Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Op. 80
Robert Schumann began composing in the 1830s, a time when the formation of a canon of great musical works was just beginning, thanks to new publications of older music and to concerts of ‘historical’ or ‘antique’ music such as Mendelssohn’s famous performance of Bach St. Matthew Passion in 1829. The place of these great works in musical culture was a matter of serious concern to Schumann who, while proposing a music of the future inspired by the poetic imagination, still believed that such music ought to be “a higher echo of the past.”
Schumann was all about musical content and a sworn enemy of musical flash of the sort peddled by the fashionable pianists of Paris flooding the market with cheap, display-oriented sets of variations and potpourris. It is not a coincidence then, that Schumann’s Piano Trio in F, composed in 1847, hovers insistently around the midrange, resisting the temptation to show off the higher, more brilliant higher regions of his instruments.
The three composers most influential in the development of Schumann’s style were Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. From Schubert he admired the flights of fancy and “logical discontinuities” that drove the Viennese composer’s music to such “heavenly length.” In Beethoven he found a compelling motivic logic hidden beneath a determined harmonic drive. And in Bach, well, in Bach he found everything: contrapuntal logic, harmonic drive, and what he most admired—poetry.
The shadow of these three composers falls over the Piano Trio in F in ways that give the measure of Schumann’s achievements as a new musical thinker in a new musical age. The first movement, Sehr lebhaft (very lively), is largely pianodominated, with the violin and cello mostly playing in parallel. The mood is upbeat but not light or frivolous: the opening leap and continuing emphasis on the second beat of the bar adds a degree of weight to the proceedings. But phrases never seem to want to end or cadence, especially after the solo piano introduces a calmer second theme area. There always seems to be some last-minute harmonic excuse to carry on. Schumann actually combines a Schubertian extension of thought with a Beethovenian forward drive—no mean accomplishment. And as for Bach, the forthright imitative texture of the development section pays worthy homage to the master of Leipzig, while never sinking into mere Baroque parody.
The slow movement, Mit innigem Ausdruck (with inner expression), is more Bachian still, but just as Romantic. See if you can hear the canonic imitation between the rising lines of the cello and piano at the opening, cleverly hidden in the low regions while an attractive, slowly descending melodic line catches the listener’s attention in the treble. This movement is a ‘variation fantasy’ that develops these two lines of melody presented simultaneously in the first bars.
The third movement, In mässiger Bewegung (at a moderate pace), begins in canon between the three voices. It is not really a scherzo, but more of a nostalgic, slightly mysterious intermezzo of the sort that Brahms would later write in his Third Symphony. Its ‘trio’ middle section is more active, but hardly less imitative.
The last movement, Nicht zu rasch (not too quick), is a tour-de-force of inventive contrapuntal writing that presents two thematic elements at the outset: a rising scale in the cello and piano (in imitation, of course) and a more jaunty theme in a dotted rhythm in the violin. These two elements are continuously varied and set in a dazzling array of imitative textures. Despite the number of fugato episodes that break out, this movement never seems to lose its eminently Romantic character.
Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90 “Dumky”
Dvořák’s “Dumky” Trio is closer in form to a Baroque dance suite than it is to a late-Romantic work for three chamber musicians. Ignoring traditional sonata form entirely, it comprises six successive examples of the dumka (plural: dumky), a folk genre likely of Ukrainian origin popular in Poland and Bohemia in the 19th century. Dumka means “a fleeting thought” and the musical genre that bears this name evokes the volatility of feeling that characterizes the Slavic soul in an emotionally charged reverie. Each dumka alternates between a brooding melancholy and sharply contrasting interludes of dancelike exuberance.
Freed from the constraints of a pre-ordained formal plan, Dvořák structures his pieces by the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate emotional states, although many of the faster sections in fact turn out to be transformed variants of preceding slower material. This trio is one of Dvořák’s most popular works, attractive in its constant stream of lyrical moments and its variety of textures and instrumental colours. Each instrument evokes the personality of a real village musician, and in this work each gets a place in the sun to shine.
The first dumka (Lento maestoso) begins as if in the middle of something, as if we had just walked into a room where music was already playing. The cello begins its lament over sympathetic whimpers from the piano and is soon joined by the violin in an exchange of wide-arching melodic 6ths. Contrast soon comes in the form of a delirious hopping dance tune, but it’s not really all that different, as the cello continues unperturbed with its pattern of 6ths, knitting the two sections together with a common motive.
The 2nd dumka (Poco adagio) exudes an air of suspended animation until the piano begins a peaceful lullaby à la Brahms. This elegiac tone alternates with a sparkling tune bristling with mordent figures that builds and builds into a freewheeling and slightly mischievous furioso.
The following Andante begins with a soothing introduction of stationary chords that lead to an unusually spare statement by the the piano: a single line in the right hand that softly sings out its delicately tune like a faraway voice heard coming from somewhere on a distant mountainside. This one tune will generate all the transformations of mood in this moderately paced dumka.
A similar economy of motive is evident in the Andante moderato (quasi tempo di marcia) that opens in a spirit of calm reflection with the cello holding forth against ostinato figures in the piano and violin. Featuring a number of short sections, this fourth dumka, while occasionally sighing expansively in lyrical exaltation, remains nevertheless largely elegiac in tone throughout.
The Allegro fifth dumka is the closest movement to a scherzo in the trio as a whole, with its relatively quick pace and the rhythmic interest provided by its alternation between 6/8 duple and 3/4 triple metric patterning. Contrast is provided by slower, more recitative-like passages.
The central point of interest in the rollicking concluding dumka is how a childlike tune in rocking 3rds and 4ths gets transformed into so many different variants, from the mocking schoolyard taunt with which it begins to the vigorous stomping dance that ends the work on a note of defiant, muscular merriment.
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8
Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.
The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.
A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.
The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.
The Adagio has an intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.
The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.
Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remain starkly evident in the final version of this trio.
Donald G. Gíslason