Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) Piano Trio No 4 in E Minor, Op 90, B 166 ‘Dumky’ (1891)
Lento maestoso – Allegro quasi doppio movimento – Lento maestoso – Allegro
Poco Adagio – Vivace non troppo – Poco Adagio – Vivace
Andante – Vivace non troppo – Andante
Andante moderato (quasi tempo di Marcia)- Allegretto scherzando – Meno mosso
Allegro – Meno mosso, quasi tempo primo
Lento maestoso – Vivace – Lento – Vivace
The ‘Dumky’ Trio was written at a time when Dvořák was riding high. Thanks partly to early endorsement of his Slavonic Dances by Brahms, and later to the immense success of his numerous visits to England, by 1891 Dvořák was enjoying international recognition. Significantly, because of political antagonism to Czech nationalism, this success included Germany and Austria. Dvořák no longer felt obliged to compose in a Germanic style in order to appeal to Viennese audiences as he had done 10 years earlier, for example in his Op 61 C-major string quartet, commissioned by the Viennese violinist Josef Hellmesberger. Indeed, the Dumky Trio’s six movements forego classical structures for a sequence of essentially slavic dumky.
The term ‘dumky’ (plural of ‘dumka’) originates in the Ukrainian ‘duma’ an epic, often melancholy, ballad usually sung by men, and in its diminutive ‘dumka’ for one sung by women; the word may be related to the Greek mythos. ‘Duma’ and ‘dumka’ became interchangeable by the mid-19th century when both sung and instrumental forms flourished in a romantic revival.
The first of the six dumky that make up this Trio sets the overall pattern, contrasting a slow, melancholy episode in the minor, with a faster more cheerful one in the major. After a few bars of curtain-raiser the violin plays the simple theme based on rising and falling intervals of a sixth (illustrated). Shortly afterwards the key changes to the major, the tempo doubles, and the cello plays the theme at its original speed (now in minims) while the violin decorates it with quavers based on falling thirds. The sections repeat in slightly different guises. The next two dumky are broadly similar in structure and follow without a break.
The simple structure of a sequence of dumky frees Dvořák to demonstrate his talent for melody, instrumental colour, and ingeniously effective variation in the way the material is presented. He shows great confidence in handling the form, for instance, near the beginning of the third dumka, the piano plays the simple tune alone just as single notes (illustrated), almost nothing, but riveting.
The fourth dumka is at the speed of a slow march; its simple tune is just a rising and then falling scale on the cello – a simplified version of the previous piano illustration. The faster though not entirely cheerful section is based on the same material, including a slinky little figure that crawls up in semitones.
The fifth dumka is predominantly rapid with the feel of a scherzo interrupted by slower episodes – again the theme is based on an ascending and descending scale. The final dumka, altogether less melancholic, transforms a playground taunt (illustrated) into the final vigorously stomping dance.
Josef Suk (1874–1935) Elegie for piano, violin and cello Op. 23
(Under the influence of Zeyer’s Vyšehrad) (1902)
Josef Suk’s father, who was the village schoolmaster and choirmaster, taught him piano, violin and organ. Aged 11 Josef entered the Prague Conservatoire where he studied chamber music under Wihan and composition with Dvořák. Together with Wihan he founded the Czech Quartet which flourished internationally until Wihan retired in 1933. Suk was Dvořák’s favourite pupil and in 1898 married his daughter Otilka. His compositions found favour with Brahms and he was regarded as the leading composer of the modern Czech school. As professor of composition at the Prague Conservatoire Suk trained many composers including Martinů.
