|Tchaikovsky in 1880|
Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor was written in commemorate his friend and mentor, Nikolai Rubinstein – and he dedicated it “to the memory of a great artist.”
This is a work I find difficult to find a definitive performance of. Of two that Peter Sirotin prefers, and two that have their own personal significance for me, none are really good recordings, and however powerful and intense their performances may be, they are, as live performances are susceptible to the whims of the day, not flawless. It is, however, that intensity, that giving oneself over to the magic and risk-taking of a live performance that make recordings like these more valuable, perhaps, than the perfection one can achieve in a studio with retakes and editing.
Even though this is a vast work, and time is short, I'm going to include two of these performances. Peter's choices included a video made in 1987 with legendary Russian performers filmed in concert: pianist Sviatoslav Richter, violinist Oleg Kagan, and cellist Natalia Gutman.
My own choice is one I've only just discovered while researching this article, a recording made in 1990 by a friend and former colleague of mine (we both taught at the University of Connecticut in the mid-1970s), pianist Joseph Villa, performing here with violinist William Preucil (also of the Cleveland Quartet) and cellist John Sharp, a recording that exists only because Joe, who died in 1995, had given a friend of his a cassette copy of it to listen to.
The trio is basically in two movements: the opening "Pezzo elegiaco" (Elegiac Piece), about 18 minutes long, followed by a set of eleven variations and a finale (with coda) that can last about a half-hour. While the first movement is a very Germanic sonata form, the variations are based on a much simpler folk-like theme that gives the movement a Russian tone and offer the contrasts of both slow movement, scherzo as well as finale. Some of these variations are "character pieces" that might have stepped out of Schumann's Carnaval - there's a music box; a salon waltz; a fugue, among others - and the finale would seem to be headed toward a brilliant finale when the first movement's opening theme comes back as if reality suddenly intrudes upon these pleasant memories. The piece ends with an emotional funeral march that dissolves into a slowly fading pulse.
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|Ellen Hughes in 2007 (*)|
However, in this post, let's look at the personal history behind Tchaikovsky's trio and how friendship and mentoring brought it into being.
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Instead of just going back to Tchaikovsky's beginnings (“Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7th, 1840 in...”), why not go back to the very roots of Russian music – or at least Russian music in the 19th Century? For the sake of understanding Tchaikovsky in context, it's important to realize that anyone who wanted to study music in Russia before 1860, roughly, would have to study with some visiting foreigner or go to Germany. The story is that Mikhail Glinka, considered the “Father of Russian Music,” traveled through Europe in the 1830s as a young man, listening to performances everywhere, meeting composers when he could and then spent five months in Berlin studying composition with a fellow named Siegfried Dehn. When Glinka had to return to Russia because of his father's health, he had to end his studies. Later, his friend, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, unable to travel, basically learned composition more or less by borrowing Glinka's notes.
It wasn't until the Russian Musical Society was founded in 1859 by pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein who had also studied in Germany, in fact could count Felix Mendelssohn as a mentor. Three years later, with financial support from an aunt of Tsar Alexander II, Rubinstein opened a music school in her palace, the first music school in Russia, intent on fostering native talent. This would later become the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, much to the amusement of at least one fashionable lady who thought the very idea of teaching music “in” Russian rather than in French or German was an “original idea” (insert appropriate emoticon for ironical-tone-of-voice here).
One of its first students was a low-ranking civil servant in the Department of Justice named Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky who studied composition with Rubinstein and theory with Nikolai Zaremba and who graduated in 1865, three years later.
|Nikolai & Anton Rubinstein|
Anton wrote that Nikolai, if he'd worked a little harder, could have been the better pianist. Nikolai, when asked why he didn't compose more music, said Anton “wrote enough for three.”
And yet as pianists they were very different performers: Anton was fiery, and was part of the Franz Liszt school of Romantic Virtuoso; Nikolai, on the other hand, was a more restrained performer, more in the line of Clara Schumann, generally regarded as the opposite (or antidote) to Liszt.
Emil von Sauer, one of Nikolai's students (he also later studied with Liszt), said Anton Rubinstein was the more impetuous performer but he could be inconsistent in his playing; however, “Nikolai never varied,” always the same in public or in private, always maintaining “the same standard of excellence.”
Though Tchaikovsky studied composition with Anton, it is brother Nikolai who became the leading creative force in Tchaikovsky's life.
