Notturno in E flat D897 Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Schubert wrote this single movement for piano trio in 1826 or 1827, and some think that it was originally intended as the slow movement for the much better known piano trio in B flat op. 99 D898 of 1827. Like this trio, it was not published in Schubert’s lifetime, only being published by Diabelli in 1845, with the title “Notturno” – a title not mentioned on Schubert’s existing manuscript. Whatever the truth of its origin, this is a fascinating piece in its own right, with a brooding intensity that becomes almost hypnotic. After initial piano chords, the strings enter in thirds, in a long, slow theme reminiscent of the two cellos’ song in Schubert’s famous string quintet. In fact the strings are paired together against the piano almost throughout, except in brief sections of pizzicato accompaniment. The movement’s form is ABABA, the A sections in 4/4 and the B in 3/4. It is said that the theme of the B sections was that of a group of workmen driving piles that Schubert had observed in the Austrian spa town of Gmunden, singing as they swung their hammers. The final appearance of the main theme is prettily decorated with piano trills.
First ACMC Performance
Trio in E flat op. 70 no. 2 Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Poco sostenuto – Allegro ma non troppo
Allegretto ma non troppo
The two piano trios op. 70 were written in 1808, and dedicated to the Hungarian Countess Maria Erdödy, in whose house at Heiligenstadt Beethoven was living at the time. The Countess was partially paralysed, walking only with difficulty, and it seems that the ailing Beethoven, already more than half-deaf, was drawn to her as a fellow sufferer. Years later he was still writing to her of his ailments, and of the 75 bottles of medicine he was taking in a month!
The second trio has been described as one of Beethoven’s profoundest works. The great musicologist Donald Tovey wrote: “The real influence of Mozart and Haydn was slow to show itself in Beethoven’s style, and what did eventually appear was the integration of Mozart and Haydn’s resources, with results that transcend all possibility of resemblance to the style of their origins, and are nowhere more transcendent than in the E flat trio, where Beethoven discovers new meanings for Mozart’s phrases and Haydn’s formulas.” The first movement begins with a slow introduction, gentle canonic phrases, which are melodically related to the second subject group of the lyrical Allegro, and which reappear just before the graceful coda. The second movement is a set of variations, but is unusual in that there are two themes, a device much used by Haydn, and by Beethoven in the fifth symphony written in the same year. The first theme is in C major, the second in C minor, and they are varied alternately. The third movement is a minuet and trio, although the minuet is closer to a waltz. The trio, which appears twice, uses the piano and strings as antiphonal choruses, the string-writing achieving three parts through constant double-stopping in the violin part. The last movement is a bravura affair, interrupted by odd little mini-cadenzas for solo instruments.
Last ACMC Performance: the Gould Piano Trio, December 2001
Piano Trio in F minor op. 65 Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
Allegro ma non troppo
Allegretto grazioso – meno mosso
Finale: Allegro con brio
Dvořák’s mother, to whom he was devoted, died in December 1882. Around the same time, the direction of Dvořák’s musical life was at a crisis, as he found himself torn between the temptations of a life as an internationally famous opera composer, and a growing awareness of his Czech national consciousness. The F minor trio was written in the spring of 1883 and according to Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music is “a magnificent work, unusually grave in character; the music unfolds itself in a kind of gloomy, passionate defiance.” Given his circumstances, perhaps the sense of conflict and distress is not so surprising.
The first movement is of almost symphonic dimensions, the opening theme first stated pianissimo by the strings alone, but soon broadening into defiance. The secondary themes are more subdued, and there are happier moments, for example a little section with a rhythmic structure of dotted quavers and semi-quavers. The second movement, essentially a scherzo, has a motif of alternating crotchets and pairs of quavers, set against persistent triplets, and perhaps shows most strongly the influence of folk-music. In contrast, its dreamy central section has more than a nod towards the Austro-Hungarian school of Dvořák’s older friend and supporter Brahms. The poco adagio is deeply felt with a yearning cello theme, and an innocent second subject introduced by the strings in canon. It has a more martial middle section, where perhaps inspiration flags a little – “rarely can so many purposeless demi-semiquavers have been packed into so few bars”. However, the last movement is a Furiant of tremendous verve, with a waltz as second subject. Dvořák seems to be back to his old self again!
Last ACMC Performance: the Leonore Piano Trio, March 2014