The MMF opening concert on July 12th presents a broad spectrum of works for Chamber Trio ensemble. Beethoven, Neiman, and Tchaikovsky form the evening’s program. Adam Neiman, our Artistic Director, composer, and pianist wrote, “I programmed for maximum contrast to create balance in the program. The Tchaikovsky is, in a way, purposefully, separate from the humor of Beethoven’s work and the impressionistic epic poetry of mine.”
For this first blog of the summer I shall delve into Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (Russia; 1840-1893) Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. In 1881 Tchaikovsky’s long time patroness, Madame Von Meck, wrote to him asking that he compose a piano trio. She had been charmed by such a work written by a very young Claude Debussy who was her “house pianist.” Tchaikovsky responded: “This is beyond me... I cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello.” He went on to write that the keyboard instrument overwhelmed the strings. “Further, there is no tonal blend. It (the piano) can be effective in only three situations; alone, in a concerto, (or) as an accompaniment in the background.” Yet Tchaikovsky, ever the brooding man, dwelled on the request and some time later he wrote back to Von Meck; “I am thinking of experimenting with this sort of music….of testing myself.” In December of the same year he wrote again saying he had almost finished a piano trio despite his fear that “it might sound like a symphony written for trio.”
To add to the story, the piece is dedicated, not to Von Meck, but rather to the composer’s long time mentor and teacher, and by the way, severest critic, famed pianist, Nicolai Rubinstein. Rubinstein died just before the project was started. The work is subtitled “In Memory of a Great artist.” Not surprising then, the piano score is extremely difficult and virtuosic. Tchaikovsky knew full well that Rubinstein would have been up to the challenge!
Strangely, one of the stipulations for the Tchaikovsky-Von Meck relationship was that they never meet. It is said that once they actually faced each other at a concert and that Tchaikovsky immediately turned away! The relationship was sustained by hundreds of letters over the years.
As for the Piano Trio itself, it is monumental in size; fifty minutes in length, though conceived in only two movements. The first movement, Pezzo elegiaco: moderato assai (literally, ode piece: a moderate enough tempo) is filled with melodic material of exquisite beauty. The opening theme is played by the cello after a very brief piano introduction. A second melody rises from the piano. The sentimental melody is taken up by the violin and flows back to the piano. Listen for the violin and cello playing octaves apart. There is new thematic material throughout the movement although there is a great deal of repetition. Tchaikovsky was not a developer of thematic content, the compositional technique so basic to sonata form. He relied on repetition and mounting rhythmic and emotional effects to propel his materials forward. The intricate weaving and the blending of his lyric subjects goes beyond the timbre of a trio combination and as he wrote, it is possibly symphonic in its heroic nature and instrumental mesh.
And what of the famous Tchaikovsky “Russian Soul”? I speak of the melancholic, introspective mood, that permeates the music. It is never far away even as the material lightens. The dark harmonies linger and quick tempos revert to andante. Be assured, you will recognize this soul! It is implicit in the piece as the com-poser reveals himself with repeated plaintive statements of the heartfelt themes.
It is of note that Tchaikovsky’s fellow composers, the Mighty Five (Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cui, and Balakirev) in particular, attacked him for his lack of nationalistic idioms in his works. Yet today, audiences easily hear the Russian folk materials and tonal settings mixed with Western European traditional forms that comprise the foundations of Tchaikovsky’s music. His contemporaries also criticized him for his extreme sentimentality and obsession with death. This is still a widely heard complaint about the composer’s works. For me, it is Tchaikovsky’s highly personal sensitivity to grief and loss that makes his music unique and gripping.
The second movement is divided into two sections. The first, Tema con Variazioni: Andante con moto (Theme and Variations: slightly more than a slow walking pace) opens with a simple folk-like melody voiced by the piano. Once again we are given a melancholy Russian song. The theme now takes an amazing journey. The elegiac first movement is forgotten and a joyful of set of variations unfolds. Listen for a scherzo (literally It., joke) piano variation accompanied by pizzicato (plucked) strings. It is followed by a brief woeful pronouncement. I hope you hear the sounds of jingling bells in Variation V! The variation gives the piano a delightful exposure. (NB: There are the sounds of sleigh bells and church bells in a one or more of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works, several songs, and in Morning Prayer, a particularly heartwarming piano work. The score of the 1812 Overture includes zvons (Russian for the collective sound of large bells) as well as the famous cannons. Bells were to be rung all over Moscow when the Overture was first played in celebration of the defeat of Napoleon’s invading forces. It was reported at the time that they were not heard. There was a shortage of bell ringers! The next variation, number Vl, is is an enchanting waltz; certainly a trade mark form of the composer. It is an exuberant combination of a Viennese whirl around a ballroom and Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet waltzes. Next up there is a strutting march-like episode, then a robust fugue involving the instruments in an intricate rhythmically charged romp, and once again there is a plaintive variation filled with the Russian doleful timbre. What next? Chopin? Well not quite, but it is definitely a mazurka, (a Polish dance) à la Tchaikovsky. A lovely quiet rendition of the theme closes the set.
Now the explosion of energy that begins the second part of the movement is upon us. It is a final variation, actually in sonata form, that greatly expands upon the theme. Variazione Finale e Coda: Allegro resoluto e con fuoco (Final Variation and Coda, [literally It., tail]: resolutely, with fire) The music careens forward, monumental and frenetic hammering the theme onward. Suddenly the climate changes radically. The gloom returns sounding the opening theme from the first movement. It is marked, Andante con moto - Lugubre l’istesso tempo. (Slightly more than a slow walking pace - lugubrious, but at the same tempo) Tchaikovsky’s sorrow over-whelms his optimism. A cortege moves to the dotted dragging rhythm of a funeral march. The insistent piano and the cello pour out the theme, finally yielding to the violin. Here Tchaikovsky marked his score with the word “piangendo”! (crying) The Coda is a summation of Tchaikovsky’s sorrow. The music fades away; mournful and despairing.
I look forward to the Second Thursday evening concert on July 19th. The work I will highlight is Russian composer, Dimitri Shostakovich’s, String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op.110. Written in Dresden in 1960, the piece is dedicated to the victims of war and fascism. Perhaps you might want to read about the composer and his life: a life filled with angst and anger as he strove to survive personally and as a composer under the Stalin regime.
- Fran Rosenthal