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Robert  Schumann
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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor, Op. 63

(for violin, cello and piano)
II. Mit Energie und Leidenschaft
II. Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch
III. Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung
IV. Mit Feuer
Composed in 1847, when Schumann was around 37 years old
30 minutes (approximately)

Robert Schumann, 1810-1856

Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor, Op. 63, 1847

Despite his frustrated and aborted attempts to become a concert pianist – he permanently injured his fingers in an overzealous attempt to practice using mechanical invention of his own faulty design – Schumann retained an instinctive and idiomatic genius as a composer for the instrument making him one of the most important of the central romantic composers for the piano. Schumann’s greatest music generally comprises his compositions involving the piano: the vast array of distinctive music for solo piano, art songs and the chamber works featuring the piano quintet, piano quartet and three piano trios. Of the three piano trios all composed between 1847 and 1851, the first in d minor is the most well known. As Schumann was the quintessential romantic composer, so this composition might well be regarded as one of the definitive romantic trios. The musical language is brooding, idiosyncratic and frequently tangential in the manner of Schumann’s multi-character musical fairy tales. The piano writing definitely occupies a mid-18th century fantastical niche with the entire ensemble sometimes swelling into symphonic proportions. While there is a definite classical structure to the work including a four-movement plan and great deal of clever craftsmanship in the scherzo, the trio is quite individualistic. It has been stated that Schumann was the first to interject the formally established piano trio with a strongly personal style.

The massive opening movement is built from a searching chromatic theme, restless and unresolved as it tumbles its way through canonic imitations, rumbling figurations and rhythmic feints. This is music that follows a long, subtle narrative without the strongly articulated cadences of the crisp classical style. A turbulent passage of striding chords makes way into a second, literally uplifting theme that still moves with indefinite, undulating gestures, another leg in the romantic’s unending wanderlust. The exposition rounds out with the first theme briefly transformed into a major tonality, a renewed sense that this probing journey might be making progress after all. Schumann free intermixes all these elements in the development along with a brand new theme that appears at first like a strange apparition in distant soft colors, draws briefly closer with greater majesty, but ultimately is swallowed up by the prevailing, irresolute gloom.

The scherzo is deceptively simple in its musical means, captivating in its effect. The strings join in unison to play a game of follow-the-leader with the piano moving up and down simple scale passages in canonic imitation. A dotted rhythm with an intermittent delirious swirl maintains the momentum of music that is less than monothematic, it is essentially non-thematic: a narrative of vectors and gestures. The entertainment intensifies through imitations in contrary motion and the delightful irony that while the strings join as one, the lone pianist splits in two with each hand becoming a separate, divergent part. Astonishingly, the trio only continues this minimalist play providing a contrast through a smooth rather than dotted rhythm and the split of the string unison into separate musical threads.

The third, slow movement is the definite center of gravity. Intimate, lonely, vulnerable, a protracted lament gives the appearance of a violin sonata. Entering in its higher register, the cello softly joins in aching reply then intertwining conversation with gentle, long lines, a pervasive aspect of the entire trio. The music gains momentum as the duet soars to brighter prospects which, alas, prove only fleeting. The lament returns, darkening into tragedy, dirge and devastation. The music hangs, dejected on an unresolved cadence.

Schumann resolves this lugubrious standstill with a bright, high-spirited romp of colorful characters in a bold march of courage, triumph and orchestral textures. This multi-faceted parade is a Schumann specialty. In this case, he is particularly effective in crafting an organic whole using rich thematic variations that all derive from the initial material. In spite of (or precisely because of) the erstwhile angst, the music steadily builds to a glorious ending that, like other Schumann conclusions, may propel you to your feet with an energetic shout of glory. The composite work is a definitive study in bi-polarity, perhaps a personal reflection of Schumann’s own soul.