Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) Piano Trio in E, Hob. XV:28 (1797)
It is easy to undervalue Haydn’s Piano Trios. The string parts often double the keyboard and generally lack the independence found later, say in Beethoven. But for much of his piano trio output, Haydn’s hands were tied by the underpowered keyboards that he was writing for – doubling of the weak keyboard bass line was a necessity. Viewed on their own terms as ‘keyboard sonatas with string accompaniment’, we can enjoy their virtues rather than wishing they were Beethoven.
Charles Rosen devotes a whole chapter of “The Classical Style” to Haydn’s piano trios encouraging us to see them as a “third great series of works to set beside the symphonies and the quartets”. They fall into two main groups: 16 or so early trios composed between about 1760 and the early 1770s, and the latter 27 or so composed between 1784 and 1797. In all of them Haydn is surprising and inventive. In the earlier trios his natural extraversion sits well with the excesses of the contemporary Mannerist style – as in say C.P.E.Bach. But in Haydn’s later trios his creative exuberance acquires new significance as it is constrained by the structures of the newly emerging Classical style.
The E major trio, is one of three dedicated to the virtuoso pianist Theresa Jansen Bartolozzi whom he had met in London. It is one of the last trios he wrote (around the same time as the Op 76 string quartets), and exploits the more powerful Broadwood pianos that were then available in England. It is a work of extraordinary inventiveness and surprise. Why did Haydn write no more piano trios after this set? Partly because he left London with its talented pianists and forceful Broadwoods, but also perhaps it is no coincidence that Beethoven’s revolutionary three Op 1 piano trios had appeared two years earlier in 1795. Haydn knew when he had been overtaken.
The start of the E major trio is a surprise: pizzicato in the strings with staccato piano bass gives us piano trio as harp accompanying the piano’s cantabile right hand melody. After the repeated first half Haydn has some modulatory fun. Starting from the home key of E (4-sharps) he moves to a climax in the unwritable 8 sharps of G-sharp, so enharmonically slips the key-signature into the 4 flats of A-flat for a few bars, kindly spelling out to the string players that their held Ab/G# across the key-change is in fact “the same note”.
The opening of the E-minor second movement is no less surprising: again the piano has the melody but this time introduced by a creeping Bach-like bass line played in octaves by all three players (illustrated). If you heard this passacaglia-like movement in isolation would you think it was by Haydn? Charles Rosen describes this extraordinary movement as being baroque, classical and romantic.
The last movement tries to unseat you with its quirky rhythms and gives us more modulatory bravura when, in the central E-minor section, Haydn plays a Beethoven-style trick and, after a pause, just drops a semitone to get into E-flat minor for just 4 bars. It should be in 6 flats, but he writes it in 4 flats (again). Weird. One suspects a private joke with Mrs Bartolozzi.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) Piano Trio No 1 in D minor Op 49 (1839)
Molto allegro ed agitato
Andante con moto tranquillo
Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace
By 1839, the 30-year-old Mendelssohn was established. He had been in Leipzig conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra for four years, and had been married for two. His work load was daunting: conducting and also frequently performing as pianist in 20 Gewandhaus orchestral concerts a year, together with chamber concerts, charity concerts, and ad hoc concerts for visiting virtuosi. The Gewandhaus concerts were an eclectic mix of the classics (mainly Beethoven and Mozart) and the contemporary (including Mendelssohn’s own works). One notable 1839 concert featured the world premiere of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C-major symphony which Robert Schumann had recently unearthed in Vienna. As well as orchestral works the concerts often included acts from operas or chamber music perhaps with Mendelssohn himself on piano.
