|The Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio (in that order)|
But this time, it's not (for once) the “Dumky” Trio, his 4th Piano Trio – and the difference between that popular one and this one, his 3rd Piano Trio in F Minor, reminds me of a quote which might prove helpful to an audience today listening to music composed 135 years ago in what we no doubt think “a simpler time”:
“Life beats down and crushes the soul
and art reminds you that you have one.”
If you're like many people this past month, afraid to turn the TV set on to see the latest Special News Report or another political ad (at least those are done for a while) or even catch the weather forecast for fear of hearing the S-Word (they're already talking about “Wind Chill”), much less deal with another grim, rainy day, music – or any art – can be a chance to “get away from it all,” whether it's called entertainment or escapism.
But art can also be cathartic, an emotional journey not always guaranteed a happy ending (think how “America's Favorite Novel,” To Kill a Mockingbird, still ends tragically yet with a gentle ray of hope) but ultimately we feel we've gone somewhere and are, if only for the moment, better for it.
In a sense, something like Dvořák's F Minor Trio, listening to it on a purely “surface” level, can provide us with a variety of contrasts – dramatic, lyrical, light-hearted, tragic – that might reflect our immediate situation, despite having been written 135 years ago. Whatever was going through the composer's mind at the time is still something that can reach us today, if we let it, without even knowing what it was the composer was thinking: it is enough for the performers to follow the directions given them in the score, this system of symbols that somehow translates thought into sound, and we, absorbing this sound and processing it however we might, find solace, inspiration, enlightenment, comfort and, yes, even simply entertainment.
Generally, the idea of a piano trio or a string quartet or a symphony is a “multi-movement work” (usually four) in a particular pattern which reflects a variety of contrasts with certain prescribed ideas about form and structure (which are not necessarily the same thing) in which an opening “sonata-form” movement is followed by two or three contrasting movements before ending with some sense of resolution.
A listener builds up expectations and very often reacts to the music – or to the composer or performers – depending on how those expectations are met. Perhaps we enjoy this piece because “that's how I thought it would go” or maybe we appreciate that one because “that wasn't how I thought it would go.” Within that potential framework, whether we think of it as a formula or not, there are an imponderable number of possible solutions: if there weren't, why do people still read novels? Or sing love songs?
Dvořák's F Minor Trio is in four movements, opening with a dramatic “sonata form” followed by a lighter dance-like movement as a “scherzo,” the contrasting emotional center of the piece in the heart-breaking slow movement, before plunging us back into the drama of the opening before it all resolves with a few surprises before we reach the end.
As Peter Sirotin said in a Facebook post, “Listening to the Dvořák F Minor piano trio is a lot like listening to an older friend’s fascinating life story over a cup of hot chocolate.”
Here is a live performance from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with violinist Benjamin Beilman, cellist Julie Albers, and pianist Gilbert Kalish:
20141023 Dvorak Trio in F minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op 65 from The Chamber Music Society on Vimeo.
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Usually, when a piano trio plays Dvořák, it'll be the ever-popular, tuneful and toe-tapping “Dumky” Trio, more a collection of six very similar dances than an over-all cohesive structure from beginning to end like the F Minor Trio (which doesn't have a catchy nickname). Both piano trios, they're really not comparable works, and while there's nothing wrong with a collection of dances whose sole concern might be to leave the audience smiling, someone looking for a little more “substance” in their music might find them lacking. Perhaps the problem is how frequently it's performed, compared to the F Minor, which most musicians will agree is the “better” piece if one cares to venture into the realm of argument whether an intellectually stimulating work like, say, a symphony, is a better piece of music than, say, a Strauss waltz which may be more popular and more people can hum along with it?
Looking for a recording to include in this post, I went through the usual bevy of performances and recording levels like an old hand at speed-dating, when I found this one, a recent post from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I don't know how many times I've heard the “Dumky” Trio live-in-concert since I first heard it as a high school student, but when I lived in New York City in the late-70s, a pianist-friend suggested we go to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to hear some friends of hers play, as she put it, “not the Dumky.” They were doing Dvořák's F Minor which I'd never heard before. The pianist was Gilbert Kalish! (Both he and I were younger, then, but hey...)
That was 1978 or '79 – and that was the last time I ever heard it live-in-concert...
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Usually, when writing about Dvořák's music, there are a few different tacks one can take: his stay in America; his folk-inspired music; his searching for a musical voice that would create a Czech national style.
