Piano Trio in E major K542 Mozart
Andante grazioso

Trios for strings and harpsichord have a long history, but trios with piano are relatively recent. After all, the date of the invention of the piano can be put at 1709, and it was only in the last quarter of that century that pianos, pianists, and piano composition became common. It is interesting to speculate how different Mozart’s music might have been if the development of the piano (and also the clarinet) had come a few decades later! In the baroque trio sonatas, usually for two violins or violin and flute, the harpsichord played a subservient role as continuo, perhaps with the bass line supported by a cello. The piano trio took a rather different direction. Apart from an early divertimento, all Mozart’s six piano trios date from the last few years of his life, 1786 and 1788. The last three, including the E major, were published under the title Tre sonate per il clavicembalo o forte-piano, con l’accompagnamento d’un violino e violoncello. This seems to be a slight exaggeration – it is true that there is much brilliant piano writing, but the strings are subtly integrated into the whole. However, the cello is never exploited to the same extent as in the string quartets, and in their three movement structure, the trios are closer to the piano concertos than to the four movement quartets. It seems that they were intended for private enjoyment rather than (as in the case of the string quartets) for public performance. In a letter to his friend Puchberg, Mozart wrote “When can we make a little music again at your place? I have written a new trio!”

The E major trio begins with the theme on the piano alone, followed immediately by an elaborated restatement by all three instruments. The development builds on a little falling phrase which seemed insignificant in the exposition. The slow movement is based on a gentle rocking theme, which recurs like a rondo, in embroidered forms. The beginning of the finale is marked dolce, but the gentle conversational theme soon develops some spectacular passages both for piano and violin.

Last ACMC Performance: the Gould Piano Trio – December 1991

Piano Trio in F major op. 80 Schumann
Sehr lebhaft (very lively)
Mit innigem Ausdruck (with heartfelt expression)
In mäßiger Bewegung (at a moderate speed)
Nicht zu rasch (not too fast)

The high point of Schumann’s chamber music came in 1842 with the three quartets op. 41, and the piano quartet and quintet, but he also wrote three piano trios, the first two of these (op. 64 and 80) in 1847. His wife Clara probably provided the inspiration; she had written a piano trio the previous year, and she and Robert had spent much time together studying counterpoint and the works of Bach. She was the pianist in the first performance of the F major trio, and it made a great impression on her, as she wrote in her diary “I love it passionately and want to play it again and again!”

The first movement has a broad, sunny feel, with its bucolic opening theme in 6/8 time on the two strings. After a spiky few bars, the piano presents the quieter second subject, which is closely related to the first. Perhaps for this reason, at the start of the development Schumann introduces a new melody, which has been identified as that of one of his earlier songs. The development proper shows off his contrapuntal skills, and his inventiveness in unusual key changes, before the recapitulation and accelerating coda. The slow movement might be described as Brahmsian, had Brahms not been only fourteen years old when it was written. It has a lyrical theme on the violin, over a triplet accompaniment in the right hand of the piano, but beneath this the left hand and the cello have a long canon – contrapuntal writing at its most subtle. The third movement, in the remote key of B flat minor, again exploits dotted rhythms, in contrast with the running semiquavers of the central section. The exuberant finale brings the work to an exciting close.

First ACMC Performance


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Piano Trio in C major op. 87 Brahms
Andante con moto
Scherzo: Presto – poco meno presto
Finale: Allegro giocoso

Brahms had composed his first piano trio, op. 8 in 1854, but it did not satisfy him and he was to completely rewrite it in 1889. However, before that he had embarked on his second trio, writing the first movement in 1880, and the remaining movements in 1882. Ever his own sternest critic, it is good to report that Brahms was pleased with the result, writing to his publisher: “You have very likely not published one to equal it within the last ten years”. The piano and the piano trio had come a long way since Mozart, the power of the instrument now needing the combined strength of the two strings to balance it. Indeed, in much of this trio the strings play in unison, as exemplified in its very opening where they state the bold first theme. In total there are four different themes laid out in the exposition of the sonata form movement, and then what seems to be the repeat of the exposition in fact ushers in the fascinating development. This includes a section marked animato where the main theme is converted into a singing waltz, which also recurs in the extended coda. The second movement, in A minor, is a set of five variations on a theme again stated by the strings in octaves – Clara Schumann suspected that it had folk origins, and it has a distinctive Scotch (or Hungarian?) snap to it. The fourth variation is in the major, and the 2/4 time relaxes into 6/8 leading to a wonderfully gentle final variation. The scherzo has something of the hob-goblin about it, mutterings from the strings, and fleeting arpeggios, while the slower central trio section in contrast looks to broad sunlit uplands in the major key. The cheerful finale lives up to its billing of giocoso, amusing or playful. It combines two motifs from the very start, the string theme set against a four-quaver figure on the piano, revels in the typically Brahmsian contrasts of quavers against triplets, and brings the work to a triumphant conclusion.

First ACMC Performance

February 2012 Programme Notes