Dvořák, Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 21

Antonín Dvořák, 1841-1904

Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 21, 1875

Antonín DvořákDvořák’s earliest surviving Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 21 offers an opportunity for discovery. He wrote six piano trios all together. The first two were discarded; Dvořák deemed them unworthy for posterity. Of the four that remain, only the last is widely celebrated: the “Dumky” Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90. The third trio, in F minor, is dense and serious with Dvořák somewhat uncharacteristically striving towards a Germanic formalism. It is reminiscent of Brahms who was a friend, a champion of Dvořák’s music and, for a period, a musical influence. The second Piano Trio, in g minor, occasions a passing mention for its association with the death of Dvořák’s daughter and the inevitable comparison with Smetana’s trio. But the first Piano Trio in B-flat seems to be largely overlooked. This is a mistake, for it is an ample work, well crafted for piano trio showing Dvořák’s gifts for lyricism, color and vivid contrast within a fresh, natural style. It was written in 1875 when Dvořák was 34, three years before his first works published outside of Bohemia introduced him to the larger world.

The first movement opens with a shimmering piano figure over which a slow arpeggio in the violin steps up, floats down an octave and a half, and curls slightly upward. Twice it touches on the sixth degree of the scale, first in the upward step as a bright passing tone, second, at the end of the curl, pausing within the relative minor. Within this brief moment of spaciousness, color, graceful charm and a tinge of sorrow, Dvořák immediately reveals himself. The arpeggiated motive, key throughout the movement, twice repeats dreamily in the piano before the violin interrupts with a sudden new energy, the motive twice as fast and landing firmly on the dominant. The bristling announcement, perhaps of a lively dance, is another Dvořák signature. The contrast between repose and rhythmic drive steers this sonata through restless transitions, two lyrical themes, a motive-rich development and a radiant apotheosis of the introductory motive.

The Adagio molto e mesto is an elegiac reverie. Quietly, a wistful, reflection in g minor passes from solo piano to cello to violin as motion, texture and color slowly expand. The mood softens into a gentle plea. The piano introduces a new, hopeful theme in A major that blossoms into a duet for violin and cello. Elegy expands into reverie, full of longing. Slowly, an arc of gravity pulls the music back down into F minor and dark recall as fervent motion and countermelody sharpen into edges of tragedy. In waves, the music undulates between light and dark until an urgent cry in the violin restores the opening theme to its G minor home. It ends with an eerie transformation: augmented, the first theme slows and lengthens, colored with a strangely wan tonality, ending as if transfixed by ambiguity. The trio’s center of gravity seems to leave something unresolved.

The Allegretto scherzando illustrates additional traits of Dvořák’s unique style. With his penchant for idealized nationalistic expression particularly in dance forms, he often wrote alternatives to the traditional scherzo. Here, he provides a duple meter dance with offbeat accents and breaks strongly evoking the Bohemian polka. With a folk music cast, it roves from minor to relative major with a number of piquant leaps and chromaticisims. The stomping rhythm accelerates into a twirling mechanical motion with a sound in the piano like a music box. Fond of magical contrasts, Dvořák juxtaposes this jauntiness with a trio of tranquil lyricism in B major. Bright, flowing and heartfelt, it features wonderful part writing and recalls the uncomplicated charm of the first movement. The fluid “micro-shifts” between major and minor reflect both a national trait and Dvořák’s admiration of Schubert.

Dvořák closes with a rousing finale in a loosely sectional form with various but interrelated ideas. A mysterious minor-keyed introduction meanders through a first motive until it pounces whole-heartedly on a lusty theme bouncing along to the three-beat feel of a lilting 6/8 meter. The three instruments play a follow the leader game in canonic imitation. The introductory motive signals a scene change leading to a second theme whose dotted rhythm strongly emphasizes the two-beat march of 6/8’s split personality. Within a long stretch dominated by a darker impulse, Dvořák mixes all three components (mystery motive, three-beat lilt and dotted two-beat march), leading us to expect a return of the lusty theme. Instead, out of nowhere, the haunting adagio elegy suddenly reappears. Passing from cello to piano, it magically transforms with fresh color and bright harmonies. Lingering echoes eventually pass into a recapitulation of the main themes using accelerated rhythmic combinations of 2/4 and 6/8, and a further transformation of the mystery motive into happy laughter. The canonic imitation and the reprise of the cello lament from the second movement point right to Schubert’s trio in E-flat reflecting Dvořák’s affectionate study of a kindred spirit.

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