Smetana: Trio in G minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 15
The G minor Piano Trio takes us to the beginning of Bedřich Smetana’s career, to a moment when he was struggling to achieve recognition and acceptance as a composer. Times were difficult in Bohemia just then. Civil war had broken out in many areas of the Hapsburg Empire, including Bohemia, and Smetana (1824-84) became politically active in 1846. The installation of a repressive, dictatorial regime surely played a part in his decision to leave Bohemia in 1856, shortly after the composition of his G minor Piano Trio, to seek opportunities in Sweden.
In 1849, Smetana married Kateřina Kolářová, and they became the parents of four daughters in quick succession. The eldest of these, Bedřiška (her father’s namesake), showed early signs of musical precocity, just as her father had. He nicknamed her Fritzi and encouraged her inclinations to sing and play the piano, both of which she was doing with a marked degree of musical sensitivity by the time she was four.
The G minor Piano Trio was Smetana’s first great achievement as a composer, inspired by a specific event of tragedy. On June 9, 1854, the Smetanas’ second daughter, Gabriela, died, and on September 6, 1855, Bedřiška followed her to the grave. Thanks to her musical aptitude, her father had particularly adored her, and he was devastated by the loss. The Smetanas’ fourth daughter, Kateřina, had been born less than two weeks before Bedřiška died; she, too, would perish the following year. Only the third daughter, Žofie, would live a full life. What’s more, Smetana’s wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1855; she would live only until 1859. “Nothing can replace Fritzi,” Smetana wrote in his diary, “the angel whom death has stolen from us.” He immediately began writing his G minor Piano Trio, which he dedicated “in memory of our eldest child Bedřiška, whose rare musical talent gave us such delight; too early snatched from us by death at the age of 4 1/2 years.”
There is no mistaking the serious mien of this trio. All three of its movements are in the key of G minor, and the sections that unroll in the major mode do so out of the necessities of musical contrast without really doing much to change the somber mood. Falling intervals, especially the interval of the descending fifth, predominate in the themes, suggesting the sounds of weeping or at least sighs. Such a sinking theme is cried out, espressivo, right at the opening on the violin’s husky-toned G string; against this the cello soon intones a yearning theme in beautifully crafted counterpoint. Although the composer never revealed an explicit program through which this piece could be construed as a portrait of his departed daughter, he did once maintain that the second theme of the first movement alludes to a tune that Bedřiška particularly loved. The first movement is overwhelmingly intense in its emotion, but an elegiac spirit also peeks through. A brief solo passage for piano in the middle of the movement sounds strikingly Chopinesque, reminding the listener of Smetana-the-pianist’s early infatuation with that composer’s music as well as with the compositions of Liszt and Schumann. Chopin’s nobility is also echoed in an elegant theme introduced by the cello and quickly taken up by all three instruments before being transformed into the punchy coda.
The second movement is laid out as a scherzo with two trios. If Chopin had seemed a kindred soul in the first movement, Schumann would appear to have inspired the second. The writing achieves a luscious texture, and its dreamy quality spells Romantic music pure and simple.
The finale opens in bustling compound rhythm, with the strings energizing the texture further through occasional plucks of pizzicato. A gorgeous, reflective theme is introduced by the cello and then answered immediately by the other instruments, the piano embellishing it with Chopinesque figuration. Near the end, Smetana inserts a funereal section, a slow march that the piano punctuates with what seems the tolling of bells.
Despite the obvious emotion behind the piece and the skill Smetana displayed in working out his material, the Piano Trio was received coolly by critics at its premiere, in December 1855. Only when Liszt extolled the work, after hearing it at the Smetanas’ home during a visit to Prague the following year, did its fortunes change.
Encouraged by this, Smetana returned to his score and effected a number of revisions once he was installed in his new job in Göteborg, Sweden. He retouched it further prior to publication in 1880, and it is in this ultimate version that the work went on to become the repertory staple it is today.—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is longtime Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.