Thursday, August 20, 2020

When Words Fail, There Is Music: Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio and the Memory of a Friend

 "This week’s dose of great music features the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio which was written in the memory of his close friend, great Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.  This is one of Tchaikovsky’s most sincere works ranging from wistful melancholy and searing despair to ethereal lyricism and majestic vigor. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts

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When we consider the events of the past several months, watching the numbers of deaths from Covid19 climb daily, it's sometimes difficult to imagine the news is real. For those who have lost friends and family to the virus, a work like Tchaikovsky's Trio may prove cathartic. It is difficult for many of us to express our sense of loss in words, and so perhaps music can help bridge the gap, music that may cover a gamut of emotions from happy memories to deepest grief. 

Tchaikovsky in 1880
Nikolai Rubinstein had been one of Tchaikovsky's closest friends, at times his teacher, at other times his mentor, sometimes insufferable (as when he raged against how awful he thought his first piano concerto was) and sometimes an advocate who stood by him at the worst times of his life. They shared picnics with friends and late-night drinking bouts - and they made a great deal of music together. 

Tchaikovsky was shattered by news of Rubinstein's death in Paris in March of 1881 from tuberculosis. During December through the end of January, he composed his Piano Trio and then, after hearing a few private performances, made several revisions before it was officially premiered in October, 1882. 

The pianist in those performances was Sergei Taneyev, a student of Tchaikovsky's and a composer in his own right (you can hear the set of variations from his string quintet in an earlier post, here). When Tchaikovsky died in 1893 during a cholera epidemic, it was Taneyev who completed what had been left unfinished of his teacher's 3rd Piano Concerto.

This performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor was given by the members of the Mendelssohn Trio - Peter Sirotin, violin, Fiona Thompson, cello, and Ya-Ting Chang, piano - on July 19th, 2015, in memory of former Market Square Concerts Director, friend and mentor to many, Ellen Hughes. It was recorded at Market Square Church by Newman Stare. In this week's "dose," we'll hear just the first movement.

The trio is basically in two movements: the opening Pezzo elegiaco (Elegiac Piece), is about 18 minutes long, followed by a set of eleven variations and a finale (with coda) that can last about a half-hour. That would make the entire trio about 50 minutes long! And all of it written at white heat over a period of five weeks.

While the first movement is a very Germanic sonata form, fairly straight-forward, the variations are based on a much simpler folk-like theme that gives the movement a Russian tone (not that the music of the first movement isn't Russian at its very core) and offer various contrasts of both slow movement and 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; even a fugue, among others - and the finale would seem to be headed toward a brilliant conclusion 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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Nikolai Rubinstein
 In the winter of 1880-1881, Tchaikovsky had been vacationing in Italy, then moved on to southern France when he received two telegrams. 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 of March, 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. 

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.”   

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.

Tchaikovsky had just observed his 41st birthday.

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.”

And 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. 

But in October of 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote to her that 

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“I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this [request for a piano trio] 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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“In spite of this antipathy,” he writes later, “I made up my mind to experiment with this combination which so far I have never attempted. 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.

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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 And then, eleven years later, a 20-year-old composer whom Tchaikovsky had thought so highly of, a young man named Sergei Rachmaninoff who'd written a symphonic poem Tchaikovsky was looking forward to conducting, composed a Trio élégiaque dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky who had just died at the age of 53. Certainly one of Rachmaninoff's emotions concerned the loss of someone who could've been an important mentor in his life – perhaps like Nikolai Rubinstein had been in Tchaikovsky's.

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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