The string trio, treated formally, is an unforgiving form for both composers and performers. Because the chords of Western classical harmony have no fewer than three notes, the role of every note in each instrument becomes quite crucial and individual, and a listener must often infer harmony from incomplete chords and the implications of melody. Moreover, orchestral effects, such as doubling of voices and sheer volume, simply aren’t available to the composer – there aren’t enough people to make effects effective. FRANZ SCHUBERT took up the challenge in 1817 at the age of 20.
1817 is a late year for the Classical era, but an early one for the Romantic: Beethoven was still very much around (the Op. 95 String Quartet is from 1816), as was Schubert’s teacher from the previous year, Salieri. At a party for Salieri 50th in 1816, each of his students wrote a short work, about which Schubert wrote in his diary:
It must be fine and enlivening for [Salieri] to see all his pupils gathered around him… and to hear in all these compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the eccentricity that is common among most composers nowadays, and is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists [read: Beethoven]… (McKay, p. 63)
This quasi-rejection of Beethoven (or of Beethoven-ism, at least) can be taken with a grain of salt, but Schubert’s String Trio, D. 581, does show a sharply defined instinct toward Enlightenment clarity. It has a strong sense of moderation and balance. But beyond that, there is a slightly strange sense of hesitancy and wandering which contrasts with the fine and finished quality of its construction. Indeed, it is so sharply etched that much of its intensity comes not from the notes but from the spaces, tonal and rhythmic, that they create. The precisely cut foreground almost seems to set Schubert’s broader instincts in relief.
That Schubert wrote the B-Flat Trio at the age of twenty does not by any means make it a student work. By this time, Schubert had written an astonishing amount of music: over 300 songs, five symphonies, four masses, and seven string quartets, among many others. The chamber music is of mixed quality up to this point, but by the time of the String Trio, D. 581, Schubert seems to have found his uncanny ability to make the absolute most of the slightest shifts, using only the slightest resources.