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Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Upcoming Performances

Image from Fortas Chamber Music Concerts: Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio Fortas Chamber Music Concerts: Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio - Tue., Feb. 10, 2015, 7:30 PM
The Kennedy Center's Chamber Ensemble in Residence returns with one of Haydn's amazingly inventive late Piano Trios, Dvorák's early G minor Trio, and Tchaikovsky's momentous Trio.

Past Performances

Image unvailable for The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Fauré and Tchaikovsky The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Fauré and Tchaikovsky - Sun., Nov. 15, 2009, 2:00 PM


About the Work

Pyotr Tchaikovsky
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Quick Look Composer: Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Fauré and Tchaikovsky Sun., Nov. 15, 2009, 2:00 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda
"Why have you not written a single trio? I regret this every day because every day they play me a trio, and I always sigh because you have not composed a single one." Tchaikovsky received this plaint from his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, in October 1880, accompanied by a picture of her household trio. The pianist in the photo was an 18-year-old Frenchman of musical promise whom she had engaged for the season and who was to reach a certain prominence only a few years later — Claude Debussy. Tchaikovsky, however, was little interested in composing chamber music (except for some student exercises, he had written only three string quartets and a short piece for violin and piano), and he turned down Mme. von Meck's request for a piano trio. "There is no tonal blend," he explained. "Indeed, the piano cannot blend with the rest, having an elasticity of tone that separates from any other body of sound.... To my mind the piano can be effective in only three situations: 1) alone; 2) in a contest with the orchestra [he had just finished his Second Piano Concerto]; and 3) as accompaniment." The following spring, however, he changed his mind.

On March 23, 1881 in Paris, Nikolai Rubinstein, one of Russia's foremost pianists and pedagogues, died. Ever since Tchaikovsky had arrived in Moscow from his studies in St. Petersburg fifteen years before, Rubinstein had been his most important professional and personal mentor. On the advice of his brother, Anton, director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and one of Tchaikovsky's teachers, Rubinstein had accepted the young musician into the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory that he was founding. Despite their occasional fierce disagreements (Tchaikovsky was furious over Rubinstein's scathing denunciation of the Piano Concerto No. 1), they remained close friends. Rubinstein's death moved Tchaikovsky deeply, and he determined to create a work in memory of him, something with a prominent piano part in honor of Rubinstein's instrument. He settled on a piano trio, and began work on the score in December during a stay in Rome. He announced to Mme. von Meck that he was undertaking the piece "to please her," but the true commemorative nature of the Trio was not long hidden. He completed the work on February 9, 1882, and enlisted three friends and Conservatory colleagues (pianist-composer Sergei Taneyev, violinist Ivan Hrimaly and cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen) to perform it privately at the Moscow Conservatory on March 23rd, the anniversary of Rubinstein's death. Tchaikovsky did not return from abroad until a week later, however, and did not hear the new Trio until it was played informally for him in April. He made some adjustments to the score, and sent it to Jurgenson for publication with instructions to issue it in a sumptuous printed form and with the dedication, "To the Memory of a Great Artist." The Trio was first given publicly by Taneyev, Hrimaly and Fitzenhagen at the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society on October 30, 1882, and it proved to be popular during Tchaikovsky's lifetime: the Parisian publisher Namelle paid a huge fee for the French rights to the piece in 1883; Tchaikovsky presented it in both New York and Washington during his United States tour in 1891; and it was played at memorial concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg only days after his death in November 1893.

Tchaikovsky disposed the Piano Trio, his only chamber work for piano and strings, in two large movements: a huge sonata-allegro and an extended set of variations, a formal concept reminiscent of Beethoven's late sonatas. The opening movement is titled Pezzo elegiaco ("Elegiac Piece"), and its mournful main theme is moving testimony to Tchaikovsky's grief over the loss of his mentor. A heroic melody and a songful strain, both initiated by the piano, round out the movement's thematic material. Tchaikovsky is said to have composed the theme for the second movement under the inspiration of the memory of a picnic that he, Rubinstein and other of the Conservatory faculty enjoyed in May 1873 at a sylvan spot near Moscow called Sparrow Hill. When the jolly company started their repast, it seems, a group of peasants appeared to observe. Rubinstein sent for additional wine and food for the onlookers, who then provided their hosts with an afternoon of song and dance in appreciation. Though he did not quote one of the peasants' tunes in the Trio, Tchaikovsky's theme is modeled on their music. From it, he spun a vast series of variations of widely divergent characters, ending with a grand "Variazione finale" and Coda, this last section being a full sonata-form structure that recalls the doleful opening theme of the first movement at its end. When one critic asserted that the variations depicted different episodes from Rubinstein's life, Tchaikovsky responded, "How amusing! To compose music without the slightest desire to represent something, and suddenly to discover that it represents this or that, it is what Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme must have felt when he learned that he had been speaking in prose all of his life."