Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Piano Trio in C, K.548 (1788)
Unlike the piano concerto and piano sonata, the piano trio does not figure prominently in Mozart’s compositions. There are six very early works (K.10-15) written in London when he was 8, better known as duos for piano and violin, followed after 12 years by a Divertimento (K.254). It was not for another 10 years, between 1786 and 1788, that his five major piano trios appeared: the ‘Kegelstatt’ trio for piano, clarinet and viola, and the four trios for piano, violin and cello. As a form, the piano trio was a slow starter compared with the string quartet. Even the prolific and experimental Haydn did not produce his major piano trios until after 1784, having dramatically revolutionised the string quartet in his Op 20 works of 1772. By comparison, Beethoven hit the ground running with his set of three Op 1 piano trios in 1793. One reason for the piano trio’s late emergence is undoubtedly the limitations of early pianofortes, which, though producing a sound of admirable clarity, lacked substance in the bass and the ability to sustain slow melodic lines; the cello thus had to play a reinforcing role in the bass and the violin a sustaining one in the treble. The inverse problem for today’s performers is how to balance modern instruments in music written for those with very different sounds.
Nobody knows why or for whom Mozart wrote his C major piano trio, or indeed what was the occasion of its early performances. In June 1788 he had asked Michael Puchberg, fellow mason and his benevolent patron, “when are we to have a little musical party at your house again? I have written a new trio!” (K.542 in E). So the C major, written a month later, might have been aimed at a similar occasion. Alternatively, the two trios may have been intended as additional items in concerts of his recently written 39th and 40th Symphonies.
Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924) Piano Trio in D minor, Op.120 (1922/3)
Allegro, ma non troppo
Although Fauré is best known for his vocal writing, in particular his songs and Requiem, he also wrote chamber music throughout his life: two sonatas each for violin and cello with piano, a piano trio, a string quartet, two piano quartets and two piano quintets. The piano trio dates from the last years of his life, together with the second piano quintet and the string quartet. By then he suffered from cacophonic hearing – although mid-range notes were heard at their correct pitch, high notes sounded a third too low and low notes a third too high. Perhaps for this reason the piano trio generally occupies the tonal middle-ground.
Fauré’s career was not straightforward. Born to a family of minor aristocrats in southern France, he was sent aged 9 to board at Niedermeyer’s music school in Paris, which trained organists and choirmasters. Fortunately, the excellent grounding it gave to Fauré in renaissance church music was extended to include Schumann, Liszt and Wagner when, on Niedermeyer’s death in 1861, Saint-Saëns took over the piano and composition classes. But Fauré remained attached to the modal harmonies of early music throughout his life, much of which was spent as an organist or choirmaster. His attempts to secure a post at the conservatoire were for a long time thwarted by conservatives who despised his ecclesiastical background and disliked his style of composition. However, he eventually secured a post there aged 52 and, surprisingly, 8 years later, the subversive Fauré became the conservatoire’s director. He amply justified his enemies’ fears by instituting (necessary) radical reforms, earning himself the sobriquet ‘Robespierre’ ! While at the conservatoire he taught Maurice Ravel, Georges Enescu and Nadia Boulanger. Deafness, elevation to the Légion d’Honneur and gentle hints prised him from the directorship into retirement in 1920 at the age of 75.
Two years later, Fauré started to compose the Piano Trio. Initially he had a clarinet taking the upper part, with violin as an alternative, but the idea of the clarinet had disappeared by the time it was published. Clarinettists have understandably resurrected the option. Both the themes (illustrated) of the compact and effective first movement are marked cantando – singing. The first is obviously in the movement’s triple time while the second pretends that there are only two beats in the bar. Both themes are eloquently sung and extended with subtle play on their contrasting metres.
The gloriously long slow movement also shows Fauré’s dedication to maintaining a melodic line. The cello plays mainly in its high register, close to the violin. The three instruments draw out seemingly endless themes as their legacy of swerving, dodgy notes from Fauré’s early-music training sells us harmonic dummies.
The lively finale shows no sign of the ill health – ‘perpetual fatigue’ – that Fauré complained of when composing this piece. As the Fauré scholar Jean-Michel Nectoux writes, ‘all the thematic and rhythmic elements are now in place and proceed to indulge in a joyful celebration, a perfect balance between … fantasy and reason’.
