Schubert’s Masterpiece: Piano Trio 2 in E-flat Major

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Today we’re going to go on a musical journey. We’re going to explore the epic, 45-minute-long Piano Trio 2 in E-flat major, D. 929. It was written for piano, violin and cello, in late 1827.

For those of you who remember from A Brief History of Schubert, he died in late 1828 at age 31. So this was one of the last pieces.

In today’s video, we’ll talk about this Piano Trio as a whole, and listen through clips of the different movements. I try to avoid jargon in these analysis videos, so it should mostly make sense whether you’re a beginner or advanced music nerd.

Piano Trio 2 in E-flat Major

This trio is right up there with other masterpieces, such as Beethoven’s “Archduke” trio – and is among the best trios of all time.

Not only is it a massive work of 45 minutes, it’s also relentlessly transforming. Schubert presents a rollercoaster of constantly-changing ideas, so that each and every minute of the trio sparkles with brilliance.

Schubert’s Piano Trio 2: Backstory

It was written in a few weeks for his friend’s engagement party, and performed January 1828. This means he actually got to hear a performance of it before he died (which was only a few of his later works).

This trio was also performed publicly in March 1828 in Vienna. The concert was a huge success, and provided a sudden windfall for Schubert, who was able to pay off debts.

Schumann, who was fond of Schubert, wrote,

“A Trio by Schubert passed across the musical world like some angry comet in the sky”.

Which I’m pretty certain was a flattering comparison. Schumann also went on to say that the work was “spirited, masculine and dramatic”.

Schubert’s Piano Trio 2

Schubert wrote two trios in his lifetime. The first one, in B-flat, is also great and worth a listen. It’s much more emotionally stable than the second one, which we’re talking about today. Which I find interesting because, from a timeline perspective, they were written only several weeks apart.

The second piano trio is much more famous (especially the main theme of the second movement), and Schubert himself preferred it. That’s good enough for me!

Schubert’s trio song structure

This trio has four movements:

Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Andante con moto
Movement 3: Scherzando, allegro moderato
Movement 4: Allegro moderato

We’ll take a brief look at each movement, and listen to what they sound like. Since it’s such a huge piece, we’ll only be able to skim the surface in today’s video. I highly encourage you to listen to the full version (linked above).

Piano Trio 2: Movement 1: Allegro

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The opening Allegro movement was written in Sonata form, which we’ve detailed in another video. It was a very common song form in the Classical era, and fairly complex.

Let’s take a listen to thirty seconds or so of the intro, and then talk about it in more detail.


Interesting notes from the first movement

Of course, Schubert being the little rule-breaker that he was, did a couple crazy things with this first movement:

-His opening movement arguably has six musical themes (whereas two themes was typical)

-He modulates from E-flat major to B minor. These two tones are not related at all, and doing this kind of key change was basically unheard of.

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Let’s take a quick listen to that key change, so you can hear how seamlessly it’s executed. This is a fine example of Schubert’s fluid, masterful writing.

Thoughts on Schubert’s writing

This opening movement has all the energy and melodic flow you’d expect from Schubert. His writing has a unique pureness, which makes it all too easy to ignore all the hidden complexities. He strings together different ideas so organically that they pass by. Instead of noticing big changes and different parts, you notice a feeling, and a flow.

Listening to Schubert feels like being carried on the wind – breezing along amiably, while a multitude of ideas pass you by. But instead of trying to grasp at ideas and fit them into the box of definition, it feels much nicer to simply float along and enjoy.

Piano Trio 2, Movement 2: Andante con moto

Even if you don’t think you know this piano trio, you’ve probably heard the opening of the second movement. It’s very famous in pop culture, and is notably used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 movie Barry Lyndon (among others).

Let’s take a quick listen.

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Notes on the second movement

You really get the feeling of a funeral march or procession from the intro. The melody is beautiful, like you’d expect from Schubert, and starts off with the cello – later imitated by piano. This theme is carried throughout the entire movement.

The second movement also starts off quite reserved. Schubert does this deliberately, so that the exuberant loud section that occurs twice hits us all the harder. And when this loud climactic moment fades away, the funeral march feels even weightier and sadder.

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Let’s take a listen to the first climax so you can get a sense of it, and how it oscillates between elation and despair.

Piano Trio 2: Movement 3: Scherzando, Allegro moderato

Where the second movement is heady and dramatic, the third movement, a scherzando, is playful and light.

It’s written in ternary form (A B A), or three-part form, and starts off as a canon. We’ve talked about canons on this channel before – it’s a song form based on imitation.

The piano is the leader of the imitation, and the string instruments follow suit. Take a listen and see if you can hear the canon.

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Piano Trio 2, Movement 4: Allegro moderato

The finale of this trio, allegro moderato, is very complex and shifts through many moods. It also doesn’t have a clear song form, being somewhere between a sonata and rondo.

The opening theme, which we’ll listen to in a moment, is bright and vivid. Suddenly, with no transition, we’re shifted to a darker second theme.

Weirdly enough, about halfway through after this second theme, we arrive at the melody from the second movement.

So let’s first take a listen to a bit of that opening theme.

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More notes on the finale

In addition to weaving in themes from other movement, he also comes up with at least three brand new themes and melodies that are introduced in this finale.

He eventually returns to the march theme again, but realized in a triumphant major key.

For our final listen, let’s take a look at how he re-introduces the second movement’s march theme, because it’s really cool.

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Conclusion

In this trio, you can hear Schubert as a descendent of Classical composers Haydn and Mozart. You can also hear him as a precursor to Romantic composers such as Schumann and Brahms.

One amazing thing about Schubert, and something you can hear in this trio, is he never does the same thing twice. Even repeated melodies are completely changed.

That’s why listening to Schubert feels like a progressive journey, as opposed to a loop. Where other composers will spin you around the same parts again and again, Schubert leads you constantly forward.

xo,
Allysia

References

piano trio analysis

Classical music at About.com

Schubert’s trios on Allmusic

Earsense: Trios

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Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.