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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Piano Trio: Part Three

In our last two posts we've been charting the history of the piano trio. In the first instalment we explored the piano trio's origins in the mid-18th century and the works of Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven. In the second, we surveyed some major works for piano trio in the 19th century, from Beethoven and Schubert to Tchaikovsky and Debussy.

Danish Piano Trio

Now in this, our final instalment, we're going to cast our ears over the 20th and early 21st centuries. As you might imagine, the piano trio's history since 1900 has reflected that of music history generally: individuality, experimentation and new ideas abound. And speaking of individuality, experimentation and new ideas, there's no better place to start that with the piano trio of that innovative American, Charles Ives.

Charles Ives

Ives's piano trio was written between 1904 and 1911 and it displays all the trademark features of this fascinating, unclassifiable composer. It blends disparate ideas, it uses hymn tunes and popular songs in unconventional ways, and it makes us sit up and take notice. There's even a joke of sorts in the second movement, a scherzo. The word scherzo literally means "joke", and Ives gives the movement a title comprising five letters: TSIAJ. It doesn't take long to work out they stand for "This Scherzo Is A Joke". [listen]

On the other side of the Atlantic, Maurice Ravel worked on his own piano trio around the same time as Ives was writing his. He had been writing it in a piecemeal fashion since 1908 but worked on it in earnest to finish it in 1914 in order for him to contribute in person to the war effort. It was premiered in January 1915.

Maurice Ravel (1925)

Ravel's trio consciously works at the issue of making sure the cello is not overpowered by the violin or piano. Part of the solution involved writing for the cello at the extremes of its register. The resulting work is full of technical demands for all three players, but this virtuosity never comes at the expense of sheer beauty. The Ravel trio stands as one of the truly great 20th century chamber works. [listen]

It's fascinating to compare the elegant yet modern French style of Ravel with the equally elegant but much older French style of Gabriel Fauré in his piano trio. Fauré was 30 years older than Ravel, one of the father figures of the French musical establishment, and even though Fauré's piano trio was written in the early 1920s (nearly a decade after Ravel's) it is most definitely a work born of an earlier generation.

Gabriel Fauré (1907)

This is not in any way to denigrate Fauré's trio; it's a glorious piece. It's just that it was one of Fauré's last works, completed the year before he died at the age of 79, and it's a work written by a master of the late Romantic style. Interestingly, Fauré's last two works were his only string quartet and his only piano trio, as if he used these two works in the pre-eminent chamber music genres to sum up his life's work. [listen]

The lush Romanticism of Fauré's trio comes as a shock after the very different lushness of Ravel's, and this underscores the immense variety of styles which have coexisted in music since the start of the 20th century. Generational differences explain the contrast between Ravel and Fauré, and that may also explain the contrast which is obvious in the two next works, composed within a few years of Fauré's trio.

The Swiss composer Frank Martin, while he has some ardent fans, has not for some reason appealed to the wider musical public. His piano trio based on popular Irish folk tunes was completed in 1925 and shows yet again the wide disparity of styles rubbing shoulders in European music in the 20s. [listen]

Frank Martin (1959)

The American composer Aaron Copland - born in 1900 - is not usually remembered as a composer of chamber music, and indeed, he left only one short piece for piano trio, composed very early in his career. Vitebsk is based on a Jewish folk theme Copland heard in a performance of S. Ansky's play The Dybbuk. Ansky first heard this tune in his birthplace, Vitebsk, and Copland took this name as the title of his three-movement musical expansion of this theme, scored for piano trio. It was completed in 1929. [listen]

Aaron Copland (1970)

The English composer Frank Bridge is primarily remembered today, perversely, because he was the teacher of Benjamin Britten, but Bridge was a composer of true originality and polish. His music is becoming better known in the UK but elsewhere it still remains largely unknown. As far as piano trios are concerned, Bridge's second trio dates from the same year as Copland's Vitebsk, but is the work of a composer from an older generation. Bridge was born in the 1870s, of the same generation as Ravel and Vaughan Williams, and his music shares elements of freedom and elegance which we associate with these two better-known composers. Listening to the second piano trio (written the same year as Copland's), the fact that Bridge taught Britten comes as no surprise. This is especially so in the scherzo, which starts at 11'41 in this link. [listen]

