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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Piano Trio: Part Two

At the start of the 19th century, chamber music was still regarded as something of a domestic form of music making. Chamber music did occasionally find its way into public concerts, but players and publishers alike regarded chamber music as being first and foremost something enjoyed by friends and colleagues at home.

Beethoven had startled Vienna with his Opus 1 piano trios in the 1790s, works which challenged the notion of the piano trio as a lightweight form. But Beethoven knew that, challenged or not, professional and amateur musicians would still demand chamber music to perform at home. This is why many orchestral works like symphonies were often issued in arrangements for piano four hands or for ensembles like the piano trio. It was not common for the original composer to make such arrangements, but Beethoven did in fact make his own arrangements of his first two symphonies for piano trio to assist their dissemination in the pre-recording era. This is the finale of the second symphony in the composer's own piano trio arrangement. [listen]

In this post we're continuing our journey through the history of the piano trio. In Part One we looked at how the piano trio developed in the 18th century, and heard some of the contributions made to the form by Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven. Beethoven's contribution to the piano trio spanned many years, from his youth in Bonn, through his publication of three piano trios as his Opus 1, and on to his final trio, the one with the nickname "Archduke", published in 1816. By the end of this process, Beethoven had transformed the piano trio from a light, domestic form for private music-making into a genre completely the equal of the string quartet, a process begun with Haydn and Mozart but really only brought to fruition in the piano trios of Beethoven and Schubert.

Felici Trio

Beethoven's "Archduke" trio - so called because it was one of the works he dedicated to his pupil, patron and friend, the Archduke Rudolph - is a major work in anyone's language. At about 40 minutes it stretches the length of the piano trio to symphonic proportions; the four movements show Beethoven giving as much attention to musical content as he did in the quartets and symphonies. Needless to say, the three instruments by this point are completely independent and of equal importance. [listen]

It's interesting, though, that even though works for piano trio were becoming bigger and more symphonic, the contexts in which they were performed were often still intimate. The "Archduke" trio, for example, had its first performance in a hotel in Vienna, with Beethoven - almost completely deaf by this point - making his last public appearances as a pianist.

Mähler: Ludwig van Beethoven (1815)

One of Beethoven's early works - written in 1794 around the time he composed the Opus 1 trios - was a set of variations for piano trio, based on a song from a popular opera of the day. The song, Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu (I am the tailor Kakadu) came from the comic opera Die Schwestern von Prag (The Sisters from Prague) by Wenzel Müller. [You can see a performance of the aria here.] In 1814, around the time Beethoven wrote the "Archduke" trio, Müller's opera was revived in Vienna, and this may have prompted Beethoven to look again at his early variations and offer it for publication with a new introduction and coda. It's a perfect example of the sort of domestic music-making for which the piano trio was so eminently suited, and Beethoven's belief that such music was still worth publishing showed that the public viewed the piano trio still very much in this vein as well.

What is fascinating about the "Kakadu" variations is that even in 1794 Beethoven's view of the piano trio was very advanced. Some of the variations separate the two string players from the keyboard, showing that Beethoven right from the start of his maturity was thinking of the instruments as completely equal. [listen]

Franz Schubert, 27 years younger than Beethoven but dying only a year after him, left four works for piano trio: two major works and two single movements. The "Triosatz" or trio movement, written when he was fifteen, may or may not have been intended to be part of a larger, unfinished work. The Notturno (Nocturne) for piano trio was written when Schubert was 30 - sadly, right near the end of his life - and again may have been an exercise or study in preparation for writing his two major piano trios which both date among his final works.

Rieder: Franz Schubert (1825)

The two complete trios have more or less since day one been regarded as masterpieces of the piano trio repertoire. They stand nobly alongside Beethoven's "Archduke" trio in terms of length and complexity, but there's something overwhelmingly tragic about them, probably because they were written in that final, incredible outburst of creativity right before Schubert's death at the age of only 31. Like the "Trout" quintet (an altogether lighter work), the B flat trio makes reference to some of Schubert's songs, but it's a work of overwhelming ingenuity and seriousness. The E flat trio is if anything even more impressive, with Schubert able to perfectly balance his lyrical, melodic gifts with the demands of strict musical form and a completely sensible musical architecture. The slow movements of both trios have been much loved of movie makers, but every movement has its power and generosity of invention. This is the opening of the second trio. [listen]

By the 1830s the piano trio was regarded by European composers as one of the pre-eminent forms of chamber music. Not only was it on an equal footing with the string quartet, but chamber music generally - while often still performed in more intimate settings - began to be heard increasingly in public concerts. From the post-Beethoven and Schubert generation onwards, chamber music was regarded as a serious form of musical endeavour, and the piano quartet, piano quintet, and other chamber music forms were used as vehicles for deep artistic expression as well.

