Schubert, Franz: D898, Piano Trio in B-flat Major

In the last year of his life, Franz Schubert wrote two full-length piano trios, one in B-flat Major, one in E-flat Major, and each one finer than the other. The B-flat trio, like many of Schubert’s later works, has an enormous sort of efficiency in its composition, which constantly, and often simultaneously, mixes power and intimacy of expression. The thematic material of the trio is not in itself complex, but the number of repetitions of this simple material and the number of transformations it undergoes in these repetitions are huge. In addition to the narrative of these themes within each movement, there are a few simple and fundamental relationships between the elements of each movement which draw the whole thing together. Note, for example, how the minuet comes from the principal theme of the first movement, except that it is somewhat upside down (for a reference to this sort of upside-down-ness, see the notes from John Harbison, above):

first movement, bar 3:


third movement, bars 1 and 2:


Perhaps more fundamentally, there is an underlying rhythmic figure which is directly traceable from the Trio of the Minuet into the phrases of the final Rondo:

third movement, trio:


fourth movement:


This shape can in fact be heard, in retrospect, underlying the theme of the first movement:


Lastly, this rhythm is similar to the pattern of the movements themselves:

1. Allegro 2. Andante 3. Scherzo (Trio) 4. Rondo

in which the third movement, like the third bar of a theme, is in two parts. It would be completely preposterous to suggest that this movement-rhythmic idea was Schubert’s intention, and equally preposterous to suggest that it has any real sonic meaning. Yet, there is something to it, in an open-ended sort of way: like Mozart’s (and Schubert’s own) finest works, the piece itself, in unexpected ways, resonates in the harmony of its own inner resemblances.

Leave a comment