Dumky Trio, Op. 90 (1891)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Imagine a violin sonata comprising only minuet/trios. Or a symphony that consisted solely of variations. The likelihood is slim; one of the principles that has governed multi-movement works from the Baroque suite through the present day is variety of form. Why, then, did Dvořák choose to write a piano trio with six movements that were all dumkas (or more accurately dumky, the Czech plural)?

The concept was not without precedent in chamber music. No less a composer than Joseph Haydn chose a similar consistency in his Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross for string quartet. Published as Haydn's Op.51, that work comprises seven adagios, each lasting about ten minutes. Thus Dvořák's six dumky are in good company.

Further, in all fairness to Dvořák, the dumka is by definition a varied form. Of Ukrainian origin, it became quite fashionable in Poland and Bohemia during the 19th century. It derives from the Slovak noun duma, which in turn is etymologically related to verbs denoting thinking, pondering, even brooding. Dumky are narrative, with sections of lamentation and melancholy alternating with parts that are more lively – even manic. This type of movement crops up frequently in Dvořák's music.

This piano trio thus contains a full range of tempi and moods. The lament that opens, a veritable wail from piano and cello, may function as a kind of slow introduction, or as a refrain that recurs later in the movement. Each movement is in a different key (the sequence of tonalities navigates from E minor/E major, C# minor, A major/A minor, D minor/D major, E-flat major/E-flat minor, and C minor/C major). Each movement contains sufficient chromaticism to challenge the most musical of ears.

Four of Dvořák’s movements divide into two distinct parts [binary form]; the others share more in common with rondo or ternary [A-B-A]nform. Duration for each dumka varies from about four minutes to nearly seven minutes, with the second and third movements (Poco adagio/Vivace and Andante/Vivace) clocking the greater length. He connects the first three movements with the designation attacca subito [without pause], thus lending them a collective larger design in the trio’s overall scheme.

Dvořák maintains a prevailing mood of thoughtfulness and introspection in his six movements; however, he varies them with sections that sometimes sound positively joyful, sometimes verging on reckless. He gives the cello a prominent role throughout, a fact possibly attributable to its first interpreter, Januš Wihan, for whom Dvořák also wrote his cello concerto. The last thing we should think of in this trio is a series of dirges, for there is considerable fire in this music. Rather, the Dumky trio reveals the complexity of the composer's personality. Dvořák's genius manifests itself equally in his innovative approach to the piano trio genre, and in the impressive variety he brings to his self-imposed formal restriction.

Trio in A minor, Op. 50
Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893

Tchaikovsky's monumental piano trio stands alone among his other chamber compositions, an independent only child with a big ego. Composed in December 1881 and January 1882, it is dedicated "à la mémoire d'un grand artiste." The artist in question was Nikolai Rubinstein, brother of the more famous pianist Anton Rubinstein. Only six years older than Tchaikovsky, Nikolai had been granted an imperial charter for the Moscow Conservatory in the mid-1860s. In 1866 he hired Tchaikovsky to teach harmony there. Tchaikovsky had only just graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory, and was a virtual unknown except for a recommendation from Nikolai's older brother. That gesture of confidence anchored a strong friendship between Nikolai Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky that was nearly wrecked by one incident: Nikolai's initial reaction to Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto was scathing. So hurt and incensed was Tchaikovsky that he altered his dedication from Rubinstein to the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Later, Rubinstein reassessed his first judgment and became a great champion and interpreter of the work.

Rubinstein died in Paris in March 1881, only 45 years old. Tchaikovsky was in Nice when he received the telegram with the news. Deeply affected by his friend's premature death, he set out for Moscow by way of Paris to pay his respects. According to his biographer David Brown:

No death had struck Tchaikovsky so hard since the passing of his own mother nearly 27 years before. Rubinstein had given him his first professional appointment, had directed him, bullied him, but in his own rough, imperious way had nursed Tchaikovsky's gifts, sometimes criticizing his works unceremoniously , but always with unflagging energy presenting them to the world so that their worth might be assessed and their fame grow. No man had done more for the cause of Tchaikovsky's music than this difficult but true friend.

We know that Mme von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patroness and soul-mate via correspondence, had suggested he write a piano trio some time earlier, presumably because she maintained a resident piano trio in her personal establishment. Tchaikovsky had demurred, feeling no affinity for the medium. Rubinstein's death evidently helped him to bypass that particular compositional roadblock. Once he began work on the Trio, it came to him rapidly, and he completed work on it in a matter of weeks. In effect, the Trio is his requiem for Rubinstein.

In Russia, the A minor trio was the most popular of Tchaikovsky's chamber works for years, particularly in the first half of the 20th century. A major work of over 40 minutes' duration despite its limitation to two movements, it has had trouble winning friends more recently. For example, consider Edward Garden's dismissal in his largely sympathetic biography:

Tchaikovsky's [first movement] elegy is only superficially convincing, and the same is true of the very long series of variations that comprise the second movement. A naïve theme associated with his friend is mercilessly put through its paces, each variation being said to be connected with some incident in Rubinstein's life. The emotional involvement of even the enormous final variation is more apparent than real . . . despite some pages of well-wrought music.

Most listeners would be more charitable. Tchaikovsky's music is passionate, well-crafted, melodious. Still, the piece has been dogged with controversy, perhaps because of its immodest proportions and splashy history.

Tchaikovsky clearly intended to honor Nikolai's blazing pianistic talent, for the piano shines brilliantly throughout the work, especially during the entire first movement, Pezzo elegiaco. Among the segments of the second, Variations III (Allegro moderato), VI (Tempo di valse), and X (Tempo di mazurka) are particularly virtuosic, further suggesting the pianistic prowess of Tchaikovsky's recently departed friend.

The variations are said to be biographical; whether we choose to assign personal remembrances or incidents to them is less important than their highly personal character. Those who know Tchaikovsky's orchestral compositions will enjoy thoughtful comparison to the Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra. While the Trio is more elegiac and less overtly virtuosic, it shares with the Rococo Variations a certain Baroque flavor that marries nicely with its more impassioned late 19th-century musical language. After considerable virtuoso flourishes in the course of the variations, Op. 50 ends quietly. In the coda, Tchaikovsky brings back the funereal theme from the first movement, reinforcing the spirit of a requiem for Rubinstein.

By Laurie Shulman © 2019
First North American Serial Rights Only