Helen Grime (b.1981) Three Whistler Miniatures (2011)
I: The Little Note in Yellow and Gold (Tranquillo)
II: Lapis Lazuli (Presto)
III: The Violet Note (Lontano, molto flessibile)
Helen Grime studied oboe and composition at the RCM and is now a Professor at the RAM. Her more than 30 compositions range from opera through orchestral to numerous chamber works. She was composer in residence at the Wigmore Hall from 2016 to 2018.
Recent works include Woven Space, which was commissioned by the Barbican for Sir Simon Rattle’s inaugural season as Music Director of the LSO, and a Percussion Concerto for Colin Currie, premiered in 2019 by the LPO and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, both conducted by Marin Alsop.
She writes of today’s work:
” Three Whistler Miniatures falls into three movements, contrasted in mood and tempo. The titles refer to three chalk and pastel miniatures, which are displayed in the Veronese Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Although the music does not relate directly to the pictures, I was taken by the subtly graduated palate and intimate atmosphere suggested by each of them. Throughout the piece the violin and cello form a sort of unit, which is set against the contrasting nature of the piano.
” The first movement opens with a very quiet and gentle piano melody. Gradually the violin and cello become part of the texture, but moving at a slower pace. The violin and cello from an overlapping two-part melody, very high in register and ethereal in quality whilst the piano moves at a quicker pace with a more detailed and elaborate version of the string material creating a delicate, layered effect. This leads to a faster section, the two string instruments have overlapping material with more agitated outbursts from the piano. This builds to an impassioned and somewhat flamboyant piano solo, featuring falling gestures and is interspersed with an intensified and quicker version of the previous string material until the end of the movement.
” The second movement is lively and virtuosic for all three players. A running continuous line is passed back and forth between the cello and violin, eventually being taken by the piano before a more melodic section. Lyrical lines are contrasted with the more jagged material of the opening, the three instruments coming together in rhythmic unison before an extended and complete melody is heard in the violin and cello. Each melodic entry is lower in register and dynamic, seeming to die away before the final presto section takes over until the movements close.
” Beginning with a distant high piano melody and set against muted strings ‘quasi lullaby’, the third movement alludes to the textures and material of the opening of the piece. A more agitated florid section leads to a heightened rendition of the piano melody for high cello surrounded by filigree passagework in the piano and violin. The violin takes over before the final section, which combines the piano writing from the opening of the first movement, but here it is much darker in nature.”
© Helen Grime
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Piano Trio in D, Op.70 No.1 (Ghost) (1808)
Allegro vivace e con brio
Largo assai ed espressivo
1808 saw Beethoven composing at full power: his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasia, the A major cello sonata as well as the two Op 70 piano trios all come from this year. The cello sonata and the piano trios seem to have been part of a conscious decision by him to revisit the chamber music forms with which he had made such an impact shortly after his arrival in Vienna.
Why the ‘Ghost‘ trio? The name was coined by Carl Czerny, pianist, composer, pupil and friend of Beethoven who wrote that the slow movement always reminded him of the appearance of Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth. It is not known whether Czerny was aware that Beethoven had included in the sketchbook that he had used for the Ghost Trio preliminary ideas for an opera based on Macbeth. Whether or not Beethoven specifically had Banquo in mind, the trio is certainly dramatic.
The opening (illustrated) is ferociously violent with groups of four quavers (bracketed) battling with the triple-time key signature. Immediately, though, the cello presents an ‘aching, tender melody’ (illustrated); each of its first two bars presents a motif for later development as the movement batters us with conflicting emotions.
The eponymous slow movement is marked Largo assai – Very slow – and slow it is, I know of none slower in chamber music. In many performances, each crotchet beat takes almost 4 seconds. A consequence of this sepulchral tempo is that in order to get the players to play fast you have to write lots of notes in the bar: just before the end there are shuddering bars that contain 48 separate triplet hemi-demi-semi-quavers ! As Angus Watson points out, these trembling figures are reminiscent of Florestan’s despairing aria at the opening of Act 2 of Fidelio, and this movement lacks none of its spine-chilling passion. Note that the opening two crotchets (illustrated) D and G are the same notes as the first two crotchet beats in the opening theme of the first movement (*).
The last movement opens expansively and genially, then pauses twice for breath, gathering its strength to lay some of the preceding ghosts.