There is an anecdote I remember hearing back in the '60s though I'm not sure if it's based on fact or is merely one of those legends that grow up to fill in the blanks of composers' lives, but apparently Nikolai had suggested a simple theme to Tchaikovsky as the subject for a few variations, asking him to bring what he'd written a few days later. Supposedly, Tchaikovsky came back with not five variations or even fifteen, but apparently fifty variations – all written within a few days.
Certainly, the “variation procedure” is one of Tchaikovsky's favorites – he seems to spin them, one after the other, almost effortlessly. Actually, it's a trait shared by many Russian composers, especially those of the Nationalist School (like the Mighty Handful or Russian Five) who based their musical style of folk-songs which do not lend themselves to development in the traditional Western European way of creating “musical mileage” as Beethoven or Brahms might do. But Tchaikovsky is much more adept at spinning out variants of his themes, folk-songs or not, with the same innate love of melodic embellishment one might find in works by Mozart or Schubert, a practice that was looked down upon by the Nationalists.
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Anton Rubinstein was something of an exotic artist in his day, a German-trained Russian musician with an international reputation: as he put it, “too German for the Russians, too Russian for the Germans, and to everyone a Jew.” Tchaikovsky, as his student, learned too much about German musical procedures rather than learning it, as the Nationalists did on their own, by studying the folk music of the Russian people, thus developing a truly Russian style. Curiously, Russian culture is a mash-up of folk-inspired art and old history focused on Moscow with a European surface, courtesy of Peter the Great and his new Imperial city of St. Petersburg, his “window on Europe.” Tchaikovsky could just as easily write a Germanic theme and develop it “Germanically” as he could use a Russian folk-song and spin endless variations on it: not enough to impress the Nationalists; still, European and American audiences would hear the last movement of his 1st Piano Concerto, say, and swear vodka-swilling Cossacks were breathing down their very backs. Tchaikovsky was constantly caught in the middle of this cultural tug-of-war between the Nationalists like Rimksy-Korsakov and the Cosmopolitans like the Rubinsteins.
And so Anton's idea of sending brother Nikolai and one of his best students off to Moscow was not just opening a branch office in the Old Capital: it was as much an effort to bring Cosmopolitan music and training into the very heart of a culture that looked toward the past.
It was not, however, all things rosy between Nikolai Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, and one particular event would challenge their relationship greatly.
Shortly after he'd completed his new piano concerto – the famous (if not overly-famous) Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor – Tchaikovsky visited Rubinstein and played it for him. Rubinstein, however, savaged it so badly, Tchaikovsky felt wounded not just by the criticism but by the vehemence in which it was delivered. The fact it was Christmas Eve may have had something to do with it, but it was clear, writing to his friend and patron Nadezhda von Meck about it three years later, the criticism still hurt.
Regardless, Tchaikovsky vowed to change not a note of his concerto – though he would later revise it three times – and he found another pianist to premiere it: Hans von Bülow took it on, gave it its world premiere in, rather unusually, Boston that October where problems in the performance (the trombones apparently came in wrong in the middle of the 1st movement and the audience could hear the pianist sing out quite audibly “the brass may go to hell”) did not deter the audience who called for the finale to be repeated (the critical reaction, on the other hand, was quite different).
When performed for the first time in Russia – in St. Petersburg – the pianist was a former student of Anton Rubinstein's and a professor at the Conservatory named Gustav Kross. According to Tchaikovsky, his performance was “an atrocious cacophony.” Small wonder one of the critics likened the new concerto to “the first pancake – a flop.” Were these critics reacting to the piece or to the performance? If nothing else, Tchaikovsky was getting a crash course in how to deal with critics.
As it turned out, Bülow soon dropped it from his repertoire. The Moscow premiere took place with one of Tchaikovsky's composition students, Sergei Taneyev, an excellent pianist who'd studied with Nikolai Rubinstein as the soloist, and none other than Nikolai Rubinstein himself on the podium. He had eventually changed his mind about the piece and subsequently played it often himself, especially while touring in Europe, helping to spread Tchaikovsky's fame.
But by the time the 2nd Piano Concerto was finished in March of 1880, Tchaikovsky was concerned about what Rubinstein's reaction might be this time. Even though he still made suggestions (and, in hindsight, many of them probably justified), Rubinstein was looking forward to playing it.
