Trio in D, Op.70, No.1 ("Ghost")
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Thirteen years elapsed between Beethoven's first published opus, a set of three piano trios appearing in 1795, and the two trios of Op.70 (composed 1808, published 1809).  By then he was the most famous composer in the Austrian empire, numbering the cream of the nobility among his friends and patrons.  The Ghost Trio was first performed in the private residence of Countess Marie von Erdödy, in whose spacious house both Beethoven and Prince Lichnowsky maintained quarters in autumn 1808.  The Countess received the dedication for both Op.70 trios. (For those who are movie mavens, she was the Isabella Rossellini character in Bernard Rose’s not-very-true-to-life-but-very-entertaining 1994 film Immortal Beloved.)

The D major Trio takes its curious nickname from the ghostly slow movement, a dark and brooding color-piece that reveals an intensely romantic side of Beethoven's personality.  As much forerunner to Debussy's shimmering musical impressionism – or even Bartók's "night music" – as it is to the Schumann fantasy-pieces, this Largo assai ed espressivo is suffused with restless melancholy.  Its most distinctive motive, an oft-repeated sinuous figure with a triplet, seems to have no firm destination; it has been likened to a "soulless cry."  Ghostly tremolandi in the lower reaches of the piano underscore the eerie effect.  Musicologists William Kinderman and  Basil Smallman both note that Beethoven was considering an opera project based on Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Abandoned sketches for the opera share pages in Beethoven’s sketchbooks with those for this slow movement. Smallman has written:

It seems therefore very possible that the famous slow movement may have been associated in some way with the Macbeth project. Whether in its final form the movement relates best to the weird sisters, the midnight murder of Duncan, the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, or none of these, the listener must decide for himself.

The two flanking virtuosic movements fairly burst with high spirits. The opening Allegro vivace e con brio opens with a unison strong rhythmic profile that grabs our attention, immediately contrasted by a lyrical second idea initially stated by the cello and immediately answered by violin. Beethoven introduces a startling modulation to F major, a distant key center that will recur regularly both in this movement and in the finale. He also favors brief sudden shifts to B-flat. Both keys are far from D major on the circle of fifths. The relationship between and among the three tonalities, and the ingenious transitions that Beethoven effects, are hallmarks of his middle period style. 

Beethoven’s Presto finale is as straightforward and brisk as the slow movement is oblique and ominous. He clearly understood the necessity of relieving the tension of his Largo. This movement is filled with sly wit and bumptious country humor, along with dazzling passage work and Beethoven’s characteristic developmental magic with his motivic material. Listeners acquainted with the piano literature will perceive a strong connection between this trio and Beethoven’s early Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 10, No.3. Thematically the first movements of each are closely linked. The Ghost Trio achieves in its slow movement the depth and emotional weight that Beethoven infused into his solo piano works much earlier than in his chamber music. The Op.10/3 sonata’s slow movement, also a Largo in D minor, is one of his greatest youthful accomplishments. And the finales of both the sonata and the trio are exuberant outpourings full of practical joking and good-natured skulduggery.

Piano Trio
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

The stories about Bernstein’s meteoric rise to fame are well known, beginning with his legendary replacement of an ailing Bruno Walter on the podium of the New York Philharmonic in November 1943. Barely two months later, the Pittsburgh Symphony premiered Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony. That work won the New York Music Critics’ Circle award for the best American composition of the year. In short order, Bernstein catapulted to the front ranks of two key areas of American musical life. 

His Piano Trio precedes all that, and by a good six years. Bernstein had not yet completed his undergraduate degree at Harvard. The musicologist Arthur Tillman Merritt oversaw his general musical education. He was studying composition with Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston. An acquaintance and developing friendship with Aaron Copland was to have even greater impact. Even before Bernstein met Copland in November 1937, the older composer’s thorny, dissonant Piano Variations became one of Bernstein’s signature works. 

They had not yet met when Bernstein composed the work that concludes this evening’s first half. Bernstein actually wrote two trios for Cambridge friends Mildred Spiegel, Dorothy Rosenberg, and Sarah Kruskall, who performed as the Madison Trio. Both works survive in notebook form at the Library of Congress. The first is in C-sharp minor; the work the Tempest Trio performs is the second of the two. Bernstein headed the autograph “For the Madison Trio/M.S./D.R./S.K,” Its last page indicated that he revised it in April 1937; the Madison Trio premiered it that year. 

