Program Notes

Mendelssohn: Trio No. 2 in C minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 66

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) achieved brilliance as a pianist when he was still a child and throughout his life he composed generously for his “personal instrument,” leaving behind an ocean of idiomatic writing for the piano in solo repertory, as an accompanying instrument, in chamber music, and as a concerto soloist. On January 21, 1832, while he was visiting Paris, Mendelssohn wrote to his sister Fanny, “I should like to compose a couple of good trios,” a goal that ended up being a historic understatement compared to what he achieved. It appears that he had already written a piano trio by that time, a C minor trio of 1820, which, had it survived, would stand as one of his very first compositions. In any case, two “good trios” did lie ahead—so good, in fact, that they stand along with Schumann’s Trios in D minor and F major as the genre’s only works from the 1830s and ’40s to remain firmly ensconced in the active repertory today, notwithstanding the popularity piano trios enjoyed during those decades.

The first of Mendelssohn’s extant piano trios, in D minor (Opus 49), appeared in 1839. “This is the master-trio of our time, even as Beethoven’s in B-flat and D and Schubert’s in E-flat were the masterpieces of their day,” wrote Robert Schumann. “It is an exceedingly fine composition that, years hence, will still delight our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” The D minor Piano Trio is as great a masterpiece as Schumann proclaimed it to be, but some connoisseurs suggest that Mendelssohn would surpass it in his C minor Piano Trio (Opus 66), which followed six years later.

The first movement seems in certain ways uncharacteristic of Mendelssohn, whose music rarely sustains an analogous level of nervous tension. The anxiety is announced from the very opening, when the piano, soon seconded by the violin, states the powerful theme above a pedal-point in the cello. The second theme is a particularly glorious conception, a melody that holds the potential of joyous triumph in the relative major key of E-flat. Although Mendelssohn frequently cast compositions in the minor mode, he tended not to stay planted in the minor for long, veering preternaturally into the major mode for long expanses. Here he remains resolutely in the minor, and the E-flat-major theme is not allowed to dominate. In its serious mien, the movement seems to look forward to suggest Brahms; but, like Brahms, Mendelssohn was an ardent believer in certain classical ideals. So it is that he develops his material within the framework of a perfectly proportioned sonata movement, drawing on motifs inherent in his themes to bind everything together tightly with a sense of inevitable unity. Mendelssohn was natively fluent in the language of counterpoint, and in the movement’s coda he scores a technical bull’s eye of considerable intricacy by having the strings play an augmented (stretched-out) version of the main theme at the same time that the piano plays the theme in its normal proportions—no mean trick, and here one that mirrors related contrapuntal manipulation the composer had worked into the piano part earlier on.

While the piano is indeed fiery and impressive, listeners may not be aware of the precision Mendelssohn brings to its notation, distinguishing the character of his thematic development by specifying details of phrasing and articulation. In the second movement, the piano is allowed to introduce the introspective, slightly nostalgic melody but then takes more of a back seat as the strings develop the material into an expressive, cantabile, triple-time outpouring in A-flat major; in practice, this unrolls as a sort of double structure, since the first half of the tune is presented, and then developed, before the melody’s conclusion is articulated and developed.

Counterpoint is again prominent in the fleet Scherzo, a chattering toccata enlivened by fugato texture. If the opening recalls the bustling vigor of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo, its middle section makes us think again of Brahms thanks to the constant shifting between major and minor modes, the powerful accenting of downbeats (strengthened by trills), and what at moments evokes a “Hungarian-Gypsy” flavor.

The finale begins less like Brahms than like Schumann, its leap of a ninth particularly recalling that composer’s piano composition “Aufschwung” (Opus 12, no.2). A moment of unalloyed Mendelssohn arrives soon enough, however, with the introduction, in the piano, of a chorale—a favorite Mendelssohnian maneuver for elevating the tone to one of spiritual devotion. Examples of this rhetorical device surface strikingly in his oeuvre, with famous examples including the Reformation Symphony, (Opus 107, of 1832), the Prelude and Fugue in E minor for piano (Opus 35, no.1, from 1832-36), the slow movement of the D major Cello Sonata (Opus 58, from 1843), and several of the organ sonatas. Here the melody evokes the German Lutheran chorale “Gelobet seist Du, Jesu Christ”—but it’s really no more than an allusion. (Some scholars have instead heard the germ of the traditional chorales “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” and “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir,” but to my ears “Gelobet seist Du” seems a more obvious jumping-off point.) Much as Brahms, in his ostensible folk song settings, would often cite only the beginning of a melody before spinning off into an essentially original melody, Mendelssohn here writes his own chorale. After a good deal of deconstruction and re-assembly, the melody returns at the movement’s climax, hammered out loudly in rich piano chords against contrapuntal overlapping in the strings—a moment in which the intimate medium of the piano trio seems about ready to explode.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, as well as Contributing Editor to Chamber Music magazine. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats. 

(November 2017)

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