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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Piano Trio: Part One

I don't spend anywhere near enough time listening to (or writing about) chamber music. It's been many decades now since I was skilled enough as a violist to be able to play chamber music, although I recall that when I did I loved it. This post and the next two will look at the chamber music combination which is probably just about as important in the history of music as the string quartet, namely the piano trio, an ensemble comprising a piano, a violin and a cello.

LOM Piano Trio

In Part One I want to explore the origins of the piano trio in the 18th century and share some of the music composed for this combination in what we now call the "Classical" period.

Let's start with part of a piano trio by Joseph Haydn, his famous "gyspy rondo". It's a good example of early piano trio writing, one of the more than 40 such trios Haydn is known to have written. [listen]

Hardy: Joseph Haydn (1791)

Even with Haydn, though, it's not always accurate to speak of his "piano trios". Haydn is generally regarded as the first major composer to have given the piano trio a lot of attention but a couple of things should be pointed out. Firstly, Haydn lived at a time when the harpsichord was still in common use and the newly-developing piano was not evenly superseding it across Europe. It's perhaps more accurate to speak of Haydn's "keyboard trios", as many of the earliest examples in his catalogue were doubtless written more with the harpsichord in mind than the piano.

Secondly, Haydn didn't call these works "trios", even the late ones in which the piano is clearly the intended keyboard instrument. He called them "sonatas" - sonatas for piano, violin and cello - and therein lies the key to how this particular type of ensemble developed.

Let's go back a couple of generations to Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach wrote many works with the title sonata, and among these are two distinct types. An understanding of this helps clarify the piano trio's origins.

Haussmann: Johann Sebastian Bach (1746)

One of the types of sonata Bach wrote was for a solo instrument and "obbligato" keyboard. "Obbligato" [the spelling is correct; Benjamin Britten misspelled it in his Op. 60] is related to the English word "obligatory", meaning necessary or compulsory. In these sonatas Bach writes out exactly what the keyboard has to play. It's not a continuo bassline which the keyboard player has to fill out. Rather, the keyboard player is given a complete part for both hands, with all the notes stipulated. [listen]

In the second movement of this sonata (the sonata in E, BWV1016), Bach writes in three real parts: the two upper parts are the violin and the harpsichord's right hand, and these are of equal importance. The harpsichord's left hand is the bassline. [listen]

That makes a sonata like this, in terms of actual melodic parts, a trio, even though only two instruments are involved. It's exactly the same reasoning behind Bach's trio sonatas for solo organ: the two hands are two independent and equal melodic parts, and the pedals provide the bass.

The other sort of sonata Bach wrote was for solo instrument and continuo. Continuo is a bassline which the composer intends to be "realised" or filled out by the player. This sort of sonata has only two parts on the page - the solo instrument and the bass line - but the composer intends more to be heard. The continuo (usually a keyboard) plays the bass line in the left hand and improvises an appropriate accompaniment in the right hand, all of which accompanies the solo instrumental part.

Bach's sonata for violin and continuo BWV1021 is a perfect example. Bach wrote the violin part and the lowest notes in the harpsichord; the rest of the harpsichord part is provided by the player on the basis of the musical shorthand known as a figured bass. [listen]

This is a perfectly viable and historically sound way of realising Bach's intentions, but there is another way of doing it. It was quite acceptable in Bach's time to have the bass line - the continuo part - played on an instrument like the cello or viola da gamba as well as in the harpsichordist's left hand. This provided a stronger bass to support the violin and could, if necessary, free the harpsichordist from strictly adhering to the bassline in the left hand. Here's the same music we just heard but in a different performance which takes the option of having a viola da gamba play the bass line with the harpsichord's left hand. [listen]

The result is music which - in one sense - gave birth to what we know as the piano trio: a violin, a keyboard and a stringed bass instrument - and the use of the stringed bass instrument to reinforce the bassline is very important to remember.

But there's a whole other aspect of music-making in the 18th century which helps us understand how the piano trio started.

