Chamber Music: Dvořák Piano Trio and More

Chamber Music: Dvořák Piano Trio and More 

Rota: Trio for Flute, Violin, and Piano
Arensky: Trio No. 1 in D minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 32
Dvořák: Trio in F minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 65  

Rota: Trio for Flute, Violin, and Piano 

Nino Rota (1911-79) is revered among cinephiles for having created the sound of Federico Fellini. He was first hired by the eminent director in 1952, and by the time Rota died, twenty-seven years later, the two collaborated on no fewer than sixteen films, including such top-drawer classics as La strada (1954), Le notte di Cabiria (1957), La dolce vita (1960), Otto di mezza (a.k.a. 8½, 1963), Giulietta degli spiriti (1965), Fellini Satyricon (1969), Amarcord (1973), and Prova d’orchestra (1979). Rota served Fellini’s vision much as Bernard Herrmann did Alfred Hitchcock’s; in both cases, the composers provided uncanny parallels to the psychological situations plumbed by their directors, to the point of providing music that could define and advance the plot even in the absence of words.

All told, Rota produced some 150 film scores, including soundtracks for all the leading Italian directors of postwar cinema (Soldati, De Filippo, Visconti, Pietrangeli, Castellani, Zeffirelli), as well as for leading French, American, German, and Soviet directors. Film aficionados encounter his scores often: for example, in King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956), Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960) and Il gattopardo (1963), Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968), Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970), Lina Wertmüller’s Film d’amore e d’anarchia (1973), and, of course, the first two installments of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy (1972 and 1974, his score for the first having been awarded an Oscar).

But if film scores brought Rota his greatest renown during his life—and, for that matter, in posterity—they don’t tell the whole story. He was composing music as an eight-year-old, and an oratorio he had written on the theme of John the Baptist was premiered to very positive reviews when he was twelve. That year he began his conservatory studies in composition, first with Giacomo Orefice at Milan Conservatory, then privately with Ildebrando Pizzetti, then with Alfredo Casella at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome. Conductor Arturo Toscanini recommended him to Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, who took him on as a composition student; there he also studied conducting with Fritz Reiner.

In 1932, Rota returned to Italy and let loose a freshet of “classical” works. Over ensuing decades these would include three symphonies, nearly a dozen concertos, a good deal of chamber music, numerous ballet scores, and a handful of operas (of which Il cappello di paglia di Firenze, often translated into English as The Italian Straw Hat, still maintains a foothold in the repertory). By and large these display a musical language clearly rooted in the mainstream of European post-Romanticism, which guaranteed that he would find little support from composers and critics devoted to serialism, who constituted the avant-garde at that time. This seemed to concern Rota rather little, and he persevered in his generally lyric style. He was certainly well aware of more innovatory trends, to be sure, and even composed a couple of orchestral pieces to prove it: his Twelve-Tone Variations and Fugue on the Name of B-A-C-H (1950) and his Fantasy on Twelve Notes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1960).

He composed his Trio for Flute, Violin, and Piano in 1958 for the Trio Klemm, an ensemble consisting of two Swiss musicians—flutist Conrad Klemm and pianist Rita Wolfensberger—and the Cuban-born violinist Montserrat Cervera. What may strike a listener most forcibly is how little this piece sounds like the Rota we know from the movie house. Although it keeps its distance from the avant-garde of its time and is resolute in its melodiousness, it is hardly reactionary. It draws on some modernist techniques, such as flirtations with bitonality in the energetic first movement, and it shows affinity with neoclassicism; the principal theme that serves both the first and second movements recalls a Baroque fugue subject (even to the point of being presented in inversion in the mysterious center of the Andante sostenuto). The bustling finale also reflects the work’s overall character—a playful spirit spiced up by a nervous undercurrent.  

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Arensky: Trio No. 1 in D minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 32

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) might have carried on the nationalistic tendencies of his teacher, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he studied in Saint Petersburg; but instead he drifted toward the Moscow-based camp of Tchaikovsky, which was more allied with the musical mainstream of Western Europe. Rimsky-Korsakov recalled him in unflattering terms, though one does not have to read between the lines very closely to sense that his account is hardly impartial: “According to all testimony, his life had run a dissipated course between wine and card-playing….In his youth, Arensky had not escaped entirely my own influence; later he fell under that of Tchaikovsky. He will soon be forgotten.” Others disagreed. Stravinsky later condemned Rimsky-Korsakov’s indictment (which tainted Arensky’s reputation for decades), and his Piano Quintet was occasionally singled out as a masterpiece. Arensky also composed excellent pieces for piano duet, as well as a pair each of piano trios and string quartets. He made an impact as a professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory, too, where his students included Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Glière.

In 1894, mover-and-shaker Mili Balakirev recommended Arensky to be his successor as the director of the Imperial Chapel in Saint Petersburg, and within a year Arensky resigned from the Moscow Conservatory to assume that new position. In 1894, he also unveiled his second opera as a centerpiece of the First Congress of Russian Artists, and he composed his Piano Trio No. 1 and his String Quartet No. 2. Both of these chamber works were memorial pieces—the quartet in honor of Tchaikovsky, who had died the preceding year, and the Trio commemorating Karl Davidov, a distinguished cellist and (for more than a decade) director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, who had died in 1889. Writing commemorative chamber music tributes was something of a tradition just then; Tchaikovsky had composed his A minor Piano Trio (1882) as a memorial to his teacher Nicolai Rubinstein, and in 1893 Rachmaninoff composed his Second Trio élégiaque in honor of Tchaikovsky.

