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Two masterpieces of the piano trio literature, Schubert’s Op. 99 in B-flat Major and Ravel’s Trio pour piano, violon, et violoncelle brought Arion’s season to a spectacular conclusion.

Program from Arion's May 6, 2016 concert:

Franz Schubert Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 99  
Maurice Ravel Trio pour Piano, Violon et Violoncelle  


Due to an injury, Catherine Cho was replaced by Todd Phillips. We wish Ms. Cho a speedy recovery and offer sincere thanks to Mr. Phillips for stepping in at short notice.

Notes on the Program

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Trio pour piano, violon, et violoncelle (1914)

Perhaps more than any other individual -- in many ways, more even than Debussy -- Maurice Ravel is emblematic of the divide between French composers of the 19th century and the 20th.  It has become a commonplace for historians and cultural critics to identify the First World War as the true marker for the end of one world and the dawn of another.  Famously, Ravel’s first post- World War I masterpiece, La Valse, looked backwards across that appalling abyss at what seemed to most people like a vanished (or anyway, vanishing) world.  (Although Ravel strenuously and repeatedly repudiated the notion, the piece was immediately appreciated and understood in this way by critics and the public in general -- despite the fact that its first performance was a flop.)  

La Valse might have been looking backwards, directly, to the Trio pour piano, violon, et violoncelle, which was Ravel’s final pre-War masterpiece and, in many ways, the apotheosis of his pre-War style. The process of composition began in the summer of 1913 but Ravel did not settle down to working on it in earnest until nearly a year later.  By the summer of 1914, with the outbreak of war, he was writing to a friend: “I have never labored so hard, or with such insane heroic rage.”  He was anxious to complete the piece before enlisting to fight.  His initial intention was to join the French Air Force (for which he believed his diminutive stature and slight frame made him ideal).   Rejected alike because of his age (nearly forty) and a mild heart disorder, he made several other unsuccessful attempts to enlist in front-line combat service before finally being taken on as a driver for an artillery regiment.

Rejection was, for many years, a part of Ravel’s musical life: he was expelled -- twice -- from the Paris Conservatory, once because of his mediocre skills as a pianist, the second time on account of his imperviousness to instruction by the mostly very conservative and backward-looking counterpoint and composition teachers there.  His repeated (unsuccessful) attempts to win the Prix de Rome (the most prestigious prize for composition in France at the time) resulted in a national scandal (L’affaire Ravel)  which featured the early retirement of the Conservatory’s director under a cloud, and a complete reform of the school by that director’s replacement (Gabriel Faure, who was a fan and supporter of Ravel).  As a result of relentless infighting between conservative and more forward-thinking factions in the French musical world (including a decades-long negative campaign by Pierre Lalo, music critic and son of the eminent 19th century composer, Edouard Lalo), many of Ravel’s most accomplished works were, initially, failures.  The popular success of his Bolero, especially in America where it was championed by Toscanini, resulted in a tour of the U.S., in the course of which -- upon receiving a standing ovation -- he famously said, from the stage: “This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me in Paris, you know.”  (Of the Bolero, he also remarked, ironically: “I’ve written only one masterpiece -- Bolero.  Unfortunately, there’s no music in it.”)

There is nothing but music in the Piano Trio.  A work of supreme compositional artistry, it is emblematic of the motto attributed to Ravel by one of his few pupils, Ralph Vaughan Williams: ‘Complexe mais pas compliqué”  [‘complex but not complicated’].  Proceeding out of an abandoned project for writing a piano concerto based on Basque themes (Ravel was born in a town only a few miles north of the French border with Spain; his mother was Basque by birth and grew up in Madrid), the first movement establishes what will be hallmarks of the entire work:  irregular rhythms, themes consisting primarily of step-wise motion and incorporating significant  leaps of perfect intervals.  The second movement, schematically a traditional Scherzo-Trio, is subtitled Pantoum -- a Malaysian verse form in which the second and fourth lines of the first stanza become the first and third lines of the next --  it has been analyzed in terms of the poetic form with mixed results;  in the trio section, while the violin and cello maintain the ¾ of the Scherzo, the piano adopts a broad tune in 4/4.  The third movement, Passacaille, uses the baroque passacaglia form to create what amounts to a series of variations defining a single, long arch; it proceeds without pause to the Finale, in which virtuosity and vivid, orchestral coloration predominate.

Franz Schubert (1797--1828)

Piano Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 99 (1827-8)

“One glance at Schubert’s trio [Op. 99] and the troubles of our human existence disappear and all the world is fresh and bright again.”   

         Robert Schumann

It has become common to exaggerate the degree of obscurity in which Schubert worked as a composer. Although it is true that he is only known to have given a single public performance in his career and that an overwhelmingly large proportion of his compositional output was unpublished during his lifetime, by the time of his death he had 89 published opuses. (As a comparison, by the same age, Beethoven’s opus-count was somewhere in the mid-30s.)  As might be expected, many of Schubert’s published works were songs, but these included the early masterpiece, Erlkönig (his Op. 1) as well as the two great cycles, Die schöne Müllerin (Op. 25) and Winterreise (Op. 89 -- the first half of this monumental work was brought out early in 1828; proofs for the second half were still awaiting correction at the time of Schubert’s death; it was published a little over a month later).  Among several works given notable first performances by prominent musicians was his String Quartet in A minor, Op. 29, published in 1824 and premiered the same year by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, the most eminent string quartet of the time in Vienna.

The reasons for Schubert’s failure to attract more attention sooner were cumulative and probably began with a certain amount of unfortunate timing. The long disorders and confusions of the Napoleonic Wars were hard on Austria, and the Congress of Vienna was expensive; by the time Schubert was attempting to make his way as a young composer, the exhausted Viennese had a marked preference for light, frivolous entertainments.  At the same time, the old system of musical patronage was giving way to a newer model that depended less on the enthusiasm of wealthy and powerful individuals and more on the building -- over time -- of a broader, more middle class audience.

Schubert’s retiring nature, attested by many of his friends and acquaintances, made it difficult for him to establish and maintain the widespread professional connections necessary to advance a career.  Some of this shyness and diffidence arose out of embarrassment about his appearance.  The nickname given to him by friends -- “Schwammerl” -- translates as ‘little mushroom’ and alluded principally to his diminutive stature (not quite five feet tall) and pudginess, but also to a certain carelessness about his personal dress and hygiene.  Symptoms of the syphilis which he contracted some time after 1820 developed progressively , and signs of these and of the mercury treatments he took to combat them increased his self-consciousness in social situations and public appearances.  As his health deteriorated he was often in physical pain and given to depressive melancholy.

The fact that he was arrested and ‘severely reprimanded’ by the Austrian police, along with several of his closest friends, and that one of their number was tried and imprisoned for over a year before being permanently exiled from Vienna, probably did not help things.  Around the same time he developed a preoccupation with works for the stage, writing more than twenty of these, many of which were rejected for production or banned by authorities, often because of the subject or content of their librettos;  the few that were produced were markedly unsuccessful and did little or nothing to further his fortunes.

It is the mature keyboard and chamber works -- most dating from the final four years of Schubert’s life -- which, along with the lieder, quickly became his most cherished and frequently performed works in the years immediately following his death and have remained so ever since.  Among these, the Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 99, is remarkable for its pervasive sunniness and  joyousness. Begun in 1827 and completed in 1828, during a period when Schubert was often ill and increasingly convinced that his death was near, it is all but unvisited by the dark moods that color many of his other late works, despite which it is a piece of  stupendous scope and depth.

Program Notes © Robert La Rue, 2016