The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66

About the Work

Felix Mendelssohn Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

The most intensely busy time of Mendelssohn's life was ushered in by his appointment in 1835 as the administrator, music director and conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts. In very short order, he raised the quality of musical life in Leipzig to equal that of any city in Europe, and in 1842 he founded the local Conservatory to maintain his standards of excellence. (The school was to be the most highly regarded institution of its kind in the world for the next half century.) In 1841, he was named director of the Music Section of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, a cultural venture newly instituted by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, which required him not only to supervise and conduct a wide variety of programs but also to compose upon royal demand — the incidental music that complements his dazzling 1826 Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream was written to fulfill one of Frederick's requests. Mendelssohn toured, guest conducted, and composed incessantly, and on March 28, 1837, he took on the additional responsibilities of family life when he married Cécile Jeanrenaud.

Mendelssohn won a brief hiatus from the press of his accumulating duties when he took a leave of absence from his post at the Gewandhaus during the 1844-1845 season. Before his sabbatical began, he had to fulfill engagements as conductor and piano soloist in London and Germany, but by the beginning of 1845 he had finally managed to clear his schedule sufficiently to devote himself to composition. He made significant progress on Elijah, scheduled for its premiere at the Birmingham Festival the following year, and completed the String Quintet in B-flat major (Op. 87) and the C minor Piano Trio (Op. 66). In the autumn, the King of Saxony convinced him to return to his post at the Gewandhaus. His frantic pace of life was reactivated; he was dead within two years. Except for the F minor String Quartet (Op. 80), the C minor Trio was the last important chamber work of Mendelssohn's career.

In his study of the chamber music, John Horton noted of the opening movement of the C minor Trio, "Mendelssohn never wrote a stronger sonata-form allegro." The urgent rising-and-falling phrases of the main theme, announced by the piano, generate a subsequent arch-shaped melody for the violin, which is given above the keyboard's restless accompaniment. A sweeping subject sung in duet by violin and cello in a brighter tonality serves as the second theme. These motives are elaborated with immense skill and deep emotion as the movement unfolds. The following Andante is an extended song-without-words in which the piano often serves as interlocutor for the tandem flights of the strings. The movement is laid out in a smoothly flowing three-part form whose middle section is marked by a heightened animation and a sense of adventurous harmonic peregrination. The gossamer Scherzo is musical featherstitching such as has never been as well accomplished by any other composer — Mendelssohn is simply incomparable in evoking this elfin world of nocturnal wisps and fairy wonder. The finale is built from two contrasting thematic elements: a vivacious principal subject which is launched by a leaping interval from the cello and a broad chorale melody introduced in a chordal setting by the piano. The main theme returns for a vigorous working-out before the chorale melody, traced by Eric Werner in his biography of Mendelssohn to the hymn Vor Deinem Thron ("Before Your Throne") from the Geneva Psalter of 1551, is summoned in a grand, nearly orchestral guise to cap this masterwork of Mendelssohn's fullest maturity.