Thursday, September 3, 2020

Schubert's Piano Trio: Easing the "Miserable Human Condition"

 “With Labor Day approaching, marking the traditional end of summer, this week’s dose of great music will be the final one. We are starting to look ahead with cautious optimism and are planning to present our season 2020-'21 in compliance with the government guidance on social distancing, face coverings and limits on gatherings.

After 24 weekly doses of great music, we’d like to finish this series with the uplifting Piano Trio in B Flat Major by Franz Schubert. Robert Schumann famously wrote about this piece: 'a glance at Schubert’s trio and all miserable human condition vanishes and the world shines in a new splendour.' It is our hope that you will find a much needed life-affirming energy and inspiration in this glorious music.” – Peter Sirotin, Market Square Concerts Director.

= = = = = = =

This performance of Schubert's B-flat Major Piano Trio – whether you want to call it No. 1, Op.99 or D.898 – featured violinist Peter Sirotin, cellist Cheng-Hou Lee, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang, recorded at Market Square Presbyterian Church on July 17th, 2015, by Newman Stare.

A four-movement work, it begins with a striking and optimistic first movement, followed by one of the most beautifully expansive slow movements Schubert ever composed (beginning at 11:24). A lively scherzo with its gentle, folk-like middle section (beginning at 20:08, the brief 'trio' at 23:17) precedes a high-spirited, dance-like Finale (which begins at 27:07).

= = = = = = =

To anyone who took one of those Facebook Quizzes in the summer of 2015 asking “Where Will You Be in Five Years” – did anybody get it right?

Probably not what you were expecting, either...

Five years ago, for the original post about the Schubert Trio's concert, the current news seemed grim enough. Compare this to what we're experiencing today.

= = = = = = =

It may be a lot to expect that one or two pieces of music would make all the anxiety we feel watching the evening news go away – whether it's the spread of ISIS, the Greek Debt Crisis, “climate change” (void where prohibited by law), or the fact that cancer can exist, and that's without even mentioning drugs, crime or presidential campaigns.

To some, those who use music to make “the troubles of our human existence disappear” would be labeled as escapists (because everybody needs a label) yet to find out how necessary that idea is to Americans today, all you have to do is turn on the TV.

Of course, there are different ways of escaping: you could be watching The Amazing Ninja Bachelor Survival Chase on most network channels or you could be watching the latest Masterpiece Mystery on your local BBC affiliate – just as you might prefer reading a book, whether it's Another Shame of Gray or Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

So, let Schubert and his Piano Trio in B-flat “take you away from all this.”

To counter claims of “escapism,” I like to point out that without balance, things – including us – would fall down. Or apart (“the center cannot hold” as Yeats expressed it after World War I). The suicide rate would greatly increase, I suspect, if all we had was The News to watch and read. That's why they invented the internet – so we could amuse ourselves with endless cat videos, right?

And Classical Music is full of good things that act like antioxidants for the soul – balancing tension with release, and unity with variety (whether harmonic, melodic, or structural), among other things. There's a fast movement followed by a slow movement; the weightier, more intellectually demanding first movement is usually followed by an emotional slow movement, both of which can be balanced by two light-hearted movements, a dance (minuet or scherzo) and, for Schubert, usually a simpler, often child-like fourth movement to give everything, even dramatic first movements, a happy ending. Plus there are loud passages followed by soft passages, complex harmonic passages resolving to simpler, more direct harmonies, modulations to other keys and, eventually, returns to the home tonic – it's not all one or the other.

There are reasons for that – because, before they invented listening systems you could plug directly into your ears, that was the way people listened and needed the respite from one or the other. A three-minute rock song blasting away may be one thing, but a half-hour-long piece of chamber music (much less an hour-long symphony) has to approach the listener differently and it does this through balance.

While there is, of course, the musical equivalent of broccoli (and others may consider serialism a little too high-fiber for their tastes), a musical diet that offers you some of the finest works by some of the greatest composers can offer a good balance as well, even in a single composition.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Franz Schubert, painted in 1825

Schubert, technically, was born in the 18th Century – 1797, so just barely – but that doesn't make him an 18th-Century composer. Beethoven, born over 26 years earlier, was already working on his first great masterpieces (like the Op. 18 String Quartets; the 1st Symphony was just around the corner) around the time Schubert was born in another part of Vienna. But where Beethoven was already “not sounding like an 18th-Century composer,” much to the chagrin of his teacher, Haydn, the epitome of the 18th Century, many of Schubert's works – especially his early symphonies and string quartets – had a distinctly Haydnesque appeal to them up until the music he began writing in the mid-1820s: his early music possessed clear textures, well-balanced and equally clear structures, and an essentially direct harmonic language, all trademarks of the classical style.

