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Franz Schubert

Altenberg Trio Wien

Piano Trio D929

  • Type CD
  • Label Challenge Classics
  • UPC 0608917203721
  • Catalog number CC 72037
  • Release date 01 January 1996
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Trio for piano, violin and violoncello in E-flat major, Op.100/D 929 (unabridged version)

This trio is so much a favourite of all chamber music lovers that it would seem needless to discuss at this point all movements of the piece one by one, as is customary. In view of the overwhelming richness and the inexhaustible beauty of this score an undertaking of this extent, in which one is forced to choose between the two options of either a definitely redundant panegyric or an inappropriate formal or hermeneutic analysis, would be fairly questionable anyway. Yet one “minor question” still remains, one that surely is of principal importance, and repeatedly forces itself upon us whenever this particular piece is performed: namely, the unanswered question concerning the ‘validity’ of the last movement. When here, contrary to custom, the space intended for introductory notes to the composition is used for discussing a question of this category, such can hopefully be justified by saying that at this occasion general problems of the complex interrelationship composer/composition/performer will be dealt with that should neither leave listeners nor performers indifferent.

Schubert, defending him against himself

Schubert’s Trio in E-flat major may safely be considered to be one of the most monumental works in the entire piano trio literature, not only because of its lengthiness which truly reaches symphonic dimensions, but also with regard to its multilayered make-up and the richness of its thematic material and conceptual world unfolded within. Nevertheless, such “monuments” are generally more likely to be victimized by destruction and mutilation than their more modestly-sized counterparts. However, whereas in almost all parallel cases annoying amendments and revisions can be attributed to the ignorance of consecutive generations or to grim historical circumstances, in this particular case we are, with all due respect, surprised to find the source of all evil to be the composer himself. Of course, the composer as a threat to his own work is actually not a new phenomenon. It is virtually impossible to imagine just how many brilliant schemes and plans were “corrected to pieces”’! (Balzac’s Maître Frenhofer in Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu will undoubtedly remain one of the most striking examples of this kind of tragedy.) However, things are slightly different here. Not for the sake of improvement did Schubert violate his own work, but simply out of sheer indulgence and obligingness towards his friends, and out of being considerate of “the audience”. The fact that it may have been his friends who (with the best of intentions) misadvised him in that way does not make matters any better. The same can be said of Schubert himself, whose friendly and congenial manners may make us more sympathetic towards him, yet it does not at all fully make amends for loss. In order to be able to follow the course of action in Schubert’s case, it may be helpful to call to our attention the work’s eventful journey from the beginning of the compositional process to the stage of printing. It involves Schubert’s only work published during his lifetime outside Austria.

November 1827
Date of composition of the Piano Trio in E-flat major, D 929. In the second movement Schubert uses characteristic inflections from the Swedish folksong “Se solen sjunker” (“watch the sun go down...”) as the basic component of the thematic material. He heard the song at the beginning of the month sung by Isaak Albert Berg at the house of the Fröhlich sisters.
26 December 1827
First performance at a soirée of the Schuppanzigh Quartet in the hall of the former Wiener Musikverein (Tuchlauben 12) (Carl Maria von Bocklet, piano; Ignaz Schuppanzigh, violin; Josef Linke, violoncello);
9 February 1828
The publishers Schott (Mainz) and Probst (Leipzig) independently request Schubert to entrust works for publishing.
21 February 1828
chubert’s reply to Schott. In the 10 works presented the trio comes in a prominent first position.
29 February 1828
Schott claims 8 of the works made available, one of them being the trio.
26 March 1828
At Schubert’s “private concert” given on the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death the trio once again has an overwhelmingly successful performance in the Wiener Musikverein (Carl Maria von Bocklet, piano; Josef Michael Böhm, violin; Josef Linke, violoncello);
10 April 1828
Schubert makes mention of the trio’s resounding success in letters to Schott and Probst. He agrees to consign the trio to Schott’s care.
15 April 1828
Probst strongly urges for the rights of the trio and transfers payment immediately.
28 April 1828
Schott declares not to be able to take up the ‘presumably great’ trio.
10 May 1828
Schubert accepts Probst’s offer. In his letter he brings to Probst’s immediate attention the several cuts he had made in the score in the meantime (and insists “that the indicated cuts are to be observed with the utmost attention”).
18 July 1828
Probst acknowledges the receipt of the manuscript score and Schubert is requested to provide an opus number and to present any names of prospective dedicatees.
1 August 1828
Schubert determines the following: “The opus number of the trio is 100. I press for a neat edition free of errors, and am eagerly looking forward to it. The work is not dedicated to anyone in particular, except to those who findlistening enjoyment in it.”
2 October 1828
Schubert makes inquiries at Probst about the trio’s publishing status, at the same time offering new works as well (among which are the last three piano sonatas and the string quintet).
6 October 1828
Probst confirms that print and corrections of the trio have been concluded.
19 November 1828
Death of Schubert.
11 December 1828
Artaria reports the arrival of the first print of the op.100 in Vienna.