Chamber music in the 18th century was literally intended for the chamber - the room, the salon, the home - and not for the concert hall. Public concerts were virtually non-existent at the time, anyway. Because of this the intended market for chamber music was as often as not amateur performers rather than professionals, and such musicians might have all three instruments available, or they might not. Many early piano trios were designed to work as keyboard solos, to which an optional violin and/or a cello could be added. In Haydn's early trios the main instrument is not the violin; it's the keyboard. The violin and cello in early piano trios are often almost optional. In fact in some trios they actually are optional and this flexibility was as much a marketing decision for publishers as a musical one for composers.

This idea of a violin (and a cello) accompanying a keyboard in a sonata was widespread, even in later times. Beethoven and Schubert referred to sonatas for "piano and violin" (in that order) whereas we might think of them as "violin sonatas". Back in the 18th century, the French composer Jean-Joseph de Mondonville - who was born in 1711 and therefore of the generation between JS Bach and Haydn - wrote sonatas for harpsichord with violin accompaniment, and in these the violin could easily be omitted if a keyboard player wanted to play the work alone. The violin part is often doubled in the keyboard so it's not essential musically. And of course a cello could be added to reinforce the bassline.

Quentin de la Tour: Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (c. 1746)

In the second movement of this sonata the violin has an independent part, but it's of secondary importance, and again the piece could function quite well without it. [listen]

This idea was enthusiastically taken up by German-speaking composers who followed Mondonville's generation. Johann Schobert, born about the same time as Haydn, wrote a number of sonatas for keyboard, violin and cello but the three instruments are basically working as one. The violin and cello parts replicate or amplify what is in the keyboard and thus in most instances can be regarded as optional. Again, this was perfect for the domestic, amateur market, which needed such flexibility. [listen]

Johann Schobert

This idea of an optional violin part accompanying an obbligato keyboard part carried through into the works of the young Mozart. There are some very early sonatas for keyboard and violin by Mozart in which the violin is nothing more than an optional accompanying part; it's possible to consider these works among Mozart's violin sonatas or among his keyboard sonatas. It depends which way you look at them.

But this whole grey area of an essential keyboard part with violin and cello parts of secondary importance is what led to the piano trio. In many of Haydn's early trios (and quite a few of the later ones), the violin has very little to do which is not covered in the piano, and the cello nearly always plays notes already in the piano's left hand. The Haydn piece I mentioned at the start of this post - the "gypsy rondo" - is a perfect example.

The practice of tying the violin and cello so closely to the piano that the piano could almost play the piece on its own is not restricted to Haydn's early trios. The "gypsy rondo" trio is in fact one of Haydn's late trios, dating from 1795. But Haydn did play a role in liberating the violin and cello from the piano part and creating a trio of three truly equal participants. And it's evident from some of his other later trios that he was beginning to view the form as being on a par with the string quartet, a form to which he devoted an enormous amount of creative energy.

One of Haydn's most daring trios was written around the same time as the gypsy rondo trio. The E flat trio, Hob.15/29, is one of his last examples of the form, and while the cello part is still closely tied to the piano's left hand, the violin has demonstrably more freedom (although, at a pinch, the piece could work as a piano solo, even at this late stage). Haydn also used this work to experiment with unusual key relationships; the middle movement in B major is quite a shock when the outer movements are in E flat. This is the finale. [listen]

For his part, Mozart also wrote piano trios, some of which are among his most important chamber works. Between 1786 and 1788 he wrote six piano trios, five for the standard combination and one for clarinet, viola and piano. A decade earlier, in 1776, he composed a work for piano trio which he called a divertimento, a synonym for serenade, thus denoting a work of lighter or more intimate proportions. This piece, K254, is a brilliant example of writing for the domestic market by the 20-year old Mozart. The violin part sounds completely independent, but the work could function without it; the feature giving this away is the fact that the piano never stops playing. While the violin has occasional melodic elements on its own, these are nearly always in connection with material also present in the piano part, usually in dialogue. Undoubtedly the piece is far more interesting with the violin included, but Mozart, like his contemporaries composing for the domestic market, wrote a work which was flexible and practical. The cello is, as usual, tied very much to the piano's bassline. [listen]