In his teens Mendelssohn had explored various chamber music forms, most notably the remarkable String Octet of 1825 and his first two published String Quartets, but also three less-frequently played Piano Quartets which preceded the Octet. In 1837 he had returned to composing chamber music after a gap of almost 10 years, working on a set of three String Quartets while on his honeymoon. Tonight’s D minor Piano Trio followed soon after in 1839. Schumann loved it: ‘This is the master trio of our age, as were the B flat and D major trios of Beethoven and the E flat trio of Schubert in their times. It is an exceedingly fine composition which will gladden our grandchildren and great-grandchildren for many years to come.’ Yet it had not been without its problems. As Robert Philip points out:
‘After Mendelssohn had finished it, he showed it to the composer Ferdinand Hiller, who was staying with him in Leipzig. Hiller was very impressed, but had ‘one small misgiving. Certain pianoforte passages in it, constructed on broken chords, seemed to me – to speak candidly – somewhat old-fashioned.’ Hiller was a long-time friend of Liszt and Chopin, and was ‘thoroughly accustomed to the richness of passages which marked the new pianoforte school’. The result of Hiller’s suggestions was that Mendelssohn rewrote the entire piano part, making it less conventional in style – and, no doubt, much more difficult to play.’
An example of this ‘new school’ writing may perhaps be in the very opening (illustrated), where Mendelssohn rapidly alternates the left and right hands of the piano’s accompaniment to augment the sense of agitation, pushing forward the gloriously expansive cello melody.
The slow movement has a tender beauty, a ‘Song without words’, with the strings echoing the piano. The tenderness becomes more impassioned after the piano recalls a descending idea that the violin had used as a counter-melody in the first movement (illustrated).
The ‘light and lively’ Scherzo is trademark Mendelssohn recalling the Scherzo of the precocious Octet. Masterfully written, it is even now a challenge to play at the blistering marked tempo of one bar a second. The last movement can’t compete for sheer tempo, but uses more traditional means: contrapuntal ingenuity driven by a fiendishly complex piano part, and then the cello bursting forth with the most gloriously optimistic theme of the whole wonderful work (illustrated).
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Piano Trio no. 2 in F Op 80 (1847)
Mit innigem Ausdruck – Lebhaft
In mässiger Bewegung
Nicht zu rasch
The 1840s started eventfully for Schumann. In September 1840 he finally achieved his goal of marrying Clara Wieck, against the wishes of her vindictive and spiteful father, Robert’s erstwhile piano teacher. His compositions flourished. That year was his Liederjahre, with such masterpieces as Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und leben; the following year produced his first Symphony. 1842, after a depressive start, was his chamber-music year: 3 string quartets, the piano quartet and piano quintet and the Fantasiestücke for piano trio. But his health was starting to decline, so that in 1843 he resigned from the teaching post that Mendelssohn had created for him at the new Leipzig Conservatory and the following year the couple moved to Dresden in search of the health benefits of a quieter life (despite the presence of Wagner).
Schumann’s first two piano trios both date from 1847, along with numerous part-songs written for the local choral society that he conducted. They are very different in mood. Where the first in D minor is by turns dramatic, passionate, gloomy and eventually life-affirming, the second in F major makes, in Schumann’s own words, a “friendlier and more immediate impression”. The work opens with robust open good cheer (illustrated) which is soon contrasted by a gentler rhythmic modification of itself (illustrated). An even more beautiful dolce melody comes a little later (illustrated) which is a quotation from the second of his Op 39 Liederkreis songs (Intermezzo: “Dein Bildnis wunderselig” – Your wonderful portrait).
The second movement treats us to yet another wonderful melody, which is related to the descending scale of the Liederkreis melody. The violin sings it against an unusual accompaniment in which the left hand of the piano plays in canon, half a bar behind the cello. Starting in the five flats of Db major the movement wanders through what seems to the terrified amateur violinist every imaginable key before returning home. Schumann is good at that! The waltz-like third movement is also built on canons, starting with the piano and cello one bar apart.
The good-natured last movement is built on three two-bar ideas (illustrated), which are stated successively at the beginning by the piano, cello and violin respectively. Again the writing is predominantly contrapuntal extending the canonic writing of the earlier movements to build up to a triumphantly optimistic finish.