Frank Bridge (1921)

Another composer not usually remembered for his chamber music is Leonard Bernstein, born in 1918. In fact, while he wrote some fascinating chamber works early in his career, he never got round to writing more, which is a shame. His sole piano trio, a student work, dates from 1937, the year he turned 19. It's a brilliant piece, as befits the young genius out to impress, but it's not widely-known. It wasn't published until 1979. The trio has three movements; this is the second. [listen]

Leonard Bernstein (1944)

There are perhaps two piano trios which stand at the pinnacle of the 20th century's contribution to the genre; one is that of Ravel which I mentioned earlier. The other is the second piano trio of Dmitri Shostakovich, written in 1944 in the depths of the second world war. This is a major work in the chamber music repertoire, written in the first instance in memory of Shostakovich's friend, the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, but doubtless also reflecting the horrors which the Soviet Union experienced in the war.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1950)

The second trio of Shostakovich stands alongside his eighth string quartet as one of his greatest contributions to chamber music; indeed, the work is on a par with the greatest of his symphonies, such is the power and depth of its expression. This is a piano trio such as composers of earlier generations could never have imagined. This link is just the fourth movement, but do explore the whole work if you can. [listen]

An important but often overlooked contribution to the piano trio repertoire in the 20th century was made by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. His three officially-numbered trios were written in 1930, 1950 and 1951. This is the third trio's finale. [listen]

Bohuslav Martinů (1945)

The German modernists of the mid-20th century didn't ignore the piano trio, either. One of the more cross-disciplinary examples is the piano trio Présence composed in 1961 by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, a five movement ballet score, scored for piano trio. [listen]

Bernd Alois Zimmermann

And in the early 80s Wolfgang Rihm composed a major piece for piano trio, the Fremde Szenen (Stranger Scenes). This is a massively intense work in three sections lasting nearly three-quarters of an hour. [listen]

Wolfgang Rihm (2007)

I want to take time in this article to acknowledge some of the important contributions made to the piano trio repertoire by Australian composers. A work which is a classic of early 20th century Australian chamber music is the Fantasy Trio written in the early 1930s by Miriam Hyde. This was composed while Hyde was studying in London at the Royal College of Music. The idea of writing a "fantasy" chamber work was very popular at the time. Bridge, Britten, Bax and many other British composers wrote such works, with "fantasy" spelt with both an "f" and a "ph". Hyde's trio is very much of its time, and very beautifully-crafted. [listen]

Miriam Hyde

A little over a decade later, in 1944, Dulcie Holland produced her piano trio. A three-movement work of more substantial proportions than Miriam Hyde's trio, Dulcie Holland's work is really very beautiful and should be better-known. This is the central movement. [listen]

Dulcie Holland

Ross Edwards composed his piano trio in 1998 as a test piece for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. It has since then become a standard work in the modern Australian chamber music canon. While the last movement is cast in the composer's familiar "Maninyas" style, the preceding two movements reflect his ability to create music of deep expression from what seem to be the simplest of means. [listen]

Ross Edwards

Paul Stanhope's piano trio from 2007 explores the notion of incorporating ideas from a pre-existing song within a chamber work, something which reminds us of Schubert or Ives. The song in question is Dolcissimo Uscignolo (Sweetest Nightingale) from Monteverdi's eighth book of madrigals [listen], fragments of which are used throughout the trio as springboards for further invention. The work is cast in a single movement with contrasting sections within it. [listen]

Paul Stanhope

Written in the same year as Paul Stanhope's trio, Matthew Hindson's essay in the form has three movements, but with the sorts of unconventional titles which are this composer's trademark, not to mention his incorporation of non-classical elements in his scores. I have a special fondness for "Epic Diva"... [listen]

Matthew Hindson

And the list, not to mention the diversity of styles, is endless. The piano trio has come a long way since it grew out of the accompanied sonata in the mid-18th century and it now has the capacity to be used as a vehicle of expression as much as any other musical combination. But like the string quartet, music for the piano trio is a strong and important thread running through western musical history of the past three centuries, and I don't think that thread has come anywhere near its end yet.

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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