Dvořák, Piano Trio No. 3 in f minor, Op. 65

March 22, 2009

Antonín Dvořák, 1841-1904

Piano Trio No. 3 in f-minor, Op. 65, 1883

Antonín DvořákMany regard Dvořák's Piano Trio No. 3 in f-minor as a milestone. It is uncharacteristically serious, stormy and fraught with tragic conflict, unusual for a man generally regarded as sanguine, uncomplicated and most un-neurotic. It is supposed that Dvořák was venting his grief after recently losing his mother. But the trio seems to have arisen from another crisis as well: the pleading of friends and colleagues to move beyond his obsession with folk-oriented Slavic nationalism in music, to achieve a more cosmopolitan European style and a reputation beyond provincialism. Yet a third aspect of this turning point was surely Dvořák's "natural" development: because of or simply simultaneous with these other events, Dvořák, at forty-two, achieved a new level of maturity as a composer. With the first international success of his Slavonic Dances a few years behind him and his fateful trip to America still a decade away, Dvořák produced his first complex chamber music masterwork, a stunning epic that seemed to gather all these challenges into a forceful amalgam.

For a number of years, Dvořák received support, mentorship and inspiration from Brahms who was seven years his senior. The Piano Trio in f minor has been called Dvořák's most "Brahmsian" work. Yet both composers worked contemporaneously turning out trios, piano and string quartets neck and neck. It is possible that influence passed in both directions and that they simply shared a musical culture of time and place, the Viennese style being a hybrid of Austrian, Hungarian and Bohemian origins since Haydn's early years. Regardless, Dvořák's third piano trio is a magnificent work, itself a hybrid of "European" classicism, potent arch-Romanticism, Slavic nationalism as well as the unique musical personality of Dvořák himself.

The first movement Allegro is an epic sonata, elegiac with its complexity of moods, its stages of realization from shock and restless agony to bright, aching nostalgia and supplication. Fleeting moments of shining triumph are soon swallowed by despair. A mighty contest of moods inflames this drama with roiling struggle, hope, exhaustion and finality. The part-writing is dense and occasionally orchestral (particularly with the piano at full bore), the dynamic range huge, the gestures sweeping, and yet, by turns soft and shining as well. The outer movements are Dvořák's most "Brahmsian", but his sense of color and ever changing rhythmic subtlety betrays another of his great and early idols: Franz Schubert. The dark themes are strongly Slavic with their rhythms and melodic intervals while the bright ones are lyrical, more universal in their haunting simplicity. As elsewhere in the trio, the multitude of themes is unified by a variety of underlying kindred relationships suggesting a process of thematic variation, another technique ascribed particularly to Brahms and Liszt.

The Allegretto grazioso is the scherzo, a masterful construction like nearly all of Dvořák's chamber dance movements. Written in 2/4 with heavy accents and strong cross-rhythms created by subdividing the pulse into both two's and three's (piano against strings), this is one of Dvořák's many examples of the Furiant, a bold and fiery Bohemian dance with a pronounced Slavic character. The first part of the scherzo form normally comprises two reprises, each repeated. Dvořák uses no repeats; instead, he thoroughly composes each section to emulate the effect of a repeat while delicately lacing the apparent recurrence with deliciously subtle variation. The main theme begins in the piano, grows in swagger and passes to the strings while the piano pounds out gigantic chords for a bravado march of huge, triumphant strides, like Lawrence of Arabia majestically riding across the vast expanse. The cross-rhythms reappear with string and piano roles reversed as a smoldering chromatic descent with decrescendo disappearing on the horizon. The contrasting trio soothes and literally uplifts with a major tonality and musical gestures that rise and float in direct opposition to the downward foot stomping of the muscular scherzo. Dvořák smooths the joints between the normally apparent sectional divisions of scherzo and trio with magical transitions that reveal, once again, deep organic relationships (primarily rhythmic) between the two ostensibly disparate themes.

The slow movement is the true heart of the trio as the wild, conflicted energies of the first two movements settle into an elegy of supreme grace and radiant affection, perhaps a sensitive man tenderly recalling his departed mother without struggle or remorse, simply love. Dvořák blends majesty and sorrow, exquisitely long and flowing sequences with nursery rhymes, swells of nostalgia sinking again into wistful but reverent sadness. A soaring melody in the violin rises like a haunting swan song, a disembodied spirit carried aloft by an angel to a forever inaccessible oblivion. This adagio is surely some kind of final goodbye in mood if not literally in a programmatic sense.

The finale begins with a powerful return of energetic darkness, a combination of sonata and rondo forms with the rhythmic ferocity of the furiant and its thematic variation as a softer, swaying waltz in a conflicted swirl that some have likened to Brahms' famous "Gypsy" finale from his Piano Quartet in g minor written many years earlier. Back are the heavy textures, the daunting power of the galvanized piano trio and a driving forward momentum broken only fleetingly by feeble pleas. But the ending holds a few surprises: a sudden recall of the first movement's opening theme and a recasting of the rondo's sharp refrain into yet another lovely variation recalling the sublime slow movement. As if the spell of the entire trio had somehow broken, the theme permutes one last time into a dashing flourish, vibrant in F Major with a fresh vitality finally and cathartically restored.

© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion. All rights reserved.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.