@ Sanders, Concert Calendar
March 11 — 7:30 pm
Venue: Sanders Theatre
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Trio in D major, Op. 9 No. 2
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor, L. 140
Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65
Despite being sandwiched between more temperamental trios, Beethoven’s Trio in D major, Op. 9, No. 2 was written with clearly classical intent. The masterful interweaving of melodic lines in the second movement illustrates the classical period at its best. Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor was written by a man sick with disease and heartbroken from war. And while the first movement restlessly fluctuates in tempo, key, and theme, the last movement ends with an ecstatic outpouring of notes in G major; the Finale is, as Debussy himself proclaimed, “full of happiness and uproar.” Pressured to abandon his beloved Slavic nationalism, Dvořák wrote the powerful Piano Trio in F minor in 1883 both amidst this conflict and while grieving the death of his mother. The brilliant third movement, Poco adagio, strongly evokes Brahms and Schubert, diffusing the energy of the two preceding movements to sing an elegant, heartfelt adieu.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
String Trio in D major, Op. 9, No. 2 (1798)
Calling them la meillure de [mes] oeuvres (“the best of my works”), Beethoven took great pride in his Op. 9 set of three string trios which many see as the proving-ground for much of what materializes in the Op. 18 string quartets begun later that same year. One of several opuses dedicated to Count Browne-Camus—an important early patron of Beethoven in Vienna—the trios signal Beethoven’s transition toward his more mature “heroic” period.
The second of the set, however, opens with a standard sonata form movement that captures some of the exuberance of Beethoven’s early years in Vienna. The contrapuntal texture and active commentary from the cello demonstrate an awareness of dialogue between the voices so amplified in the quartets of Haydn, with whom Beethoven had briefly studied.
By contrast, the D minor Andante quasi allegretto pairs halting and striking gestures with cantabile solo melodies against pizzicato and arpeggiated lines. Beethoven varies the reprise of the material, conveying, as one reviewer has put it, “the shadows of D minor within the ‘swing’ implied by the time signature of 6/8.”
The buoyant third movement Menuetto takes its cue from the nature of the first movement, maintaining a more scherzo-like character. The trio features playful staccato motion in classically balanced four-bar phrases, providing more of a contrast in articulation and affect than in harmony.
The piece closes with a rondo theme that captures the folkish flavor so common to rondos at the time, while carrying forward the playfulness of the trio from the preceding movement. Here Beethoven exploits register and texture while alternating between homophonic and imitative sections, undergirding displays of virtuosity from all three instruments with a consistent lightheartedness.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor, L. 140 (1917)
Because Debussy was such a master at his craft, it is difficult to speak of a “mature style,” but this late work demonstrates that the composer, had he not been claimed by cancer, probably would have left an even more indelible mark on twentieth-century composition. His friendship with and admiration for Stravinsky echoes through this last of his completed works, yet never lapses into sheer idolatry or mimicry. The premiere also marked the composer’s last concert appearance, playing with violinist Gaston Poulet in 1917.
The opening Allegro vivo is unpredictable, but with an unmistakable sense of Debussy-esque flow. The virtuosity of the movement lies in its shifts in and out of different tonal and modal frameworks. In the secondary meno mosso theme the violin plays sur la touche (“under the touch”) over pianissimo arpeggiations in the piano, trying to reconcile nineteenth-century rubato with Debussy’s more modern sense of melody.
Marked Fantasque et léger (“whimsical and light”), the second movement Intermède departs from a traditional slow movement and presents piano and violin working in tandem. Paul Roberts describes the tempo marking as defining a “dislocated world in which humor and heartbreaking pathos exist side by side.” While the movement remains light in tone, there is almost a mechanistic feel brought about by repeated notes in both instruments, as well as violin pizzicato and piano writing that is staccato and angular.
