The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 26

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

In his biography of Dvorák, John Clapham titled the chapter concerning 1876-1877, "A Genius Emerges." Only three years before, Dvorák's income from his compositions and as organist at St. Adalbert's Church in Prague had been so meager that the city officials certified his poverty, thus making him eligible to submit his work for consideration to a committee in Vienna awarding grants to struggling artists. The members of the selection committee were a distinguished lot: Johann Herbeck, director of the Court Opera; the influential critic Eduard Hanslick; and that titan of Viennese music himself, Johannes Brahms. Their report noted that Dvorák possessed "genuine and original gifts," and that his music displayed "an undoubted talent, but in a way which as yet remains formless and unbridled." They deemed his work worthy of encouragement, however, and, on their recommendation, the minister of culture, Karl Stremayer, awarded the young musician 400 gulden, the highest stipend bestowed under the program. It represented Dvorák's first recognition outside his homeland and his initial contact with Brahms and Hanslick, both of whom proved to be powerful influences on his career through their example, artistic guidance, and professional help. An excited burst of compositional activity followed during the months after Dvorák learned of his award in February 1875: the G major String Quintet, Moravian Duets for Soprano and Tenor, B-flat major Piano Trio, D major Piano Quartet, Fifth Symphony and Serenade for Strings all appeared with inspired speed.

Dvorák's rapidly accumulating good fortune of the mid-1870s was not unalloyed, however, since he suffered the death of a new-born daughter, Josefa, in September 1875, a distressing and painful experience for this deeply pious man who was devoted to family life. The grief that colored the works he wrote during the following months: the somber E major String Quartet and Piano Concerto and the choral setting of the Stabat mater, the liturgical words describing the pity of the Mother of Christ at the cross was first expressed musically in the Piano Trio in G minor, written in seventeen days, four months after his daughter's death. The medium and key were significant, since they were the same ones that Bedrich Smetana had chosen 15 years before to commemorate his own four-year-old daughter, Bedriska, who had been named after him. Dvorák's sentiments would certainly have echoed those of his colleague, who expressed the depth of his sorrow in the epitaph the family had inscribed on Bedriska's grave: "Here lies our child; in her were embodied all her grieving father's most beautiful hopes and her mother's greatest happiness. Her departure to the world of angels has taken away everything from us."

The Trio's opening gestures-a pair of emphatic chords and a melancholy descending phrase-seem to encapsulate two steps in the grieving process: anger and sadness. These ideas are expanded into the movement's formal main theme, which is treated at some length before the mood lightens for the subsidiary subject, a small-interval melody begun by the cello that cycles three times through its first measure. The movement's essential emotion is expressed most strongly in the development, the section where the structural requirements of sonata form admit the greatest freedom, which takes up the subsidiary subject before concerning itself largely with the main theme. The emphatic chords and the melancholy descending phrase return to begin a full recapitulation of the exposition's materials.

The Largo is cast in the nominally brighter key of E-flat major, though chromatic alterations, harmonic shadings, deliberate pace and abrupt dynamic changes give the music a deeply meditative mood. The expressive intensity of the opening movement resumes with the fiery rhythms, dark harmonies and asymmetrical phrases of the Scherzo; a major-key trio of more mild nature provides emotional and formal balance.

The three bold ensemble chords that begin the finale return at important structural junctures to mark the movement's progress-the repeat of the main theme and the start of both the development and the recapitulation. Since there is no distinct second subject here, the entire movement is built from the materials of the main theme, most notably a stuttering three-note figure introduced by the violin above pizzicato cello notes. The movement assumes a more positive character as it approaches its closing pages, perhaps a reflection in musical terms of Dvorák's acceptance of the personal tragedy that had preceded the Trio's creation.