Though the piano trio—meaning the ensemble of violin, cello, and piano—had been a popular medium in Western Europe since the time of Haydn and Mozart, it had failed to take root in Russia during the 19th century. When, in 1880, Tchaikovsky’s evasive patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, urged him to write a piece for her resident trio, Tchaikovsky declined. “There is no tonal blend,” he protested in a letter to her, “indeed the piano cannot blend with the rest, having an elasticity of tone that separates from any other body of sound. . . . To my mind, the piano can be effective in only three situations: (1) alone, (2) in a contest with the orchestra, (3) as accompaniment, i.e. the background of a picture.” His objection rings hollow. His evasion probably had more to do with his being occupied plotting ideas for two operas (Vanka the Bartender, which he soberly abandoned, and Mazeppa, which he completed three years later); or perhaps it resulted from his jealousy concerning Mme. von Meck’s house pianist, whom he viewed as a rival protégé—a brilliant Parisian teenager named Claude Debussy.
Still, Mme. von Meck had planted the seed of an idea, and it germinated. Several months later, Tchaikovsky (1840-93) was saddened by the death of Nicolai Rubinstein. As a teacher, pianist, conductor, and conservatory administrator, Rubinstein had loomed as a monumental presence in Russian musical life. Tchaikovsky resolved to commemorate him by writing a composition with a piano part so virtuosic that it would have been worthy of Rubinstein’s keyboard prowess. Perhaps the fact that Rubinstein had composed five piano trios helped focus Tchaikovsky’s thoughts on the medium he would apply to this enterprise.
“Do you remember that you once counseled me to write a trio for piano, violin, and cello,” Tchaikovsky wrote to Mme. Von Meck in late 1881, “and do you remember my reply in which I openly declared to you my antipathy for this combination of instruments? Now suddenly, despite this antipathy, I have conceived the idea of testing myself in this sort of music, which so far I have not touched. I have already written the beginning of a trio. Whether I will finish it, whether it will come out successfully, I do not know, but I would very much wish to bring what I have begun to a successful conclusion.” This he did, and quickly, in time to be unveiled on the precise anniversary of Rubinstein’s death.
It proved to be an ambitious piece; though cast in only two movements, the Trio takes nearly fifty minutes to perform. Tchaikovsky’s musician-colleagues were unstinting in their praise, though few failed to remark on the work’s considerable duration. The first movement is an elegy in which three highly expressive melodies unroll within a free adaptation of a classic sonata form. His memory is also recalled in the second movement, an enormous theme-and-variations structure growing out of a melody whose folk-like character would have pleased Rubenstein. The opening variations proceed predictably, with the second turning the duple-time theme into a triple-time waltz and the fourth transposing it into the minor key. The fifth offers a charming music-box effect high on the piano keyboard before giving way to a spacious waltz (a Tchaikovsky specialty) and, in the seventh variation, an expanded texture that seems almost symphonic. The optional fugue follows, full of octave work for the pianist. The ninth variation reflects muted introspection, the tenth is a buoyant mazurka (again stressing the piano), and the eleventh serves to recapitulate the theme in its original form, though with an altered accompaniment.
A final exploration of the possibilities of variation form comes in the concluding section, so extensive that some commentators consider it an independent movement. The composer appears to have held on to the conception of this as a two-movement Trio, although his revisions of April 1882 make clear that he considered the second movement to be subdivided into two clearly demarcated sections. In this final segment of the work Tchaikovsky employs his variations theme as the second subject of a sonata-form finale. The section is worked out according to classic procedures before finally fading away in a funereal recall of the opening movement.
For Russian composers, Tchaikovsky’s Trio linked its genre to the commemoration of musical luminaries. In 1894, Rachmaninoff dedicated his D minor Trio élégiaque to the memory of Tchaikovsky, and Anton Arensky composed his Trio No. 1 as a tribute to the departed cellist Karl Davidov. A half-century later, Dmitri Shostakovich memorialized the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky through his E minor Piano Trio. Tchaikovsky’s Trio had fulfilled its intent supremely, both as a memorial to a specific “great artist” and as the wellspring for ensuing chamber music legacies.
—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is the 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.
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