Schumann considered Schubert’s two great trios a complementary pair: the B-flat, more lyrical; the E-flat, more robust. The much longer E-flat Piano Trio lives up to its weighty reputation from the outset. The first movement, an Allegro, opens with a bold motif in unison, not heard again until the end of the development. The second theme is peaceful and the focus of the development, an entire section of which is repeated, not once—but twice!—in different keys.
In the Andante con moto, over a quasi funeral-march rhythm, the cello presents a haunting melody based on the Swedish song “Se solen sjunker” (The sun is going down). In obvious role-reversal, the piano, in simple octaves, takes the theme next, accompanied by the slow march in the strings—in Schubert’s hands, even the obvious harbours beauty. The rondo’s episodes introduce stormy elements, intermittent outbursts that punctuate a general calm.
The Scherzo is a contrapuntally elegant Allegro moderato whose 27-bar canon continues in close imitation. The concluding Allegro moderato carries a relaxed theme into a rhythmically propulsive landscape of frequent modulations and metre changes (from 6/8 to 2/2 no less than five times).
What lends cohesion to this panoramic work is the cyclic element. The Swedish song twice makes an appearance in the finale—in the development and in the extended coda—and both times in the cello. Another more subtle cyclic element is the four-note repeated motif present in all movements: as the B-minor modulating middle subject (first movement); the march-like accompaniment to the song (second movement); the canonic theme (Scherzo); and throughout the 2/2 sections of the finale.
Years later, Robert Schumann hailed the E-flat trio as “an angry meteor blazing forth and outshining everything in the musical atmosphere of the time.” It was the only work by Schubert published outside Austria during his lifetime. When asked by his publisher to whom the work should be dedicated, Schubert replied: “This work is to be dedicated to nobody, save those who find pleasure in it.”