Schubert swings. It is late at night, darkness surronds the house, occasionally a car drives by. The house however is fully lit, there is a cocktail party going on. People are standing around, Daiquiris and Lynchburg Lemonades in their hands, chatting about politics, arts, everyday matters and exchanging the latest gossip. A trio has been brought in to delight the guests with unobtrusive music. When the musicians start to play the first bars of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat (Op. 99, D.898), the chatting dies down. People look at each other, surprised, whispering: “What’s that?” An elderly couple takes the initiative and engages in a slow dance.
Swinging and rocking
This could be the opening scene of a movie, and I leave it to your fantasy to imagine what is going to happen next. The key issue here is Schubert’s piece and its fantastic lavishly lyrical first movement. When performed for example by the Trio di Trieste, it sound so effortless, buoyant, easily free-flowing, swinging and rocking that one wonders whether Schubert just let his initial theme freely drift around his room when he composed the piece. Musicologists however point out that the first movement is very carefully constructed precisely to give the impression of lightness.
The second movement too is characterized by a swaying rhythm. There is a contrasting section which is more turbulent, but the excitement remains within defined bounds. The third movement is written in the traditional minuet* form while the last movement takes the form of a rondo*, which again invites to dance. Both the second and third movement rely on counterpoint to give it some dramatic and contrasting moments. The fact that the trio lasts for almost three quarters of an hour makes it formally exceptional, and because of its richness in colours and its emotional depth, some have compared it to a symphony for a chamber orchestra.
“All our troubles disappear”
Schubert started to write this trio in 1827, the year before his death, and worked on it simultaneously with the song cycle “Winterreise”. The manuscript is considered lost and a precise dating is impossible. Those were difficult times for the composer as he was aware that his end was near. Did he need to focus on something light to keep black thoughts at bay? One wonders. One of his later admirers, Robert Schumann” once said: “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.” Let’s drink to Schubert and his ability to make us forget all our sorrows. Cheers!
© Charles Thibo