His Elegie dates from a happy time of his life, around the birth of his son – a happiness that was shattered two years later by the death first of his father-in-law Dvořák and the following year of Otilka, his wife. The Elegie’s single Adagio movement was written originally for violin, cello, string quartet, harmonium and harp to mark the first anniversary of the death of the writer, dramatist and poet Julius Zeyer (1841–1901). It is inspired by Zeyer’s epic poem Vyšehrad – the large fortress that overlooks Prague from a bluff above the Vltava River. The poem nostalgically recalls the better times of yesteryear, comparing them unfavourably to the dismal present. Topical stuff.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Piano Trio No 2 in E-flat major D.929 (1827)
Andante con moto
Scherzo: Allegro moderato
Schubert’s two Piano Trios date from the final years of his life when, frustrated by his lack of success at opera and dissatisfied with his song writing, he returned to instrumental music, overcoming the daunting shade of Beethoven to compose a series of masterpieces. His two piano trios were written after the octet and the late string quartets (including ‘Death and the Maiden’ and the G major quartet) but before the 2-cello string quintet. The trios are both very substantial works, matching his contemporary ‘Great’ C major symphony in length and musical depth.
Schubert was known to Viennese concert-goers almost exclusively as a writer of songs: many male-voice part songs plus the Erlkönig (and just a few others). By 1828 the only public performances of his chamber music had been of just three of his works (including the first Piano Trio) in the Schuppanzigh Quartet’s subscription concerts between 1824 and 1827. However, on 26th March 1828, choosing the date to be precisely on the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death, Schubert organised a benefit concert of his own music. He could now present a wider range of his music to the public, and the E-flat Piano Trio was the centrepiece. It was performed by the pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet, with Schuppanzigh and his quartet’s cellist Josef Linke. In January, this group had previously played the trio at a private party to celebrate the engagement of Schubert’s school-friend Josef von Spaun. The Trio exists in two versions: the original, in manuscript form, and the published, which has a shortened last movement. We are not sure why, or indeed when Schubert made the changes, but it is likely they occurred after these concerts.
The first movement opens with a bold flourish, shortly followed by a more singing theme on the cello (illustrated), and a little later by a tripping figure of crotchet and four quavers (illustrated) which is a modification of the opening flourish. The material is expounded, developed and recapped at glorious Schubertian length before a final outburst of the opening flourish, and a wistful off-stage echo of crotchet and four quavers.
Those quavers are transformed into the opening accompaniment of the beautiful Andante. The movement takes some of its material from a Swedish folk-song ‘Se solen sjunker’ (‘Look, the sun is setting’), which Schubert encountered when the Swedish singer Isak Albert Berg visited Vienna. Schubert adapts its repeated quaver piano accompaniment, but most strikingly, at bar 13 the cello takes the song’s octave descent (on the word ‘Farewell’) and the subsequent phrase with a leap of a tenth (illustrated) almost verbatim. The ‘Farewell’ octave fall, which also poignantly ends the movement is likely in tribute to Beethoven, the sun that has set.
The romping Scherzo starts as a canon with the piano leading the strings by a bar, but then naughtily slides up a semitone from E-flat to E major (a Beethoven trick) for a different canon this time at an interval of two bars. The second half of the Trio sees the crotchet and four quavers motif return in a different guise.
The Finale is unusually long, even for Schubert and even in the revised, shorter, 748-bar form played today (no requested repeat of the first 230 bars and a further 90-odd bars cut from the original). It is in a combination of sonata form (like a conventional first movement) and the more usual last movement form of a Rondo. After the unpromising opening theme, which sounds like it might have been overheard in a well-used bar, the second theme of the movement is more exotic. The time-signature shifts from 6/8 to 2/2, squashing 8 quavers into the time previously taken by 6, and the rapid repeated quavers on the violin and later in octaves on the piano (illustrated) produce an effect like a Hungarian cimbalon. Anticipating the ‘cyclic form’ later used extensively by César Franck and others, Schubert revisits the cello’s theme from the opening of the Andante; a further recurrence adds the cimbalon-style accompaniment. After a careful and exhaustive analysis of this movement, the musicologist John Gingerich writes: ‘Is the finale of the E-flat Trio too long? In its published form, I would have to say a grudging “yes”; in its original [longer] form, in which it was first successfully performed, it was just the right length.’ Opinions differ.