Unfortunately, before that could be finalized, Nikolai Rubinstein, while on tour in Paris, became ill with tuberculosis – and died on March 23rd, 1881.
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Tchaikovsky had been vacationing in Italy and had moved on to southern France when he received two telegrams, as he wrote to his brother Modeste on March 25th, 1881. The first informed him Nikolai Rubinstein was quite ill, his condition hopeless; the second one told him Rubinstein had died. Tchaikovsky left at once for Paris.
On the 28th, he wrote a long letter to his patron, Mme Nadezhda von Meck in which he described how his thoughts, following the funeral that morning, have turned to religious matters. He was now preparing to return to Moscow, accompanying the body of his friend.
|Nadezhda von Meck|
After returning to Moscow, he writes to Mme von Meck that he has declined the Directorship of the Moscow Conservatory, having been asked to replace Nikolai Rubinstein in the post. It would have been the best income he could imagine as a teacher, but it would also be the end of his creative life.
Shortly afterward, he left for his sister's country estate in Ukraine, his beloved Kamenka. She was ill and her husband was taking her to Switzerland for her health and so Tchaikovsky found himself, despite his concern for his sister's health, in a more enjoyable role – playing Uncle Petya to her children. He writes to his publisher, Jurgenson, “I have no inclination to compose. I wish you would commission something. Is there really nothing that you want? Some external impulse might reawaken my suspended activity. Perhaps I am getting old and all my songs are sung.”
Tchaikovsky had just observed his 41st birthday.
A few days later he writes again to both Mme von Meck and to Jurgenson that in his current frame of mind, his thoughts have turned to religious music and he has begun studying the old church music of the Russian Orthodox faith (which is actually more complicated than it would seem). He asks Jurgenson to send him certain collections and books that will help him. He describes himself as “gray, without inspiration or joy” but then recalls he'd been through similar periods “equally devoid of creative impulse” and survived.
In the meantime, he writes to Modeste about the difficulties he's finding in setting the Vespers service, how even the priests he talks to do not understand how the changeable parts of a given day's service are to be chosen. Jurgenson sends him a project – editing the liturgical works of Russian composer Dmitri Bortnyansky (1751-1825) whose 7th setting of the Cherubic Hymn is the one work of his best known in the West. Tchaikovsky thought a “complete edition,” while imposing, was “out of place in connection with a man of no great talent who has written a lot of rubbish and only about a dozen good things.” But, realizing his situation, he also noted “on the other hand there is nothing derogatory in my editing this rubbish for the sake of what I can earn. My pride, however, suffers from it.” It would prove, however, a difficult task to complete.
At the same time, he writes to the conductor Eduard Napravnik trying to arrange for the first performance of his new Festival Overture 1812, written in the fall of 1880, a work initially suggested by Nikolai Rubinstein. The original project was abandoned in the days following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II only 10 days before Rubinstein's death, and so now Tchaikovsky was looking for another occasion for his “occasional” piece. He described the work – and this, to the conductor he hoped would premiere it – as “of no great value and I shall not be at all surprised or hurt if you consider the style of the music unsuitable to a symphony concert.” It would eventually be premiered in the summer of 1882.
Rubinstein had called Tchaikovsky “a composer of genius” but still didn't care for some of the more modernist tendencies in his harmony and form (keep in mind, even as a pianist, he was more of a classicist than his wildly romantic brother, Anton). One of the few works that Rubinstein could totally endorse was the Serenade for Strings, composed in 1880, and one of Tchaikovsky's more neo-classical works, certainly by comparison to the next work he wrote, the 1812 Overture.
This often contradictory history between them did not keep Tchaikovsky from missing Rubinstein terribly, valuing him also as “one of the greatest virtuosi of the day” and one of the main props of his own creative life. Rubinstein had always been the best interpreter of his music, either as pianist or as conductor. In fact, one time, Rubinstein played Tchaikovsky's G Major Piano Sonata so well that even the composer “did not recognize it.” He knew that, with his music in Rubinstein's hands, he would experience “no disappointment.”
And now this champion was gone forever.
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In late summer, Tchaikovsky wrote to Taneyev that “I believe I might never write anything good again.” Taneyev was still hoping to convince him to come back to the Conservatory but Tchaikovsky declined (at least for now) and told him, “You, on the contrary, seem made to carry out Rubinstein's work.”