These are the facts, insofar as they can be reconstructed on the basis of sources known. Nonetheless, there is a certain explanation to it, which reveals the true gravity of the much-quoted bon mot of Schubert’s “too large” pieces and “too small” audiences. As it happens, it is very likely that Schubert attributed Schott’s unexpected (yet possibly not wrongly so) retreat to the unusual lengthiness of trio, and after this embarrassing surprise, giving way to his friends’ urging, made several cuts in the last (and longest) movement in the common manner: The repetition of the exposition was deleted, as well as two lengthy individual sections of fifty bars of the development each, as a consequence of which the movement lost a third of its original length. Indeed, Schubert should have known that you can not turn a cathedral into a village church if you break down the apse. And yet this very condition is the main argument forwarded by most of the advocates of the Schubertian mutilations: when the schemes and designs of the original concept retain their distinguishable features even in the abridged version, then modifications have caused no real damage, but rather have merely “reduced things down”. Still, if one gets accustomed to the general construction of the work just a bit more thoroughly, one will soon realize that the reductions whispered into Schubert’s head were to prove fatal: These modifications are the very factors to blame for creating this impression of “lengthiness” in the first place, for the balance of proportion and development in the crowning and concluding movement have substantially been upset. Just call to mind how statements and consequences of the famous Vatican Laocoon group were changed by the hypothetic supplements of Michelangelo and Montorsoli, until the matching original fragments were recovered in the twentieth century. However, whereas in the latter case mistakes almost unavoidably had to have crept in, in the trio’s case Schubert’s alleged embellishing touch-ups almost suggest a carefully considered systematic obscuration of the senses.

The first alteration, concerning the deletion of the repetition leads to a loss of clarity in form. Almost any unsuspecting listener of the abridged version is bound to imagine that in this movement he is dealing with a complexly structured rondo-sonata form, while in actual fact we have here a “classical” main movement of a sonata par excellence.

The second adjustment (the deletion of bars 358 to 407) renders the constitution of the development, consequently also the expressive architectural perspective of the whole piece, unrecognizable. The shrill diminished seventh chord, which has obstructed the entry of the triumphant final thematic group twice in the exposition, and which has in fact become the actual driving force of the course of musical events in the “ocean” of the development section, can only be comprehensible when one can witness how, in the light of the dramatic increase and prolongation of the thematic material introduced in the corresponding point of the first movement, the four notes of the diminished seventh chord (on B minor) in sequence modulate into “autonomous” tonal schemes (B-minor - D-minor - F-minor - A-flat major). Omitting makes the second half of this vast bridge passage simply disappear. Similarly, the composer (en passant so to speak) leaves out the passage in which the fiendishly piercing cry of this key chord haunting us is finally replaced by an affirmative major chord, i.e. the moment that at the end of this development the A-flat major is reached.

But the last nasty trick, in the worst possible meaning of the word, is by far the worst: the deletion of bars 463 to 514 (end of the development section) undermines the position of the B minor (as a kind of counter spectrum to the ‘light’ tonic key E-flat major) ominously travelling about throughout the entire duration of the piece. By withdrawing that truly mystic passage, in which all advocates of thematic material encounter in the faint shimmer of B minor, the meaningful basic idea of the piece changes into a quite unfathomable detail. Also, the junctions in the two initial movements revolving around the B minor inevitably are no longer outweighed by anything. The entire line of development gradually heads towards a void. In a drama, for example, it would seem as if the crucial monologue is simply omitted, in which the main figure standing at the very root of the entire plot and pulling the strings explains his motives.