One reason for the increased seriousness with which chamber music involving piano was viewed was the constant change in piano design and technology. The development of what we think of as the modern grand piano was a more or less continuous process throughout the 19th century. Pianos not only got bigger and louder but the technology behind the action of making a hammer hit a string by pressing a key became increasingly sophisticated and subtle. The piano supplanted the violin as the most important instrument, generally speaking, and this attitude is reflected in the music written for the instrument. Piano trios were just a part of this.

Stieler: Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1820)

Some of the early Romantic piano virtuosos wrote piano trios as well, and as might be expected, these works give the piano pride of place. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, an important and all-too-often-forgotten composer of the early Romantic period, was a famed piano virtuoso but he wrote an enormous amount of music in all genres: operas, sacred music, orchestral works, theatre music and songs, as well as chamber music and of course solo piano works. He wrote more than half a dozen piano trios, including his Opus 65, composed around the same time as Beethoven's "Archduke". [listen]

Another piano virtuoso of the early 19th century, a generation or so younger than Hummel, was the Polish-born Frédéric Chopin. His life of course was shockingly short - he was dead at 39 - and like Schubert, with Chopin we tend to forget how young he was when he wrote some of his music. His single piano trio was composed in Poland when he was 19, before he had moved to Paris. For all his youth and apparent isolation, the work is remarkable for its freshness and the fact that it seems indebted to no other composer. But here again, the virtuoso pianist puts the piano first. [listen]

Frédéric Chopin (c. 1849)

Chopin's contemporary, Felix Mendelssohn, was also a virtuoso pianist who died shockingly young, but almost everything else about him was different. When it came to writing his two mature piano trios, Mendelssohn - unlike Hummel and Chopin - gave the three instruments far more equal footing. The piano writing is virtuosic, but the demands made on the violin and cello are not inconsiderate. For some reason Mendelssohn's first trio, the D minor of 1838, is much better known than the second in C minor of 1845. Both are magnificent works, and as a taste I've chosen to share the fleet-footed scherzo of the second trio. It's one of Mendelssohn's trademark virtuoso workouts which has the performers on the edge of their seats, and often has the audience holding its collective breath. [listen]

Magnus: Felix Mendelssohn (1846)

Robert Schumann is an enigmatic figure in German Romanticism. Of course we regard him as one of the "greats" but even a cursory look at his life shows that he was in many ways a strange figure. His music was - and often still is - regarded as odd, for all sorts of reasons. His increasingly intense battles with mental illness meant his struggles and his art were often misunderstood by those around him. And for all his talents as a composer, his main influence during his life was as a music journalist, reviewing performances and publications and writing articles in support of emerging talent.

Schumann often composed obsessively, famously devoting almost an entire year on some occasions to one particular form of music. 1840 was the "Lieder Year"; 1841 the "Symphonic Year"; 1842 the "Chamber Music Year"; and 1843 the "Oratorio Year". These four years alone saw Schumann produce an incredible amount of first-rate music as the result of an intense series of long-lasting obsessions.

In 1842 he produced all three of his mature string quartets, the piano quintet and the piano quartet: just some of the pieces he completed in that year. He also made his first foray into writing for piano trio in 1842, producing the relatively slight Four Fantasy Pieces. Schumann also wrote three formal piano trios but they came somewhat later, in 1847 (nos 1 and 2) and 1851 (no 3).