Around the same time Beethoven, now in his 50s, had begun those monumental Late Quartets, Schubert finally left the 18th-Century ideal to explore his own monumental late works, expanding not just the length of the music and how far he could stretch it but also the harmonic language and how it related to the overall forms both composers had inherited from the past.

In the Good Old Days, composers didn't write one piece at a time – think of Haydn's quartets (usually a half-dozen in a set) or those “London” Symphonies (two sets of six written for separate visits). Even Beethoven wrote six quartets for his first published set, Op. 18, and there were three written for Count Razumovsky.

Beethoven often conceived his symphonies in contrasting pairs – if not the Eroica & the 4th, certainly the 5th & 6th, the 7th & 8th, and the epic 9th & the barely begun 10th, left in sketches when he died in 1827 at the age of 56.

Schubert, whether he planned them that way or not, wrote his two piano trios, concurrently or consecutively, around the same time period following Beethoven's death. In fact, there's a fair bit of debate about which trio came first and which one might have been performed on the only concert of his music he was ever to give in his lifetime, that epic program on March 26, 1828 (the first anniversary, as it turned out, of Beethoven's death). 

Even though there are differences, they are not so different in the way they're written – not at least the kind of contrasts that you would find between Beethoven's 5th & 6th Symphonies or even within a set of six string quartets. But yet, neither sounds derivative of the other, given our age for sequels and prequels.

Schubert, who could write several different settings of the same poem, firmly believed (like most good composers before him) there were many ways to skin a sonata, not just churning out one piece after another all built to the same mold. This "sonata form" was the traditional structural outline on which you stretched out all your thematic and harmonic ideas for the serious opening movement of any multi-movement abstract work, whether it's a sonata, a symphony, or a piano trio (as well as many of Schubert's seemingly non-abstract works that defied the idea of a sonata like the “Wanderer Fantasy,” among other “fantasies” which are still, regardless of not being called sonatas, essentially sonata-like four-movement works).

Schubert (r.) with friends J.B. Jenger & Anselm Huttenbrenner (1827)

Schubert composed two piano trios which were published eight years after his death as Op. 99 in B-flat and Op. 100 in E-flat, making the pairing even more obvious even though it's a fairly arbitrary coincidence. The cataloguer Otto Deutsch numbered the E-flat Trio (completed in November 1827 and first heard the following month at Vienna's Musikverein) as D.929 but the B-flat Trio (whose manuscript has been lost and which may have been composed sometime during the year 1827 – some sources suggest it was written in October but there is no proof of that) as D.898.

Of the works listed between D.898 and D.929 in the Deutsch catalog (originally published in 1950-1951), there are six lesser-known, mostly short piano pieces as well as the famous set of Four Impromptus (D.899), 22 songs and part-songs as well as the 24 individual songs that make up the magnificent song cycle, Winterreise (D.910), plus 88 pages of an unfinished opera, one of many such opera projects Schubert tried and abandoned. But even the placement of the B-flat Trio in this catalog is not an indication of chronology, since the first four works on this list can only be marked "1827(?)" with no more conclusive dates. Considering we know Schubert was working on the extremely dark poems that make up Winterreise between February and October, 1827, could this brilliant and optimistic Piano Trio – thinking of Schumann's words about the vanishing of the "miserable human condition" which Peter quoted in his introduction – have been written simultaneously with the dark and ultimately pessimistic song cycle? (Can there be a more desolate conclusion than that final song, Der Leiermann...?)

Another historical fact to consider, thinking how composers must work in the real world, not the “fantasy vacuum” most of us assume the creative “ivory tower” to be, the great Beethoven had died on March 26th, 1827, and Schubert, who by this time in his life revered him, was one of his pallbearers at the funeral three days later. These two trios, as well as most of Schubert's major works written during his last few years, could never have been written without Beethoven's influence.

Little did Schubert know he would not outlive the next year, dying on November 19th, 1828, at the age of 31. But the large number of works he composed in that final year include some of his finest. It is difficult to imagine anyone of any age writing that many masterpieces in so short a space under such circumstances, but that is another story to contemplate for another time.

– Dick Strawser