Franz Schubert (1797-1828) String Trio in B flat major, D. 471 (1816)
The autumn of 1814 was the start of one of the most extraordinary burgeonings of creativity music has ever seen. Over 15 months, the teenage Schubert not only produced around 150 songs (including Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkönig), but also two string quartets, two symphonies, two masses and four Singspiele. He composed at a rate of over 65 bars a day despite being a full-time teacher at his father’s school, having composition classes twice a week with Salieri and being so short-sighted that he even wore his glasses when he was asleep.
Two years later during 1816 Schubert’s productivity was still extraordinary (110 songs, 2 symphonies etc) but he had not yet received a single public performance in Vienna, a single public notice in a newspaper, or enjoyed a single work being published. In the autumn he made a significant domestic and professional move, leaving his demanding teaching position and his supportively conventional home to take up with the dandified Franz von Schober in Vienna’s fashionable inner ring. Today’s string trio movement was written in the September of 1816; no other movements exist apart from an Andante sostenuto fragment of the second.
The sunny opening (illustrated) sets the tone for much of this simply-structured movement. The development, after the repeated first half, is unusually restricted in its material. It is almost entirely based on the two closing bars of the first half (illustrated) – the interest comes fro m the keys that the 19-year-old Schubert leads us through.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1 No.3 (1793/5)
Allegro con brio
Andante cantabile con Variazioni
Menuetto & Trio Quasi Allegro
Beethoven’s three Op.1 trios are dedicated to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky who had been generous to Beethoven after his arrival in Vienna. A composer and collector of Bach manuscripts, Lichnowsky had also been very generous to Mozart lending him a substantial sum of money, which Mozart was unable to repay. It has recently come to light that the Prince sued Mozart and, a few weeks before Mozart died, the court found in the Prince’s favour and requisitioned half of Mozart’s salary from the Imperial Court. Beethoven initially fared better and secured a substantial annuity from the Prince which was paid until the two had a furious quarrel in 1806 causing Beethoven, in turn, to sue Lichnowsky.
Before his Opus 1 was published by Artaria in 1795, Beethoven had already written at least 3 piano quartets, 2 piano trios and a wind octet. He probably began work on the Opus 1 piano trios in his home town of Bonn, but continued to work on them after his move to Vienna in 1792, where Haydn heard them performed the following year. Haydn advised Beethoven not to publish the C minor trio. Beethoven took offence, thinking Haydn jealous and ill-disposed to him, though Haydn said he was simply trying to protect Beethoven from what he thought would be a hostile public response. Nonetheless, Beethoven delayed publication and revised the trios, partly as a result of Haydn’s remarks, but also to ensure good sales on the basis of his growing reputation. His efforts and guile were well rewarded with an initial subscription of 241 copies bringing in the equivalent of many thousand pounds today.
The Trios are rich in ideas (‘When I re-read the manuscripts I wondered at my folly in collecting into a single work materials enough for twenty‘) and have many of Beethoven’s characteristic trade-marks. In Beethoven’s hands the trio form moves beyond the traditional three-movement design of Haydn and Mozart: he adds a movement, casts the individual movements on a larger scale, and gives the strings, in particular the cello, a more independent role.
The C minor Trio is the most powerful of the three, influenced by the Sturm und Drang movement of earlier decades. A sinister mood is set at the start in the introductory pause-filled first few bars (illustrated) but then contrasted with a more hopeful staccato figure (illustrated) and with an optimistic second theme. At the start of the development Beethoven plays a characteristic trick, moving to the remote key of B major by simply repeating a version of the third bar phrase (under 1.) down a semitone – bold and effective. That phrase is passed between the instruments building tension, and each motif is presented at different times in different moods swinging often violently from one to the other.
After the turbulence of the first movement, the Andante cantabile variations are altogether gentler. The initially worried Menuetto is relieved by rapid rising arpeggios in the piano and by its carefree Trio with cascading piano scales. Then we are back to the stormy emotions of the first movement in the headlong Finale opening with more arpeggios but in a very different, somewhat frantic mood. Relief comes with a sunny theme related to the opening two bars of the first movement (illustrated). But Beethoven works his moody magic on this and the opening theme until with pianissimo ascending scales the music simply evaporates.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Piano Quintet in A minor Op 84 (1918)
By 1917 Elgar’s creativity as a composer appeared to be winding down: as Diana McVeagh says in Grove’s Dictionary ‘oversimplifying, it could be said he turned towards either propaganda or fantasy’. Indeed, after his wife Alice’s death in 1920 he composed very little of substance. But, surprisingly, between 1917 and 1919 he produced four instrumental works which are still hugely popular: the Violin Sonata and String Quartet in 1918, and the Piano Quintet and Cello Concerto in 1918-19. All four were largely composed while the Elgars rented Brinkwells in Fittleworth. Their London neighbour Ford Maddox Ford had proposed a move out of London in response to Elgar’s poor health, which indeed improved. In these works, as if accepting his own unresponsiveness to the new directions that contemporary music had taken, Elgar reverted to the instrumental music of his youth, but composed with a life-time’s experience.
The eerie opening and strange episodes of the first movement of the quintet have led to much speculation about Elgar’s inspiration. His wife Alice’s diary in September 1918 proposes a copse of lightning-struck trees in nearby Flexham Park:
‘[Edward] Wrote part of Quintet wonderful weird beginning same atmosphere as ‘Owls’ [an Elgar part-song] – evidently reminiscence of sinister trees & impression of Flexham Park … – sad ‘dispossessed’ trees & their dance & unstilled regret for their evil fate “.
The trees later became associated with impiously-inclined, itinerant Spanish monks through a “local legend” for which there is no independent evidence and which may have been invented after the quintet was written. Another suggestion, again from Alice’s diary, is that Elgar was influenced by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Strange Story“. Whatever. Incidentally, the infamous opening of another Bulwer-Lytton novel – Paul Clifford – “It was a dark and stormy night…” inspired the San Jose State University’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”.
The first movement combines a variety of episodes contrasting in tempo and mood. The opening slow plainsong-like phrase is commented on by nervously apprehensive interjections (illustrated). The scoring here is curious: the sustained chorale given to the usually percussive piano, and the percussive comments to the strings. A sighing little motif in falling semitones leads to the robust, familiarly Elgarian theme of the main Allegro. But it is soon interrupted by more sighs and then by a transformation of the opening interjections into a seductive (Spanish?) little number from the violins in thirds above a strummed pizzicato (illustrated). The different episodes take on new forms and roles during this long and intriguing movement.
The slow movement’s glorious, spacious opening (illustrated) is a joy for the viola, though soon to be taken over by the violin. The movement is perhaps the emotional heart of the quintet. It was certainly a favourite of Elgar’s who, during his final illness, would listen to it in tears.
The opening of the last movement recalls one of the work’s initial phrases, albeit at a slower tempo, before breaking into a robust theme marked con dignita, cantabile. The mood changes to a ghostly piano, the chorale of the opening returns and the two violins dance a nostalgic waltz before the main theme returns us (nobilmente) to more solid, even exuberant, ground – ghosts apparently banished.