the music of the Viennese masters whose legacy he inherited.

Allegro of the Trio in B flat major D. 471

The opening theme is given by the violin without introduction of any kind, to an accompaniment of oscillating eighth notes in the viola and a long-held B flat in the cello that soon enough breaks off to imitate a more articulated idea played by the violin in the second bar of the theme. After repeating this four-bar, pianissimo thought, Schubert moves on to offer up some light-hearted triplets in the violin and a rich twelve-bar transition, built around a B flat pedal-point in the viola part, to the second theme. In this second theme area (in F major) Schubert finds room for both some happy, spiccato mini-cadences and some brilliant, forte descending scales in octaves. The coda to the exposition is in three sections, the sum total of which take up just as much time as the entire exposition-proper did.

Development is simple and straightforward in D. 471: most of the fifty-four-bar development section is spent making one or another use of the melodic gesture by which Schubert closed the final bar of the exposition (the main themes don't really appear at all, save the first theme in vague rhythmic outline and the second in one fleeting reference). All is as a Classicist would expect it to be in the recapitulation. The opening theme reappears unchanged, the second idea is recast to suit the tonic key, and the same alternation of tonic harmony with a pseudo-Neapolitan chord (as outlined by a quarter-note arpeggiation in the cello, to which the violin and viola add the piquant idea of an augmented sixth) that closed the exposition is reused to bring the entire movement to a colorful final cadence.

Trio in B flat major, D. 581

The String Trio in B flat major, D. 581 is, unlike its sister-piece D. 471, a finished composition in four movements that, also unlike its more strictly Classical sister-piece, puts on display a few of Schubert's more individualized musical characteristics--not enough to draw the kind of rich personal expression that we find in his Lieder of the day and which would not figure into much of his instrumental music until the 1820s, but enough to allow a listener even only casually acquainted with the late-Classical style to identify the work's twenty-year-old composer with little trouble.

The four movements of the Trio, D. 581, which is scored for the usual trio ensemble of violin ,viola, and cello, are all of rather moderate tempo, as follows: Allegro moderato--Andante--Allegretto (Minuet and Trio)--Allegretto (Rondo finale). It is perhaps in the opening movement that we hear Schubert's unmistakable voice most clearly, for while on the surface this very brief sonata-allegro form movement would seem to have little in common with the expansive kind of sonata movements Schubert would come to compose a little later on, the chromatic twists of both counterpoint (passing tones, etc.) and harmonic motion in the development section (the sudden move to G flat major and then F sharp minor) and the rich ornamental figuration throughout the movement (such as the little sixteenth-note violin arabesque the first pops up at the end of the second bar) all act as perfectly legible signatures.

Allegro moderato

The opening theme is as flexible a melody as one can imagine, its rhythms frequently changing and its range of motion being all but unrestricted. It might be argued that this tiny movement has no second theme at all, for, although Schubert does move to the dominant and proceed for ten-and-a-half bars, the melody used here seems just a new spin on the ideas of the first theme, and the impression is as much a coda as a new thought.

In the development, Schubert provides both the above-mentioned harmonic shift and, a little later on, some bravura fireworks for the violinist. The recapitulation is more or less exact, and a couple of bars of impish, piano thirty-second notes are glued to the end of the movement to draw a close.

The following Andante (F major, 6/8 meter) is both graceful and humorous, though a little cloud rises up as Schubert moves briefly through a lugubrious F minor during the middle portion of the movement. The violin provides an ornamented version of the opening tune at the end of the movement.

During the trio section of the Minuet, the viola is allowed to take center stage for a while, but as we move into the final Rondo, the violin once again asserts itself as the real leader. Here all is in good fun, and one senses that even the dramatic forte-pianos, bravura triplets, and, as we move towards the end of the movement, mysterious pianissimo sixteenth notes are to be taken more-or-less as musical tongue-in-cheek.

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