This work doesn't fit in with any of those. There may be Dvořák-sounding turns-of-phrase that resemble Czech folk music (or do we, who probably know nothing about Czech folk music, recognize it only because we've heard it in Dvořák's music?), especially in the 2nd movement, and it was written ten years before he went to live and teach (and compose) in New York City. In his early career, he was an amateur composer trying to make a living as a theater orchestra player (and a violist, at that) who was trying to figure out “how to break into the market.” For a while, he imitated the German Wagner, having played in an orchestra that Wagner came to town to conduct in an all-Wagner program of popular opera excerpts. When that didn't work out (Wagner being not a very good model for someone who also wanted to write symphonies), he turned to the other major composer of the day, Wagner's antithesis, Johannes Brahms in Vienna.
That, at least, bore fruit: in 1874, submitting a variety of works for the Austrian State Prize, his music sparked the interest of one of the judges, Johannes Brahms, who thought it pretty good. Eventually, he would suggest Dvořák to his own publisher and he also suggested, if he wanted to make some money, he should write a bunch of folk-inspired dances for piano duet, like those “Hungarian Dances” of his that, along with something known as “Brahms' Lullaby,” made him a rich man (no, he didn't earn his money from his symphonies and chamber music). Dvořák took his advice, wrote his “Slavonic Dances” and before long not only was he making money as a composer, he was gaining a wider audience beyond his native Bohemia.
A quick aside about politics in the late-19th Century: Vienna was the capital of Austria, the heart of a vast empire that stretched from Prague in the northwest to the Balkans in the southeast. It encompassed people who were ethnically Bohemian, Slovakian, Hungarian, Polish, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, and Serbian, among others, to the point the German-speaking Austrians were a minority in their own Empire. In 1867, the government was forced to accept a political and ethnic compromise with the Hungarian province for a “dual monarchy” which turned Austria into the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” even though the Austrian emperor was also the King of Hungary. Yes, Brahms was a German immigrant originally from Hamburg in the North, but at least he was culturally a German and therefore more easily assimilated into the Austrian idea of German-ness.
Anyway, Bohemia, despite its rich history and its beautiful capital city of Prague, was full of Czech people who were Slavic, and to a nationalist German, therefore, inferior (as they also regarded the Jews and anybody else who was not a German-speaking Christian). When Dvořák found a champion in the conductor Hans Richter who wanted to perform his new 6th Symphony in Vienna in 1880, the orchestra refused: it was purely a matter of racial prejudice!
Curiously, despite the support of musicians like Brahms, Richter, and Josef Joachim, Dvořák found fame more easily in London, where Richter finally performed the 6th Symphony and where a London orchestra commissioned him to write his 7th Symphony, the D Minor, which was premiered there in 1885. His fame was greater in America than in the capital of his own country, and he was hired as the director of the National Conservatory in New York in 1893, a position that would never have been offered him in Vienna. But that's for the future.
Meanwhile, there's this Piano Trio which was written in 1883 in Prague. He had won Brahms' admiration, and was now a respected composer, as far as Prague was concerned. When he applied for that Austrian Stipend in 1874, he lived in a flat shared with five other men, one of whom owned a small “spinet” piano which, when time and everybody's schedules allowed, he could use when he composed. Things had changed.
Other things happened, of course: while he had gotten married and his family began to grow, his mother had died in 1882 and he was watching the slow deterioration of the greatest Czech composer of the day, Bedřich Smetana, who, after having gone deaf, slowly slipped into what we would now call dementia. Though there was a brief period of creative activity in 1882 that lasted for about a year, by October of 1883, his behavior at a private reception “disturbed his friends” (Dvořák was there) and by early-1884, the Hero of Czech Music was often incoherent and violent. Not knowing what else to do, his family placed him in a lunatic asylum where, three weeks later, he died at the age of 60.
It is impossible to ignore the impact something like this might have had on the newly successful Dvořák, then 44, looking up to his idol and sometime mentor and watching all this unfold. And with the death of his mother still fairly fresh in his memory, it is not impossible to imagine his emotional response to this loss. (Remember that Johannes Brahms wrote his Horn Trio as a direct response to his own mother's death and the soprano solo in his German Requiem was supposedly added to the already finished work as a memorial to her.)
Did either of these losses – one past, another pending – influence the nature of the F Minor Trio or even directly inspire the slow movement, the work's emotional core? It's impossible to say, but composers don't work in a vacuum. And whatever someone might say about keeping reality separate from ones creativity, don't forget when Dvořák returned home from New York and heard of the death of his first love, he inserted a touching, indeed heart-wrenching farewell to her at the very end of the Cello Concerto he had just completed.
Indeed, whatever the burden, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”
– Dick Strawser