Arensky’s D minor Piano Trio is a full-scale work, its four movements running more than a half hour and covering a broad spectrum of styles in the process. The first movement might be compared to the corresponding section of Mendelssohn’s much earlier D minor Piano Trio (1839), though Arensky proceeds with more relaxed luxury than Mendelssohn had. His ingratiating themes seem born of the salon, and the composer manipulates them with consummate mastery and variety. The second movement is a Scherzo in the sparkling mode of Saint-Saëns, reminiscent of that composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 almost to the point of parody, and the pianist’s fingers fly across the keys in most spectacular fashion before the movement reaches its whispered coda.

The Davidov memorial falls specifically in the third movement, which is actually headed Elegia. The string instruments install mutes for the duration of this movement, which maintains quiet nobility; this is more a dignified, reflective memorial service than a grief-racked funeral. In the Finale we find not only original themes but also references to melodies heard earlier—the principal melody of the Elegia and, near the end, the gorgeous, somewhat nostalgic theme of the Trio’s opening. Arensky travels well-worn paths in his D minor Piano Trio, and listeners who put a premium on novelty might therefore find the piece easy to dismiss. And yet it is an easy piece to love thanks to Arensky’s undeniable skill in the time-honored methods of composing and—perhaps most important—his uncomplicated sincerity.

In 2008, a cache of some two hundred recordings from the 1890s, previously thought lost in World War II, were rediscovered in a Saint Petersburg library. Among the treasures were cylinders of portions of the first three movements of Arensky’s D minor Trio, played rhapsodically and at a vigorous pace by the composer with violinist Jan Hrímalý and cellist Anatoly Brandukov. Details about the premiere of this work being vague, we may be tempted to surmise that these were also the musicians who first played the work in concert.

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Dvořák: Trio in F minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 65  

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was a competent, but hardly distinguished, music student, but as a teenager, he managed to secure a spot as violist in a dance orchestra. The group prospered, and in 1862 its members formed the founding core of the orchestra Provisional Theatre, an establishment born of the incipient movement of Czech nationalism. Dvořák would play principal viola in the Provisional Theatre orchestra for nine years.

During that time, Dvořák also honed his skills as a composer, and by 1871 he felt compelled to leave the orchestra and devote himself to composing full-time. In 1874, he received his first real break: he was awarded the Austrian State Stipendium, a grant newly created by the Ministry of Education to assist young, poor, gifted musicians—which pretty much defined Dvořák’s status at the time. That he received the award twice again, in 1876 and 1877, underscores how his financial situation was improving slowly, if at all, in the mid-1870s. Fortunately for Dvořák, the powerful music critic Eduard Hanslick had taken a shine to some of his music, and in 1877 encouraged him to send some scores to the great Johannes Brahms. Brahms was so delighted with what he received that he recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Simrock, who immediately published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, commissioned a collection of Slavonic Dances, and contracted an option on all of the composer’s new works.

When he came to write his Piano Trio in F minor, in early 1883, Dvořák was therefore a relatively recent acquaintance to most music lovers. Of his four mature piano trios (he appears to have destroyed two earlier works in the genre) the most famous is surely his last, the Dumky Trio (Opus 90) of 1890-91, a work rich in folkloric inspiration. The F minor Piano Trio preceded it by about eight years, and it was composed at a moment of personal turmoil. The death of Dvořák’s mother, in December 1882, had left the composer severely depressed, and, although by that time certain of his works were receiving a considerable measure of applause, he entertained private doubts about whether he deserved the accolades that were coming his way.

As a result, the F minor Trio went through a difficult birth. Dvořák usually composed quickly. A pious Catholic, he harbored a sincere metaphysical point of view whereby he considered his creative ability to be a gift from the Almighty. He felt that, when he did not himself interfere with the process, his musical themes were quite literally the voice of God. This belief inspired Dvořák to work at sometimes breakneck speed, in order not to fall behind in his divine dictation. By many other composers’ standards, the gestation period of the F minor Trio—begun on February 4, 1883 and provisionally completed seven weeks later, on March 31—might be rapid; for Dvořák, it was torturously slow as he found himself continually re-thinking the piece. He completely recast the first movement after he composed it, reversed the order of the middle two movements, and subjected the entire piece to quite a lot of tightening before he was ready to unveil it that autumn.

The F minor Trio stands as a serious, sometimes stern, work. Its somewhat Brahmsian caste reflects the esteem in which Dvořák held his older colleague. The deepness of its emotions, combined with the care exercised over the details of musical logic and ensemble writing, have led many aficionados to cite this as among the peaks of Dvořák’s accomplishment. Here he strikes a balance between nationalistic elements and the abstract Germanic mainstream. The opening movement generally stresses the passionate over the lyrical, although the latter is richly represented in the tenderness of the second theme. The second movement is a folk-like polka (here serving as a scherzo) with an especially prominent piano part, and the elegiac third movement (Poco adagio), with its spacious cello melody, is perhaps the most thoroughly Brahmsian music Dvořák ever wrote. In the Finale we again find Dvořák drawing on folk inspiration, with swirling dance rhythms alternating with music of ingrained nobility.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and of the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is now also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

(February 2018)

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