From the 1812 Overture in the fall of 1880 until September of 1881, he'd composed nothing. Even the atmosphere at Kamenka could not inspire him because he was constantly worried about the health of his absent sister. He struggled with his Bortnyansky edition – this “wishy-washy music” which made him “burn with rage.” Yet he eventually finished his setting of the liturgy (not to be confused with an earlier setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of 1878) – excerpts from the Vespers or All-Night Vigil – only to have it forbidden by the ecclesiastical authorities in Moscow where an archbishop described it “to be a Catholic service!”
The next day after informing Mme von Meck about this news, he left for Rome (did he see the irony, there?) where he attended a concert celebrating the 70th birthday of Franz Liszt whose music “leaves me cold. [His works] have more poetical intention than actual creative power, more color than form – despite external effectiveness, they are lacking in the deeper qualities.” Unlike Schumann, he continued, whose works, though they may have had their problems, Tchaikovsky preferred immensely.
Meanwhile, his new Violin Concerto – composed and published in 1878 and, like the 1st Piano Concerto, likewise on a rocky road trying to find a performer who'd play it – was finally given its first performance in Vienna on December 4th, 1881, a premiere which prompted Brahms' championing critic, Eduard Hanslick, to famously exclaim this was music that “stinks in the ear.”
As his patron, Nadezhda von Meck had hoped Tchaikovsky would provide her with a piano trio – for her “house trio,” musicians she's hired to play regularly for her and her guests and to teach her children their music lessons. This included a young pianist she'd picked up in Paris on her travels, a teen-ager named Claude Debussy who had just written her a piano trio of his own.
At the time – this would be October 26th, 1880, some five months after he'd completed his 2nd Piano Concerto – he'd told her that
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“I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me. My acoustic apparatus [!] is such that I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings. I cannot explain this physiological peculiarity; I simply state it as a fact. Piano and orchestra – that is quite another matter but... here we are dealing with two equal opponents. ...On the other hand, how unnatural is the union of three such individualities as the piano, the violin and the 'cello! Each loses something of its value. The warm and singing tone of the [strings] sounds limited beside that king of instruments, the piano [which] strives in vain to prove it can sing like its rivals. To my mind, the piano can be effective in only three situations: alone, in context with the orchestra, or as accompaniment, as the background of a picture. But a trio implies equality and a relationship and do these exist between stringed solo instruments and the piano? They do not; and this is the reason why there is always something artificial about a piano trio...”
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Now, almost 14 months later, Tchaikovsky writes in December 1881 to tell her “the beginning of [my new piano] trio is finished.”
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It might come as less of a surprise for those familiar with the new piano concerto he'd written for Nikolai Rubinstein since the slow movement contains long solo and duet passages for the concertmaster and principal cellist – this becomes a mini-piano-trio (or at times “triple concerto”) within the concerto when the pianist enters. (Listen here, with L'Orchestre de Paris conducted by Paavo Järvi [not Putin] and pianist Denis Matsuev, beginning at 7:23 to 12:46)
“In spite of this antipathy,” as he'd described it in his earlier letter, “I made up my mind to experiment with this combination which so far I have never attempted,” Tchaikovsky wrote from Rome with the surprising news. “Whether I shall carry it through, whether it will sound well, I do not know, but I should like to bring it to a happy termination.” He adds, after telling her he is only trying this to bring her some pleasure – since no one specifically asked him to write it, not even his publisher – that “I will not conceal from you that I have had to do some violence to my feelings before I could bring myself to express my musical ideas in a new and unaccustomed form,” this combination of piano with strings.
At the same time, he writes to his publisher, Jurgenson, shortly after the new year that things are going badly for him, musically: his two latest operas (The Maid of Orleans and Eugene Onyegin) have not achieved any new productions, the violinist he'd asked to play his Violin Concerto, Leopold Auer, is apparently warning other Russian violinists not to play the work, and his 2nd Concerto is not being taken up by any pianist (since Nikolai Rubinstein's death postponed the premiere). “But what makes me furious and hurts and mortifies me most” is that the Mariinsky Opera “which would not spend a penny on The Maid of Orleans has granted 30,000 rubles to mount Rimksy-Korsakov's [new opera], Snegourochka [“The Snow Maiden”]. Is it not equally unpleasant to you that 'our subject' has been taken away from us...? It is as though someone has forcibly torn away a piece of myself and offered it to the public in a new and brilliant setting. I could cry with mortification.”