Cast in three movements, this work shows Bernstein in a serious – even austere – mode. It is as if he were determined to demonstrate his mastery of counterpoint. Atonal canonic dialogue between the strings dominates the opening measures. The piano’s entrance reasserts a tonal context, sometimes with Ravelian, quasi-impressionist sonorities. The Più mosso section introduces more textural keyboard writing, then piano starts participating in the imitative dialogue. Eventually Bernstein opens to a full blown fugato, with the piano in parallel octaves balancing the two strings.

Prokofiev’s influence is discernible in the beginning of the Tempo di marcia, along with some jazz riffs that hint at directions Bernstein would take in later works. Indeed, the opening resurfaced seven years later in his Broadway musical On the Town. This movement is the clearest pre-echo of the jaunty, sassy Bernstein whose works would captivate America in the 1940s and 1950s. It unfolds as variations, with a witty ‘wrong key’ ending. 

The third movement fuses slow movement and finale, opening with a rhapsodic Largo unified by an insistent piano line that seesaws between the pitches of D and E. Bernstein soon accelerates to an Allegro vivo e molto ritmico. Pizzicato cello introduces imitative textures, like those that have dominated much of the earlier movements. What follows is descended from Dvořák’s Dumky trio, and in a more general sense from the principle of strong contrast between sections that governs this Ukrainian genre. A steady increase of tension and rhythmically driven dance sections propel the trio to a Presto coda and a decisive close.
Piano Trio in G minor, Op.26
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Antonín Dvořák was a family man. He grew up in a large family: of his parents’ 15 children, eight survived to adulthood. His wife, née Anna Cermakova, had six siblings. When the couple married in November 1873, they were eager to start a family of their own. Anna gave birth to their son Otakar in April 1874. By the end of that year, she was pregnant again. Dvořák was overjoyed when their daughter Josefa was born on 19 August. His delight was short-lived. Infant mortality was still high in the late 19th century, and little Josefa only lived two days. 

His grief found an outlet in music. Over the next eight months, he focused on three unusually dark compositions: a Piano Trio in G minor, a String Quartet in E minor (later published as Opus 80), and his tragic Stabat Mater. All of them were reactions to the death of his baby daughter. It is no accident that he chose G minor for the Trio. It is the same key of Bedřich Smetana’s Piano Trio, which had been a direct response to the death of Smetana's eldest daughter Bedřiška in September, 1855.  

The personal background accounts for the Trio’s turbulent character, but the piece must also be considered in the larger context of Dvořák’s career. The years from 1873 to 1879 were enormously productive for him as a composer. During this period he wrote three operas, two major choral works, two symphonies, two serenades, two concerti, nine chamber works, some songs, and a good deal of solo piano music. These were also the years during which he applied for, and was awarded, the Austrian State Stipend that allowed him to gain a toehold in Austria and the German-speaking lands. Scholars consider the Piano Trio to be a ‘warmup’ piece for the Stabat Mater and the Piano Concerto, two of Dvořák’s greatest compositions. 

The trio is a large four-movement canvas, overflowing with fresh ideas. Dvořák limits himself to no more than two principal themes in each movement, taking each one through its paces. If he had not quite hit his full stride as a melodist, the themes have a sadness, tenderness, and nostalgia that attest to the depth of his emotions. He plumbs his motives thoroughly; for example, the piano’s sixteenth-note figure in bar 4 shows up in all three instruments, recurring throughout the movement like a little motor. 

The slow movement is monothematic.  Dvořák’s imaginative handling of the single theme yields his most successful melodic writing in this trio. His vibrant scherzo features five bar phrases that contribute to its rhythmic verve. It is a harbinger of the irresistible Slavonic Dances, which would follow in 1878. The finale shows Schumann’s influence both in the handling of transitions and the dogged repetition of thematic material. Like Schumann, Dvořák drives his finale to a dramatic, persuasive conclusion.

The postscript to Dvořák’s family saga was ultimately happy, but not before more tragedy. Anna Dvořákova’s second daughter Ruzena, born September 1876, died shortly before her first birthday. Less than four weeks later, first-born Otakar died as well, aged only 3½. The stricken couple had lost their first three children. 

Between 1878 and 1888, however, Anna bore six more healthy offspring, all of whom grew to adulthood. The eldest of them, daughter Otilie, inherited her father’s gift for music, and eventually married Dvořák’s prize student Josef Suk. Anna and Antonín Dvořák took great joy in their large family their entire lives. 

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2016