Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) Piano Trio Op. 70 No. 1 ‘The Ghost’
Allegro con brio – Largo assai – Presto
1808 was the year of the fifth and sixth symphonies, the wonderful Choral Fantasia and the two Opus 70 Piano Trios. Beethoven had successfully conquered the personal crisis caused by his deafness, and the music of that year exudes confidence. This trio has the ridiculous English soubriquet of ‘the Ghost’ based on a mistranslation of the German word Geister, which is more accurately translated as ‘spirit’. In any event it only refers to the central movement.
Apart from three pot-boilers, composed for financial rather than artistic reasons, the two Opus 70 Piano Trios were the first that Beethoven had completed since the Opus 1 set, back in 1795. Technically the music is very demanding and therefore unsuitable for ordinary amateur performers. Beethoven was aiming for a different market to Mozart and Haydn, whose trios were intended to be played at home.
The opening theme is boldly stated by all three instruments in octaves; the second is a lyrical theme on the cello. The development section features an unusual device where the composer combines the second bar of the second subject with the first bar of the first subject. The effect is electric. Tchaikovsky tried the same idea at least fifty times but was never able to repeat Beethoven’s success.
The slow movement is one of Beethoven’s saddest. The piano plays a tremolo which gives a feeling of mystery and despair, hence the title of the trio. Unusually for Beethoven the music gets progressively more melancholy. There are only three movements. The finale is a delightful romp.
Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949) - Trio Baladico in D minor Op.27
Andante tragico - Piu mosso quasi doppio movimento Allegro burlesco quasi scherzo Tempo dell’andante tragico - Allegro - Andante
Classical Music entered a crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century; a crisis that has never been resolved. The previous century had seen the age of Romanticism, but as 1900 approached, the great Romantic composers were dying out - Tchaikovsky 1893, Brahms 1897, Verdi 1901, Dvořák 1904 and Grieg 1907. Where was serious music going? Some countries didn’t seem to have a problem. In France, Faure’s Romanticism gave way to the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. In Italy, Puccini seemed to take over where Verdi had left off. Other composers such as Mahler and Richard Strauss continued to compose in the Romantic tradition.
But the death of Dvořák left a gaping hole in Czech musical life, and subsequent Czech and Slovak composers have struggled to be recognised outside their own countries. Janáček is an exception, but he was born in 1854.
Novák was the son of a doctor who died young. He read law and philosophy at university, but he also studied music, and it was one of his teachers, Antonin Dvořák, who persuaded him to become a full-time musician. From his thirties until his retirement in 1939 he was the leading academic in Czechoslovak music. He was a difficult man and had many quarrels, but he was also a very principled individual and had a very good Second World War, in which he showed considerable personal courage in standing up to the Nazis at every available opportunity.
Novák seems to have written in almost every possible style, but his hero was Johannes Brahms, and that seems to be the main influence on this Trio. It is subtitled quasi una ballata (like a ballad) and is in four short movements played without a break. Oddly enough, because it is rarely heard outside the Czech and Slovak republics, it had quite an influence on British composers, being the forerunner of many English fantasy sonatas trios and quartets, which feature a main motif which permeates a number of movements played without a break. Like the English fantasy pieces, the movements have exotic titles. For those of you who don’t speak Italian Doppio means double.
The work dates from 1902; some critics think there is a hidden story to the trio, something autobiographical perhaps. It is certainly very emotional and intense. It is cyclical in the sense that not only is there a leitmotif permeating the music but also that it ends where it begins.
It is an interesting example of the dilemma twentieth century composers had before the advent of the avant-garde Stravinsky. Whether Novák solves that dilemma I leave to the listener.
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) - Piano Trio Number No. 4 ‘Dumky’ in E minor
Lento maestoso, E minor - Poco adagio, C sharp minor - Andante, A major
Andante moderato, D minor - Allegro, E flat major - Lento maestoso, C minor
You only have to read the titles of the movements to realise that this is a remarkable work. Dumka is a Russian word meaning “a passing thought”. It became the name of a Ukrainian dance characterised by alternate slow and fast sections. We tend to think of Dvořák not as intellectual but as a remarkable genius who could compose beautiful music at the drop of a hat. Nobody is better than he in creating a perfect synthesis of the Czech folk music idiom and Classical music. This trio composed in 1891 is full of wonderful tunes, and the best way to listen to it is to sit back and wallow in the glorious sound. But there is a formidable intellect in evidence.
The six movements are not isolated from each other. Each of the first three contains the indication ‘attaca subito’ and they are linked by key.
The first movement starts in E minor but ends in C sharp minor, which is the key of the second movement. The third is in A the sub-median of C sharp minor (how Schubert would have approved).
The fourth is the most famous, a magnificent tune superbly arranged, or to put it a little more precisely it features ‘a melancholy theme heard in the cello over an ostinato progression in the piano part, and below the monotonous quavers of the violin, bringing with it an exquisite sense of eventide calm.’ These are the words of Professor Otokar Sourek, a great Dvořák scholar.
He described the whole work as follows;
‘The Dumky, even if it is not distinguished by the unity of thought and structure expected in a serious chamber work, is full of charm, with a touch of simplicity of the folk-song. The tone colour, which varies with each Dumka, reveals everywhere the great master of instrumental technique. The cello is very prominent throughout, its full rich tones according remarkably well with the mood of the work.’