Fortunately Schubert’s complete and unexpurgated original manuscript has been preserved (unfortunately enough in private hands and hardly accessible), so that at least in this particular matter we can actually defend Schubert against his own person, even if we may often have unintentionally done him wrong. Although the new Schubert Edition, incidentally much like the previous one, offers both versions (hence acting academically correct), in the (generally stringent in almost every other aspect) Urtext Edition the Henle publishing house has surprisingly opted for the first edition only. The publisher justifies her course of action in a paragraph in the preface, the shallowness of which is illustrated by a series of inaccuracies in content not at all characteristic of her, by simply pointing out that the deleted sections merely concerned “material contained in the previous bars”, as well as the quote from the second movement, “which appears twice in the finale anyway”. If we were to accept such a well-founded esthetic line of reasoning as convincing, a considerable part of our entire cultural heritage easily could have become prey to deleting practices. Anything from the Torah to Bernini’s Vatican colonnades would make an appropriate target for this kind of curtailing.
Nevertheless, it remains a debatable (and unanswerable) question, how a genius who was able to create all these gems, at the same time could show such an utter blindness towards the vulnerability of his own work. Once again we stand in desperation, consequently having to be so verbose, before the eternal mystery of creation, which indeed includes territories of intentional creating, and yet goes beyond all limits, so as to even leave the creator himself puzzled about his own creation.
It is much easier to answer the question why in the more than a hundred years that the original text is now widely accessible, the unexpurgated version has not yet really broken through. Surely both the tenacious power of a “tradition” (even if unjustified), a term even Gustav Mahler sensed was just a vulgar synonym for indolence and indifference, and also the understandable fancy of performers and audiences for the practical and orderly has in this case been the deciding factor in favour of the shorter version. Only a comparison of both versions will prove that conciseness and clarity do not necessarily go hand in hand, and that here origin and tradition tend to perpetuate tragic mistakes.

Adagio ‘Notturno’ in E-flat major for piano, violin and violoncello, op.148 /D 897

The single movement published in 1846 from Schubert’s legacy, which the publisher Diabelli issued as “Nocturne” following the original manuscript anonymously titled “Notturno”, was in all probability composed at the same time as the two “large” piano trios and could very well act as the original second movement of the Piano Trio in B-flat major op.99 /D 898, a presumption which becomes evident by the fact that it was listed in the Deutsch catalogue of works and is sustained by an innumerable amount of indications. Its tonal colour, for instance, displays some very striking analogies to that of the Andante un poco mosso of D 898. If there is any truth to this suspicion, then one may presume that it was not discontentment with the piece as such, but rather various reasons of a dramaturgic and structural nature that incited Schubert to replace it by another movement. And indeed, the Adagio does seem to blow up the framework of a slow movement in more than one way, although one must acknowledge that this kind of trespassing is not at all untypical of Schubert. The wide curve of the piece with its two fabulously interwoven visions bears a resemblance to the genre not unknown in romantic lyric poetry and may well be decribed as “Berceuse heroique”, examples of which are to be found in the work of Lord Byron and Victor Hugo, as well as Adam Mickiewicz, who incidentally is known to have written a poem almost at the same time when Schubert wrote his Adagio, a poem which one might well consider a faithful translation of Schubert’s tone poem (if one is ethically allowed to draw such parallels). On the other hand there are also more unpretentious (but no less stirring) links in contrast with such “elitist” parallels. In personal recollections of friends of Schubert there is a reference to a folk song Schubert was allegedly inspired by in this piece, a song he first heard in the summer of 1825 during his tour of the Salzkammergut region. The claim that the “Lied der Rammpfahlarbeiter” (‘Song of the foundation workers’) from Gmunden, which was supposedly used here by Schubert, could however not be sustained to this day. © 1996

Claus-Christian Schuster
Muse Translations: Robert Avak

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