by Ed Wight
BEETHOVEN PIANO TRIO in B-flat MAJOR, OP. 11 (1798)
Both aspects of Count Waldstein’s remarkable prophecy – that after Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792, he would “receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn” – have been historically undervalued.
Many historians believe that “Haydn’s instruction of Beethoven was defective” (Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon). However, Solomon argues it’s time to discard that notion! Their lessons “covered the whole range of Viennese high-Classic musical ideas and techniques. Beethoven’s successful mastery of these styles sharply differentiates his early Viennese works from his Bonn compositions.” While Beethoven’s powerful Opus 1 piano trios of 1793-95 transformed the genre, Basil Smallman nonetheless finds evidence of Haydn’s influence throughout this early set especially in the “vivid keyboard writing.” The “irregular phrasing and sudden modulations” in his dance movements reflect similar traits “which Haydn [used] in his string quartets.” Beethoven’s slow introduction to the G Major trio contains thematic allusions “similar to the introductions of Haydn’s later symphonies” – and very few introductions are “found in the works of later trio composers.”
As for Mozart, recent scholarship is finally uncovering the full extent of “Beethoven’s indebtedness to Mozart” (Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood). Mozart’s compositions impacted every era of Beethoven’s career. In Bonn, Beethoven modeled his three piano quartets on Mozart violin sonatas. A decade later in Vienna his first string trio was modeled directly on Mozart’s, and he copied movements of Mozart’s string quartets before writing his own. At the end of his career, during the composition of the Missa Solemnis in the 1820s “Beethoven made a written analysis of the Kyrie fugue from Mozart’s Requiem” (Lockwood).
Originally written for clarinet, cello and piano, in tonight’s trio Beethoven once again turned to the lyricism and more genial style of another work by Mozart (the similarly scored Kegelstatt Trio K. 498 for clarinet, viola, and piano). Critic Aglika Angelova writes that one hears descriptions of this new Op. 11 trio not often associated with Beethoven: “gentle, lyrical, playful, even ‘light.’” After the opening 4-bar fanfare, the piano begins the soft primary theme, a balanced 8-bar phrase with light wind counterpoint. Such soft, light-hearted 4 and 8-bar lyricism also characterizes most major themes of this Sonata form movement. Beethoven even presents the harmonic surprise of the secondary theme in soft, stable phrases, before handing the entire following theme over to the violin.
He writes a soft cello theme of great tenderness and breadth to open the Adagio movement. Violin and piano dialogue dominate the repetition of this 8-bar phrase. The cello also initiates the closing theme of this Sonata form movement with a soft staccato scale passage. Beethoven begins the development section with an entirely new theme marked pianissimo, sustaining the gentle mood of the movement. A high-spirited Theme and Variations movement closes the trio. The theme consists of a popular tune from Joseph Weigle’s comic opera L’Amor Marinaro, which opened in Vienna in October 1797. Set in typical, 16-bar AABA song form (each section four bars long), it continues the balanced lyricism found in so many themes throughout this trio. And while Mozart often turned to the parallel minor for a variation, Beethoven trumps him – he does it twice (variations 4 and 7)!
Despite the primarily light-hearted nature of this trio, certain aspects of it nonetheless herald Beethoven’s revolutionary changes that range far beyond the style of Haydn and Mozart’s 2 and 3-movement trios. Beethoven turned to remote keys for his secondary themes that none of his 18th century predecessors employed – as in the trio’s first movement. Yet once again planting seeds that blossom later, Beethoven hinted at that theme’s surprising turn to G Minor in the very first bar of the piece, with its passing F-sharp. This secondary theme also opens pianissimo after the transition closes fortissimo in the previous bar – dynamic marks rarely found in Haydn and Mozart. That such a wide contrast appeared in consecutive bars, here and elsewhere in the piece, reflects Beethoven’s heightened dramatic rhetoric, further supported by plentiful sforzando accents. And in the second movement’s opening theme “Beethoven exploited the singing potential of the cello…[going] beyond anything in Mozart’s chamber music with piano” (Mark Kaplan).
Chamber music scholar Kai Christiansen writes that with his 4-movement trios of Op. 1 and “new independence of both string parts [also in Opus 11]…Beethoven stakes out new territory in a genre still waiting to be explored.”
BLOCH THREE NOCTURNES (1924)
Born in Switzerland in 1880, Ernest Bloch immigrated to America in 1916, at age 36. Aside from a significant career as a 20th-century composer, he was also a gifted teacher to a degree rarely found in composers of the first rank. He taught music at the Geneva Conservatory (1911-15), Mannes School in New York City (1917-20) San Francisco Conservatory of Music (1925-30) and the University of California at Berkeley (1940-52). He also served as the founding director of the Cleveland Institute (1920-25). His distinguished students included George Antheil, Douglas Moore, Frederick Jacobi, Quincy Porter, and his teaching assistant at Cleveland, Roger Sessions.
