Franz Joseph Haydn
|Franz Joseph Haydn|
Piano Trio in G major, Hob.XV:25, “Gypsy”
The piano trio genre was born in the middle of the eighteenth century as a conflation of the Baroque duo and the trio sonata (for two solo instruments supported by basso continuo consisting of keyboard and a low string or wind instrument). With the newfangled invention, the fortepiano, an object of pride in every well-appointed parlor, the piano trio became the ideal vehicle for music making by family and friends. There was a constant demand for new works; to the many new trios, evolved an entire industry of transcriptions and arrangements of symphonies, operas and concertos.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s keyboard trios span nearly 40 years of his creative life. The total number is still uncertain since, as with his piano sonatas, new ones are periodically discovered, while others, especially early ones, are found to be misattributed or spurious. Currently, they number at least 45. The earlier ones, composed before late 1770s, were written for the harpsichord, but the later ones were certainly written for the fortepiano. While by 1790, the string quartet had matured to give nearly equal prominence to all four instruments, Haydn’s late trios were published in French, Italian and English versions as “Sonatas for pianoforte accompanied by violin and cello.”
Haydn composed the three trios Hob.XV 24-26 in 1795, during his second stay in London. He dedicated them to Rebecca Schroeter, an amateur musician and close friend – and perhaps a love-interest ¬ of the ageing composer.
The G major trio is sometimes nicknamed Gypsy due to the finale marked Rondo a l’Ongarese. We can infer Rebecca’s musical ability from the modest technical demands of the Trio. The opening movement is a theme and four variations of the decorative type. The second movement is also based on a single theme, which, although in a different key, resembles that of the first, particularly in the delicate embellishments that characterize both of them. Composed in standard ABA form, the B theme is actually a free variation of the A theme.
The rondo finale presents a lively contrast, with the episodes between the refrain giving the Trio its nickname.
Ludwig van Beethoven
|Ludwig van Beethoven|
Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70 No. 1, Geistertrio
Beethoven composed the two Piano Trios Op.70 in 1808, one of his most productive years. He finished the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy and the A Major Cello Sonata. The trios were probably motivated by both commercial and personal reasons. In correspondence with his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel Beethoven mentioned composing the two trios because “such trios are rather rare.” The trios were probably also inspired by his friendship with the Countess Marie von Erdödy, a gifted pianist – although partially paralyzed – in whose home he resided at the time. Both trios are dedicated to the her.
Bad tempered and slovenly, Beethoven always ended up in adversarial relationships with his landlords, and the Countess was no exception. According to Thayer in his Life of Beethoven, after one of his characteristic and violent quarrels with his landlady over a servant, he suggested to his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel to change the dedication to his pupil and patron, Archduke Rudolph, but the quarrel was patched up and the original dedication remained.
The opening bars of the D-major Trio shows how Beethoven took advantage of new developments in piano construction, especially the expanded range of 5 1/2 octaves or more. The pianist’s hands play three octaves apart, while the strings occupy the middle range. It was also about that time when pedals replaced knee levers and the case structure was strengthened to accommodate heavier strings, thereby greatly increasing the dynamic range. Beethoven capitalized on all these improvements to create symphonic effects, subtly shaded dynamics and innovative textures – all for greater emotional effect.
In this trio, Beethoven seems to have taken an idea from his predecessor Joseph Haydn, who loved to tweak classic conventions: dominating all three movements by a single musical idea. The first movement is full of drama and contrasts, opening in a rush with all three instruments presenting the explosive theme, which stops abruptly with a surprising cadence, Beethoven’s none too subtle announcement that he’s up to something completely different in key relationships and that there will be more of the same throughout the movement. From the perspective of musical texture, Beethoven assigns both violin and cello the primary role of theme-bearers, while exploiting the piano’s wonderful new possibilities as a vibrant percussive accompaniment. The motivic ideas in this movement are relatively short, and Beethoven develops each of them separately and extensively. The full three-minute development is followed by further development in which Beethoven combines the two themes, and the subsequent recapitulation and coda. The coda briefly slows the sprightly pace foreshadowing the “ghostly” Largo, the heart of the Trio.