The Finale: Très animé seems to retain some of the energy from the middle movement as the violin returns to the opening theme from the sonata’s first movement, but soon explodes into a virtuosic cascade of notes. A quieter, more plaintive section provides a dramatic change in mood, but soon builds momentum toward the climax of the movement. For two brief moments, the violin takes on the surprising role of moving accompaniment as the piano tries almost in vain to articulate an elongated version of the violin’s former melody. Chromatic octaves in the piano provide an unsettling and almost incongruent transition toward the final return to the très animé tempo, which halts in its tracks with a resounding final cadence in G minor.
It is impossible to know in what ways Debussy’s voice might have continued to change, but his ability to extrapolate different styles from a variety of sources in this sonata reveals a composer who, as his life ebbed, was in constant dialogue with all his muses, both ancient and modern.
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65 (1883)
Conductor and musicologist Leon Botstein has referred to this trio as a “covert strategy” on the part of Dvořák, which allowed him to “infiltrate the German household and concert hall.” While the description may invoke images more appropriate for a film noir, Botstein correctly highlights the tensions swirling around Dvořák in 1883. After Brahms had endorsed his work with the Berlin publisher Simrock in the late 1870s, Dvořák enjoyed much success with audiences in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and as far away as Baltimore. At the same time, his profile at home in Prague continued to grow. However, particularly in Vienna, Dvořák became increasingly aware of anti-Czech sentiment that began to rear its head in the reception of works such as the third Slavonic Rhapsody. Despite the support of conductor Hans Richter, a planned Viennese premiere of the Sixth Symphony was cancelled and further postponed due to the political climate. Dvořák was torn between catering to Viennese audiences without betraying his sense of nationalistic pride. He even went as far to request that Simrock publish title pages in both German and Czech and print his first name as “Ant.” as it would work equally well for “Anton” as it would “Antonín.” His supporters and allies in Vienna were not necessarily sensitive to the composer’s inner struggles, forcing him to walk the line between pandering and self-advocacy.
With all of that, the Trio has a Brahmsian formality, but there are glimmers of “Czechness,” although they seem fleeting and enigmatic relative to the overt nationalism of many other works. The dramatic modal theme that breaks through soon after the opening measures of the Allegro is one such moment. Interwoven with graceful dotted figures almost immediately, the music displays Dvořák’s deftness in both musical and emotional variation. The cantabile second theme in the cello transports the movement to the comfort of Romantic pathos akin to Brahms or Schumann. In a rather dreamlike transition, where the violin and cello hold a dissonant pedal tone, the piano ascends in a sequence of leaping sixths building toward a passionate return to gestural language.
The second movement Allegro grazioso is a restrained scherzo that hints at the type of patriotic chorales found in the composer’s Hussite Overture, as Botstein has noted. The form, however, is beautifully transparent, with the D-flat major trio section offering a gentle and almost pastoral respite from the moto perpetuo of the scherzo sections.
The Poco adagio is immediately elegiac with the somber opening chords in the piano and the expressive theme heard first in the cello, followed by the violin. The tender melody that opens with the leap of an octave is poignantly employed by each instrument, but with special attention to the affective impact of registral changes in the violin.
It may be the Finale that most obviously harbors Czech flavor in its “furiant” gestures that reverse the impact of the octaves heard in the prior movement. Now it is descending octaves that glue together sections of the fiery rondo theme with episodes of passionate lyricism. Here perhaps is where Dvořák had the most freedom to interpolate folk flavor in the time-honored tradition of last movements from Brahms back to Mozart and Haydn. The final meno mosso evokes nostalgic pentatonicism (prefiguring his later “American” period) before one last emphatic burst of energy.
© 2018 Rebecca G. Marchand
Rebecca Marchand earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. A founding member of the Haydn Society of North America, Marchand also served as the president of the New England chapter of the American Musicological Society from 2012 to 2016. She is a professor of core studies in music history at the Boston Conservatory. She has held previous teaching and lecturing positions at Boston University, Longy School of Music, and Providence College. Marchand is also an author of digital learning content for W. W. Norton music textbook publications.