DVOŘÁK Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 74
SCHUMANN Trio No. 2 in F Major for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Opus 80
BRAHMS Quintet in F Minor for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Opus 34


Notes on the program by Richard E. Rodda

Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 74

Born September 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904 in Prague

Composed in 1887.
Premièred on March 30, 1887 in Prague by violinists Karel Ondrícek and Jan Buchal and violist Jaroslav Stasny.

By 1886, after his early years of disappointment, poverty, and struggle, Antonín Dvořák had become one of the leading composers in the world. That summer, submitting to the regular pestering of his publisher, Fritz Simrock, he completed a sequel (for piano duet) to the wildly successful set of Slavonic Dances of 1878, and then set out on a concert tour, his fifth, of Great Britain. Dvořák was easily the most revered musician in England since Mendelssohn, and several important cities vied for the privilege of premiering his oratorio St. Ludmila. Leeds won the honor, and he conducted the first performance of the work there on October 15th. He returned to Prague three weeks later, spent an arduous two months orchestrating the new set of Slavonic Dances, and then turned to less strenuous projects.

Living at the same address as Dvořák during the winter of 1887 was a chemistry student and amateur violinist named Josef Kruis. Composer and chemist struck up a friendship, and in the space of just one week (January 7-14), Dvořák composed a trio for Kruis and the young man’s teacher, Jan Pelikán, a violinist with the Prague National Theatre Orchestra, and himself as violist. (Dvořák had played viola in the National Orchestra many years before.) This Terzetto, Op. 74 proved too difficult for Kruis’ limited technique, however, so the following week Dvořák wrote a simpler set of four Bagatelles for two violins and viola, which he shortly thereafter arranged for violin and piano as the Four Romantic Pieces, Op. 75. Both works were first played publicly in Prague on March 30th. Simrock, who constantly badgered Dvořák to write short, easily salable works in the manner of the Slavonic Dances (from which the publisher got very rich), quickly snapped up the Terzetto and the Romantic Pieces, and issued them later that year.

The Terzetto opens with a lyrical movement of quiet melancholy that Dvořák labeled “Introduction,” and which leads through a series of harmonic peregrinations directly to the Larghetto, a warmly emotional instrumental song which becomes more rhythmically animated in its middle regions. The Scherzo proper makes use of the vivacious Bohemian dance mannerisms that Dvořák favored in many of the works of his maturity, while the movement’s central trio is in the gentler style of the waltz-like Ländler. The finale is a set of variations on a harmonically mischievous theme that courses through sections in both slow and fast tempos before ending with a lively dash to the close.

Trio No. 2 in F Major for Piano, Violin and Cello, Opus 80

Born June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856, in Endenich, near Bonn

Composed in 1847.

Given Schumann’s disposition for veering in and out of depression bordering on mental instability for most of his adult life, it is surprising that he not only weathered the difficult events of 1847-1849 well, but even experienced one of his most productive creative surges during that time. The beginning of the year 1847 found Robert and Clara on tour in Bohemia and Germany, she igniting unbridled acclaim for her sterling pianism, he serving most of the time as the husband of the star performer. Robert received some notoriety when Clara played his Piano Concerto at several stops with considerable success, but he completely botched a performance of his oratorio Paradise and the Peri when he tried to conduct it in Berlin. There Clara met and befriended Fanny Mendelssohn, the composer’s gifted sister, and seriously considered relocating to Berlin, but Schumann was unable to arrange a situation, and the couple returned reluctantly to their home in Dresden in March. Robert busied himself with the composition of the opera Genoveva, but its progress was interrupted by the distressing news that Fanny had suddenly died in Berlin on May 14th. Only a month later, the Schumanns’ sixteen-month-old son Emil expired after a sickly infancy, but the greatest shock of the year came with the unexpected death of Mendelssohn himself on November 4, 1847.

Schumann attended the funeral in Berlin, and left a description of his friend’s body (“the noble corpse — his forehead — his mouth — surrounded by a smile — he resembles a glorious warrior, like a victor ...”); he talked incessantly of Mendelssohn for months. In addition to these personal griefs, political insurrection was erupting throughout Germany in 1848, and Dresden was one of its epicenters. Open rebellion exploded in the streets of the city on May 3, 1849 (Richard Wagner, then conductor at the opera house, was among the leaders, and was exiled from Germany for his part in the uprising), and Schumann fled to the country with Clara and their children. The rebellion was soon quelled, and Schumann returned to Dresden after having composed some small pieces celebrating the republican spirit.