Ten years earlier, he had written incidental music for Ostrovsky's play and had long hoped to write an opera based on it. Now, this dream would be impossible. It was a new wrinkle in an old rivalry.
His next letter, January 25th, nine days later, informed Mme von Meck that “the trio is finished... Now I can say with some conviction that the work is not bad.” Having written orchestral music all his creative life, the idea of writing chamber music (despite his earlier string quartets) was unfamiliar territory for him and he feared he may have “arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio instead of writing directly for my instruments.” He tried to avoid this, he adds, but wasn't sure he's succeeded.
One wonders what her young pianist, Claude Debussy, would have made of this work, had he seen it – or played it. He was employed by her only for the summers in 1880, 1881 and 1882, so it is quite likely he might have. Considering what Tchaikovsky thought of the 18-year-old Debussy's Danse bohemienne which she'd sent him in September, 1880 – “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity” – history has apparently not recorded young Monsieur Debussy's reaction to Tchaikovsky's Trio.
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Tchaikovsky had started the trio at some point in mid-December, 1881. By January 25th, 1882, he could tell her he'd completed it, and then, at the end of the month he sent a copy off to his publisher in Moscow.
In the accompanying letter, the composer explained “the Trio is dedicated to Nikolai Grigorievich Rubinstein.” (The official dedication is To the Memory of a Great Artist.) “It has a somewhat plaintive and funereal coloring” (to which I can only add, “ya think?). He also urged that Taneyev, who should be the pianist to first perform the work, “keep fairly accurately to my metronome markings.”
Tchaikovsky remained in Italy until April, returned to Moscow only briefly before moving on to Kamenka once again. In May, he wrote to Modeste how he was weeping because he had finished reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House, now faced with tearing himself away from all these characters and then talks of a new opera he is to write, Mazeppa, based on the Ukrainian folk hero (the pull of the Cosmopolitan answered by the pull of the Nationalist). He remained at Kamenka except for a brief visit to Moscow which only aggravated his dislike of the city, its public life and the social politics there. It wasn't long before he'd returned to Italy.
The Trio was read through in a private performance at the Moscow Conservatory on the first anniversary of Nikolai Rubinstein's death with Sergei Taneyev at the piano. The cellist was Wilhelm Fitzenhagen for whom Tchaikovsky composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme in 1876. The first public performance was held on October 30th where it was well received by the audience, less so by the critics.
Even if he hadn't died before then, Tchaikovsky would've been equally immune to yet another comment by Eduard Hanslick who heard the Trio the first time it was performed in Vienna: “the faces of the listeners almost expressed the wish that it should be also the last time… It belongs to the category of suicidal compositions, which kill themselves by their merciless length.”
The whole work is usually about 48-50 minutes long in performance, the second movement alone about a half-hour long. The composer sanctioned at least one substantial cut in the finale, itself one more variation, reducing the length by about 5 minutes.
It has been suggested that many of the second movement's variations – basically short “character pieces” – were inspired directly by pleasant memories of times spent with Rubinstein. Even the theme of the variations was supposedly something he'd heard while on a picnic with his mentor in the countryside, sung by nearby peasants. Tchaikovsky of course denied all these associations but given their often tumultuous history, his respect for Rubinstein the artist – the piano part is as challenging as any concerto – and the way his death affected him, any memories must surely have influenced so emotional a composer as Tchaikovsky, working at white heat.
Does it matter? No. Though it goes far to explain the unusually dramatic and elegiac nature of the music, considering its dedication.
|Tchaikovsky in 1892|
And while Rachmaninoff's work is clearly modeled on Tchaikovsky's trio, complete with a vast second movement set of variations, it is also... even longer...
It is interesting to contemplate, listening to Tchaikovsky's Trio, how music perpetuates itself, how Tchaikovsky, by championing Rachmaninoff, managed to carry on the role that one friend, one great artist, had had on his life.
It is just one of those magical connections we can find in this mystery we call Art.
- Dick Strawser
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(*) The photo of Ellen Hughes was taken in 2007 by Dan Gleiter of the Patriot-News.
All quotations from Tchaikovsky's letters taken from Modeste Tchaikovsky's edition, translated by Rosa Newmarch and published in 1973 by Vienna House (NY).