We send our warm thanks to those who emailed to say they had enjoyed the first of these occasional newsletters. Even the featured composer, Sally Beamish, said she had been cheered up by it.
For this newsletter Helen Simpson, a Strings Attached committee member, writes about mid-19th century chamber music that rarely reaches an audience.
In 1846 two women who were well known as composer-pianists wrote piano trios which were performed in domestic settings and private salons. Clara Schumann was, at this time, a young married woman with children and a well-established career as a pianist. Her confidence in composition suffered, as is well documented, and Robert Schumann’s work took precedence over hers in the household. Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was fourteen years older than Clara and was married to William Hensel, the Prussian court painter. Fanny had grown up in her musical family with her brother Felix, who was four years younger and who was supported in his musical endeavours by their father. She was a fine pianist and wrote many lieder and piano pieces but Fanny had little confidence as a composer and neither her father, Felix nor Wilhelm gave much encouragement. The prevailing culture deemed it best that married women, however able, should be wives and mothers before anything.
Publishing their compositions presented further problems and Fanny and Clara published lieder in collections with, respectively, their brother and husband. Critics and friends in their musical circle, such as the singer Pauline Viardot, surmised that Fanny lacked the confidence to compete with her brother as a composer.
I am surprised that even today neither Clara Schumann’s piano trio in G minor Op.17 nor Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s piano trio in D minor Op.11 are performed in many chamber music series. Recently, Clara’s piece has gained notice and has been on a national exam board syllabus but Fanny’s trio is rarely heard. There is plenty of information available online which would augment these notes, which are merely aimed at provoking you into listening to these trios! You can hear a performance of Fanny’s trio, by the Dvorak-Trio Munchen, by clicking here.
Fanny’s piano trio was written and given to her sister as a birthday present. Publication was delayed for three years until after Fanny’s death. There are four distinct movements, all of which demonstrate Fanny’s technical ability in form and structure, harmony and instrumental cohesion.
Allegro molto vivace. The pianist needs a very strong technique. From the outset the mood is restless and challenging. The movement is longer than the others and the angular first theme for the violin and cello contrasts obviously with the piano’s scales and arpeggio passages over a great range from low to high. There are solo piano passages as though somehow this is to be a concerto. The second theme which is introduced by the cello is marked cantabile but the piano texture is so dense that it’s hard for this to sing confidently. The momentum carries us through the clearly delineated structure and the movement comes to a determined triumphal close.
Andante espressivo. Here there is a much more balanced interplay of the three instruments and this has the feel of a lieder ohne worte. A major and triple metre has now taken over from the D minor of the previous movement and this acts as a calmer, clearer interlude in the whole.
Allegretto. This is marked ‘Lied‘ and is in D major with a duple metre. It is half the length of the preceding movement and in its clarity of texture could be used as an example of writing for these instruments.
Allegro moderato. Back to D minor.This begins with a lengthy piano solo in bravura style which continues throughout the movement. There is no let-up; we are taken fleetingly through many keys before D major is re-established for the brilliant coda.
A final thought: if you had heard this piano trio without knowing its composer would you have intuited a female quality? What is this, if it exists, and what are the implications of the question?
Do you want to listen to more music online? We know of three more websites offering free performances. They are:
Chamber music: Yourclassical.org
Opera: The Royal Opera House
Orchestral: The Berlin Philharmonic click on ‘how it works’.
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