The eerie nature of the slow movement is the source of the nickname Geistertrio (Ghost Trio). The opening measures introduce a quasi-ostinato motive that will serve as the single motive for the entire movement. Even the second theme is based on it. But as this example shows, the composer is able to contrapuntally weave new melodies into the motto. The origin of the theme, the rumbling tremolando in the piano, distant modulations and the delay of tension-relieving cadences was apparently the reincarnation of a scene that appears in the composer’s sketchbooks for an opera on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Beethoven’s librettist was to be Heinrich Collin, but Collin gave up after the first act, deciding it was getting too gloomy. Beethoven, not one to waste good material, used one of two sketches he had already done for the Trio’s slow movement. Beethoven achieves a particularly dramatic effect by combining at the end a violent climax with an evanescent evaporation into thin air.
The sunny Presto is a sonata form with a fanciful coda, a welcome contrast to the first two movements. The opening theme, however, mirrors the opening of the Trio with its abrupt pause before going on to continue the melody, not to mention another surprising cadence in an unexpected key. As in the first movement, the opening theme dominates to the point of virtually taking over the second theme. Beethoven also continues the modulatory investigations, which formed such a major role in the preceding movements. While there is little soul wrenching, the development has a few dark reminders. Beethoven continues to exploit the dynamic range of the piano.
Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87
By 1880, with his music performed world-wide, Johannes Brahms’ reputation in Vienna was assured. This son of a minor musician and a seamstress had been given a good education which he supplemented with voracious reading. His reputation received a boost when he was taken at age 20 under the wing of Robert Schumann, the most influential musical voice in the German speaking world. Brahms was accepted into ‘good’ society and felt comfortable spending his summers at Bad Ischl, Austria’s most famous watering hole (as did Johann Strauss Jr.), rubbing shoulders with Vienna’s high society. He found the atmosphere at Bad Ischl very congenial to his work and it is there that he finally finished the C major Trio in June 1882. The premiere took place in Frankfurt in December 1882, with Brahms at the piano.
Nobody knows how many chamber works Brahms wrote and discarded before he agreed to publish his first one in 1854, the Piano Trio No. 1. He maintained this severe self-criticism all his life. When he started his second Trio in 1880, he also embarked on a companion trio in E-flat major. But the high standards of composition that he set for himself, made him discard the sketches of the companion trio.
The opening movement of the Trio is lyrical, expansive and warm, giving the impression of effortless music making. The main melody, robust at the beginning, ratchets higher and higher with each phrase, creating an unusual level of tension for a first theme. It finds resolution, however, in the more lyrical second theme, which Brahms follows up with two more melodies to close the exposition. Brahms does not repeat the exposition but launches into the development with a repeat of the main theme only, which undergoes a waltz-like transformation.
The second, slow movement consists of a theme and five variations on a folk like melody suggestive of Hungarian influence. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, composers were less inclined to make sets of variations vehicles for increasingly flamboyant technical display; here, Brahms’ variations explore emotional shifts from variation to variation, some of them quite subtle. In the first, third and fifth variations the strings are dominant, while the piano is more prominent in the second and fourth variations. Towards the end, the strings refashion the opening melody into another waltz.
The third movement is a somewhat eerie and chromatic Scherzo, with soft, low-pitched string writing and rustling piano figurations. The mysterious quality is enhanced in the second strain by a gossamer descending arpeggio cadence in the piano. It is followed by a most stately and solemn trio.
The lively finale rondo/sonata, marked Giocoso, is playful and sometimes breathless; the repeated ascending arpeggio in the piano and strings mirrors the descending one in the Scherzo. The more sedate second theme is initiated by the piano and echoed by the strings. Instead of repeating the rondo theme, Brahms transforms it into a delicate web of triplets, and later the second theme into a heavy chordal passage. The movement concludes with a hefty coda that begins with another transformation of the rondo theme, this time into yet another waltz, albeit a slow one. But Brahms revs up the tempo with a reprise of the mysterious arpeggios, the second theme and finally the rondo.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019|