Robert Schumann (1839)

Schumann's trios seem to set the mark for the piano trio as a major work. This is not to denigrate the trios of earlier generations; indeed it is true that Schumann was inspired by the example of Mendelssohn. But Schumann's trios seem to look forward rather than backward, and the third trio, in particular, indicates the sort of importance the piano trio would receive in the hands of a younger composer who Schumann not only supported publicly but who became a good friend: Johannes Brahms. [listen]

Chamber music occupies a central position in the output of Brahms, alongside and very much equal to his orchestral music. He seemed to reserve chamber works for "major statements" as much he did in the realm of orchestral music. In addition to the violin, cello and clarinet sonatas (the last also playable on viola), Brahms wrote major works for piano trio, string quartet, piano quartet, piano quintet, clarinet quintet and string sextet. And of the five piano trios, three are scored for the standard combination. Another is scored for horn, violin and piano (although Brahms authorises the horn part to be played on cello if desired), and the last is the clarinet trio, for clarinet, cello and piano (and in this work, Brahms stipulates that the clarinet can be replaced by viola). There also exists an anonymous piano trio in A major, discovered in 1924 and believed by many scholars to be an early work of Brahms from the 1850s.

Johannes Brahms (1889)

The three regular piano trios, and especially the second and third, are magnificent works. The first trio is one of Brahms's earliest compositions, dating from the 1850s, while the second and third are mature masterpieces from the 1880s. (Brahms also substantially revised the first trio in the 1880s.) Again, the fact that Brahms was a virtuoso pianist is clearly in evidence. In fact these works are sometimes criticised for the heaviness of the piano writing and the problems this creates for some performers in making the violin and cello audible. The opening of the third trio is a thunderously powerful example, but I don't think even the most jaded violinist or cellist would want to change a note of it. [listen]

Two Czech-speaking composers who made important contributions to the piano trio in the 19th century were Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák. Smetana's only piano trio dates from 1855 and was revised in 1857. It stems from a period of indescribable horror in the composer's life, in which three of his young daughters died. He was most devastated by the death of his eldest daughter in 1855 and the composer himself indicated that the trio was composed in her memory. More tragedy was to come just after writing the trio, too, when in 1859 the composer's wife died. [listen]

Bedřich Smetana (c. 1878)

For his part, Dvořák devoted most of his energies in the field of chamber music to the string quartet, of which he wrote fourteen. But his four piano trios are also major works and important contributions to the canon. The first three trios are in the classic four-movement structure, evidence of Dvořák's connection with, and immersion in, the German/Romantic mainstream. But the fourth trio, from the early 1890s, stands apart, being a sequence of six movements inspired by Slavonic folk music. Known as the "Dumky" trio, this work was to have a profound effect on Czech composers of later generations, most notably Janáček. [listen]

Antonín Dvořák (1882)

Two Russian composers in the late 19th century also made important additions to the piano trio repertoire. A generation younger than Tchaikovsky, Anton Arensky was very strongly influenced by the older and more famous composer; indeed Rimsky-Korsakov predicted that Arensky would be forgotten because he could not break away from Tchaikovsky's style. He did write some magnificent music, though, and he deserves a better rap than history has dealt him.

Anton Arensky (1895)

Among Arensky's best music are his chamber works: two string quartets, two piano trios and a piano quintet. The trios are among his better-known works today. especially the first, composed in 1894 in memory of the cellist Karl Davidov. [listen]

For his part, Tchaikovsky wrote only one piano trio, but what a magnificent beast it is. The A minor trio, a work which is on a scale comparable to the late symphonies, is also a memorial work, written in memory of his the great pianist Nikolay Rubinstein, who died in 1881. [listen]

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (c. 1888)

Any survey such as this is going to leave out important names and works, but it's vital that I end this brief survey of the piano trio in the 19th century with a slightly unusual work, the G major trio of Claude Debussy.

Baschet: Claude Debussy (1884)

I say "unusual", not because it looks forward to the 20th century, as one might expect from a composer we regard as a revolutionary, but because it does precisely the opposite. Debussy's trio is a very early work, composed in 1880 when he was in his early 20s and still very much under the influence of Wagner. The trio is elegant and very much of its time, and dates from before Debussy's development of his more modern voice. It's a fascinating work for this very reason, and still very beautiful for all its apparent strangeness. Debussy's piano trio will end this post and prepare us for our next, in which we look at the piano trio after 1900. [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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