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Trio for piano and strings in G minor, Op. 15

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Bedrich Smetana
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Fortas Chamber Music Concert: Eben Trio (formerly Puella Trio) Thu., Mar. 29, 2012, 7:30 PM
© Peter Laki

Those who only know Smetana from his popular symphonic poem The Moldau or his folksy comic opera The Bartered Bride are in for a surprise. Here is a truly grandiose and tragic work from the father of Czech music-a piece not nationalistic but profoundly personal in inspiration.

As with the later string quartet From My Life, Smetana set his autobiography to music in the Trio. And in the 1850s he was tried by Fate as hard as anyone has ever been. Within a space of two years, he lost three of his four daughters and his beloved wife, Katerina, was stricken with tuberculosis (the disease would claim her life a few years later). Two of the children had died as infants but the oldest, Bedriška, who was named after her father, was four and a half and had just begun to show the first signs of musical talent when she became a victim of scarlet fever. Smetana's life was never the same after these tragic events which played an important part in his decision to leave Bohemia and try his fortunes in Sweden, where he lived from 1856 to '59.

The Piano Trio, Smetana's first unquestionable masterpiece, was composed during this extremely difficult period in the composer's life. All three of its movements feature the descending chromatic scale that had been an emblem of lament since Baroque times, but Smetana made this old device sound new by letting it guide him to what were extremely modern harmonic regions in the 1850s. Even more importantly, the idea of the chromatic descent is put across with genuine and sincere passion, expressing grief more powerfully than words could ever do.

The violin opens the piece with a dramatic unaccompanied solo that sets the tone for much of the first movement. A lyrical second theme provides only momentary respite. At the end of a turbulent development section, there is a beautiful piano solo in tempo rubato (free rhythm)-a moment of dreaming before the drama starts over with the recapitulation.

The second movement seems to start out as a cheerful dance, yet the insistence on the chromatic descending figure from the first movement gives it a dark coloring. There are two "trios" (middle sections), labelled "Alternativo" in the score. The first of these is a lyrical, Schumannesque romance with a distinct Czech flavor; the second, much weightier, is a dirge in 3/4 time, filled with majestic dotted rhythms and bold dissonances. At the final return, the opening dance suddenly moves from the minor mode to the major, but Smetana's handling of the harmonies and the timbres is such that we don't get a sense of resolution, only a temporary relief.

The Presto finale opens with a recall of the chromatic scale in the violin. Its main theme comes from a piano sonata Smetana had written as a student in the 1840s, possibly influenced by a melody from the last movement of Schubert's Trio in E-flat. Here the tension results mainly from the consistent use of "two against three" (regular eighth-notes against triplets). A contrasting episode with a lyrical, expressive melody is heard twice, displaced each time by the relentless principal theme. Near the end, an interesting set of transformations takes place: the main theme, stripped of its rhythmic complications, turns into a chorale and then into a funeral march, while the lyrical episode becomes a song of triumph. Life seems to overcome death in the trio's final moments, but the very end is somewhat ambiguous: the theme returns in its original, "troubled" form, to be brushed aside by just three short measures of fortissimo in G major.