Stock: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1789)

Mozart's later trios from the 1780s are very different, giving the string instruments - and especially the violin - much more independence (and the piano the occasional rest!). Unlike K254, there's no way the later trios could work without the violin part. This is the finale of the E major trio, K542. [listen]

As a boy, Beethoven almost certainly met Mozart but, sadly, circumstances conspired against him becoming Mozart's student. Beethoven's later studies with Haydn were not always smooth sailing but it's evident that the fiery young German learned much from the older master, even if he didn't always admit to it.

Beethoven was composing chamber music and orchestral works even during his teenage years in Bonn, and among the works of this period is a delightful piano trio composed around 1790 or 91 when he was 19 or 20. (It's now catalogued among his "WoO" works, or works without opus number.) Like nearly all the Haydn and Mozart trios, this product of Beethoven's youth is in three movements and it shows the young genius was completely aware of the requirements of such music to be charming and elegant. But even at this early stage of his career we see glimpses of the the radical innovator to come. There are hints of the later Opus 1 trios, and in the last movement the cello is granted quite a bit more freedom than was customary at the time, even to the point of being the principal melodic line about midway through. Indeed, in this movement there is evidence that Beethoven was already thinking of the two string players as being a unit in themselves, quite separate from the piano. [listen]

In 1792, a year or two after writing this charming work, Beethoven left Bonn and headed off to Vienna to not only study with Haydn but to make his name as a virtuoso pianist in the capital of the German-speaking musical world. It didn't take him long to be heard in the most fashionable and musically-astute circles, and he quickly became famous. Even in his early 20s, Beethoven was regarded as one of the finest pianists around, and his reputation as a composer was greatly enhanced by a performance of three of his piano trios at a soirée in the house of Prince Karl Lichnowsky. Lichnowsky, a great supporter of Beethoven at the time, was himself a talented pianist and employed his own string quartet. The three trios - in E flat, G and C minor - were performed with Beethoven at the piano, and Haydn, who was present, was full of praise for the two major-key works. The C minor trio he felt wouldn't be understood by the Viennese public, a remark the touchy Beethoven interpreted as criticism but which was almost certainly not intended as such.

Riedel: Ludwig van Beethoven (c. 1800)

The three trios were published as Beethoven's Opus 1 in 1795 and dedicated to Lichnowsky. Beethoven cannily knew that such works would sell well, and they were very successful, making the composer quite a tidy sum. They challenged the accepted notion of the piano trio as a lightweight work designed for domestic performance. Beethoven was aiming to make a splash with these trios and in that he certainly succeeded. These are piano trios unlike any before them: weightier structures, bigger emotional demands, and a greater level of technical difficulty than would have been expected of amateur musicians. They're also in four movements rather than three, something which immediately aligned them with symphonies and string quartets - serious music - rather than with serenades and domestic music-making. Each trio takes about half an hour, and that alone was an indication that the young genius had a lot to say. Beethoven made it clear that he wasn't going to be like everyone else and of course, he never was.

The middle trio of the set, the G major, sets the symphonic tone even more by having a slow introduction to the first movement, something common in late classical-era symphonies. The shadow of Haydn - unsurprisingly - falls over much of the music, but there is much that is pure Beethoven. The third movement is a real scherzo, for example, and if Beethoven wanted to raise eyebrows he would certainly have done so by having this scherzo start with the cello alone. The strings were finally liberated from the piano... [listen]

Thus by the end of the 18th century, the piano trio was established as a serious form of chamber music, and even if it wasn't regarded by the musical world at large as on a par with the string quartet, it wouldn't take long for this to happen. Our journey through the story of the piano trio will continue in Part Two when we look at some of the music written for this combination of instruments in the 19th century.

I'll end with the finale, marked Presto, to Beethoven's G major trio, op 1 no 2. Listening to this dazzling music I can understand why Haydn - and everybody else - took notice. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2013.

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