In his early years he studied in Switzerland, Germany, and Paris, absorbing influences in every location. Many early works, especially those for orchestra, also celebrated his Jewish heritage. Such pieces include Three Jewish Poems (1913), Psalm xxii (1914) Schelomo (1916), and Israel (1916). After settling in America, the Neo-Classicism prominent after World War I held strong significance for him. Bloch temporarily abandoned the orchestra and wrote the majority of his chamber music in the 1920s – including his only piano trio.
Nocturnes imply “a piece suggesting night, usually quiet and meditative” (2001 New Grove Dictionary). Bloch’s thoughts turned to night music at this time, writing such mysterious and atmospheric pieces as In the Night for piano in 1922 (later transcribed for orchestra) and the 1925 string quartet Night. That same mood pervades the first Nocturne in tonight’s trio, often featuring the lowest register of the piano, sometimes with an eerie violin tremolo as counterpoint. Impressionist warmth in the higher registers of the piano occasionally breaks though the otherwise bleak mood. However, that tender warmth becomes the defining factor of the second Nocturne, with a gentle, long-breathed melody reminiscent of a lullaby.
Bloch delivers a powerful and lively finale which reflects its tempo designation: Tempestoso. The slower section recalls a theme from the lullaby movement. Listen also for the jazzy syncopation in the opening piano and cello theme, which returns at the very end. With Bloch’s capacity to continually listen and adapt, it may not be mere coincidence that George Gershwin burst into national prominence also in 1924 fusing classical genres and jazz with Rhapsody in Blue.
After retiring from Berkeley in 1952, Bloch spent his remaining years on the Oregon Coast, at Agate Beach. His career-long receptiveness to myriad influences throughout his career, tonal and atonal, enabled him to avoid pigeonholing into any one particular style. With an opera, and substantial contributions in both orchestral and chamber music, the final sentence of the New Grove article captures his achievement. “Bloch was, and continues to be, a singular figure in the music of the 20th century.”
DVORAK PIANO TRIO in E MINOR, OP. 90 “DUMKY” (1891)
Antonin Dvorak played the most prominent role in establishing the modern conception of the dumka. This is remarkable, considering that the genre originated in other countries. While an early version of these pensive and melancholy pieces of folk music dates from Poland in 1589, the genre truly experienced its full flowering in the 19th century, with widespread solo or chamber dumky (plural of dumka) in Slavic lands: Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. According to New Grove, however, “the most familiar examples are Czech.” And while such prominent Czech composers as Leos Janacek wrote only two examples, Zdenek Fibich wrote one, and Bedrich Smetana none at all, it was “Dvorak who established the form in Bohemia and Moravia.”
His many dumky usually begin in a slow and elegiac style (often in minor mode), but shift to a faster impassioned dance style before returning to the opening material. Such is the case in each of the six dumky movements in tonight’s trio, his fourth and final work in the piano trio genre.
While the folk-oriented “Slavonic Dances” of 1878 first brought him international acclaim, Dvorak also mastered all the genres and forms of the traditional European classical tradition. He often alternated between traditional art music and folk-like elements in consecutive works from the same genre. Dvorak followed his slender 1893 “American” string quartet (based on popular elements, including a birdsong!) with perhaps his most profound work in the genre, the G Major Quartet, Op. 106. A similar process occurs in his piano trios. After three trios in conventional style, including the glorious F Minor Trio, Op. 65, the “Dumky” Trio constituted his most radical exploration of folk elements in a major genre. The six dumka movements avoid sonata form entirely. Dvorak sets each in a different key (E Minor, C-sharp Minor, A Major, D Minor, E-flat Major, and C Minor, respectively), and establishes no tonal center for the work. He also writes little traditional counterpoint. There is “usually one voice telling or singing the story, surrounded by a great deal of atmosphere” (Sasha Margolis).
With no traditional forms to guide our expectations, the focus shifts to the individual themes and vivid mood swings in each movement. In the first movement, listen for the transformation of the violin and cello lament into the faster, dance-like theme. The C-sharp Minor dumka is the only minor-mode movement ending that way; all the others in end major. Dvorak compensates for this with some wonderful Schubertian color in his unpredictable shifts to C-sharp Major throughout. The tender lyricism of the third-movement lament in A Major dominates this dumka – rendering the impassioned shift to the minor mode all the more shocking.
The march-like fourth movement in D Minor provides the greatest complexity, with at least three separate themes. Dvorak then follows a brief slow introduction to the first movement with the liveliest dumka of them all. Even that brief introduction receives extensive development later; like Beethoven, Dvorak throws nothing away. Dvorak provides so many playful mood and modal shifts in the finale, it seemingly serves as a compendium of folk style. He finally settles in C Major for a tender coda – and then changes mood again!
Dvorak premiered the “Dumky” Trio during a 40-concert farewell tour throughout the Czech lands in 1891 before heading for America. And the first publication of the trio provides a microcosm of Dvorak’s international stature. While this great Bohemian (Czech) composer resided in America, Brahms proofread the 1894 first edition in Vienna – for its German publisher.