Despite the turmoil and sadness of those years, Schumann enjoyed one of the most fertile periods of his life between 1847 and 1849. “I have never been more active or happy in my art,” he wrote. His first two piano trios were both composed in 1847 (he returned to the genre one final time in 1851) in a burst of concentrated creative activity that recalled the astonishing chamber-music frenzy of 1842, which yielded the three String Quartets, Op. 41, the Piano Quintet, Op. 44, the Piano Quartet, Op. 47 and the Phantasiestücke for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 88 in a few months. The Second Trio, in F major, was composed between August and October, just before the Schumanns were stunned by the death of Felix Mendelssohn.

The opening movement of the F major Trio, a large and carefully worked-out sonata form, begins with a powerful summoning chord and a broadly striding main theme given by the strings in unison. The gentler second subject, in full chordal texture, is initiated by the piano. The development section deals with the principal subject and a descending step-wise motive which was used as the closing theme of the exposition. A complete recapitulation and a quick-tempo coda based on the descending motive round out the first movement.

The second movement (marked “with tender expression”) is a richly textured variations-fantasy on the complementary themes introduced simultaneously at the beginning: a phrase in the cello that ascends through an arch-shape, and a free mirror-image melody — falling, then rising — in the violin. The third movement eschews the traditional scherzo in favor of a leisurely intermezzo with trio, a formal device that came to be greatly favored by Brahms. The finale grows organically and without strong formal demarcations from two elements stated at the outset: the rising scale motive given in short notes by the cello in the third measure; and the short-phrased theme with dotted rhythms assigned to the violin. One or the other, and often both, of these motives is heard in almost every measure of the movement, lending it a formal unity and developmental power.

Quintet in F Minor for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Opus 34

Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna

Composed 1862-64.
Premièred on March 24, 1868 in Paris.

When Brahms ambled into his favorite Viennese café one evening, so the story goes, a friend asked him how he had spent his day. “I was working on my symphony,” he said. “In the morning I added an eighth note. In the afternoon I took it out.” The anecdote may be apocryphal, but its intent faithfully reflects Brahms’ painstaking process of creation, which is seen nowhere better than in his F minor Piano Quintet.

Brahms began work on the piece in early 1862 as a string quintet with two cellos, the same scoring as Schubert’s incomparable C major Quintet, and by August, he had the first three movements ready to send to his friend and mentor Clara Schumann and to the violinist Joseph Joachim. They both responded enthusiastically at first (“I do not know how to start telling you the great delight your quintet has given me,” Clara wrote), but expressed reservations about the piece during the following months. “The details of the work show some proof of overpowering strength,” Joachim noted, “but what is lacking, to give me pure pleasure, is, in a word, charm.”

By February 1863, the String Quintet had been recast as a Sonata for Two Pianos, which Brahms performed with Karl Tausig at a concert in Vienna on April 17, 1864. The première met with little favor. Clara continued to be delighted with the work’s musical substance, but thought that “it cannot be called a Sonata. The first time I tried the work I had the feeling that it was an arrangement.... Please, remodel it once more!” One final time, during the summer of 1864, Brahms revised the score, this time as the Quintet for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, an ensemble suggested to him by the conductor Hermann Levi. “The quintet is beautiful beyond words,” Levi wrote. “You have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece of chamber music.”

The opening movement, tempestuous and tragic in mood, is in a tightly packed sonata form. The dramatic main theme is stated immediately in unison by violin, cello, and piano, and then repeated with greater force by the entire ensemble. The complementary theme, given above an insistently repeated triplet figuration, is more subdued and lyrical in nature than the previous melody. The closing theme achieves a brighter tonality to offer a brief respite from the movement’s pervasive strong emotions. The development section treats the main and second themes, and ushers in the recapitulation on a great wave of sound.

Brahms’ Schubertian strain rises closest to the surface in the tender second movement. The outer sections of its three-part form (A–B–A) are based on a gentle, lyrical strain in sweet, close-interval harmonies, while the movement’s central portion uses a melody incorporating an octave-leap motive.

The Scherzo is one of Brahms’ most electrifying essays. The scherzo proper contains three motivic elements: a rising theme of vague rhythmic identity; a snapping motive in strict, dotted rhythm; and a march-like strain in full chordal harmony. These three components are juxtaposed throughout the movement, with the dotted-rhythm theme being given special prominence, including a vigorous fugal working-out. The central trio grows from a theme that is a lyrical transformation of the scherzo’s chordal march strain.

The Finale opens with a pensive slow introduction fueled by deeply felt chromatic harmonies, exactly the sort of passage that caused Arnold Schoenberg to label Brahms a “modernist.” The body of the movement, in fast tempo, is a hybrid of rondo and sonata forms. Despite the buoyant, Gypsy flavor of the movement’s thematic material, the tragic tenor of this great quintet is maintained until its closing page.

©2013 Dr. Richard E. Rodda