Beethoven String Trio in D major, Op. 9, No. 2 (1797-98)
Debussy Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor, L. 140 (1917)
Dvořák Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65 (1883)
Beethoven’s real teaching…was not to preserve the old forms, still less to follow in his early steps. We must throw wide the windows to the open sky; they seem to me to have only just escaped being closed forever. The fact that here and there a genius succeeds in this form is but a poor excuse for the laborious and stilted compositions which we are accustomed to…
Claude Debussy (writing as Monsieur Croche, The Dilletante Hater)
Beethoven’s String Trio in D major, Op. 9, No. 2 (1797-98) is one of five that predate his string quartets. Each of these, regarded as among his greatest, is unsurpassed by the more innovative and formally expansive works to come. It is in four movements, the slow movement second, the third–a proper Minuet and Trio. A Rondo closes the work. Of the three Op. 9 trios the D major is performed less often than the other two. Each of the trios, comprised of one of each instrument, requires greater virtuosity of the individual players because fewer players means a more frequent exchange of lead and following roles.
Our monthly Claude Debussy observance of the 100th year since his passing continues with the playing of his Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor, L. 140 (1917). Although shorter in length and volume in comparison to the trios, its impact has grown exponentially in the years since it was first heard. It was the third and last of a larger unfinished project he calledSix sonates pour diverse instruments, par Claude Debussy, musicien francais, with emphasis on his nationality and pride being apart from advancing the Germanic musical tradition. His dislike of where that tradition had taken music (not to mention the world at that time) is evident in his writings and in his search for historical inspiration in the works of Rameau, Couperin, and more recent in French Impressionist painters. The sonata is a notable departure from the principle of trading melodic spotlight and accompaniment roles that have governed sonata writing throughout the great works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Few if any of these have held the actual building-blocks of music, such as scales and arpeggios, up to the light as objects of beauty in themselves, not just as means to melody, drawn inspiration and flair from a casual gypsy fiddler, nor been, at times, so down and dark. This sonata is the product of illness in the time of war, and remains the best document of and distraction from the pain and mood of his times. The Sonata, dedicated to his wife Emma Bardac, was the last work he performed in public on May 5, 1917 before his death on March 25, 1918.
Dvořák’s Trio in F minor Op. 65 dates from the momentous year of 1883, the year Wagner died but did not lose his power to influence others; the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, and nine years prior to Dvořák’s arrival in New York City to bring us European training and culture. Issues of nationality and cultural identity are foremost in Dvořák’s thinking at the time of its conception, premiere and publication. As demand for his music increased, so did the pressure in Viennese musical circles to conform to their musical tastes and expectations, relying less on Czech folk tunes and forms. More than one observer has noted the resemblance between the rising fourth and octave opening of this trio and that of Piano Quintet Op. 34 in F minor (1865) by his advocate and mentor, Johannes Brahms. That is not the only resemblance or tribute in this work that places the Scherzo movement second, compresses canonic writing, or derives new themes from endings of previous phrases. Viennese audiences would have immediately recognized the clear, classic placement of the big events in each movement. Dvořák brought new life from outside to a tradition whose days were numbered. Perhaps he was that rare genius who succeeded in Vienna, and in America where that life was extended by founding our greatest music schools while championing music of the outsider both here and there.