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Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano

About the Work

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Look Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Fortas Chamber Music Concert: The Morgenstern Trio Thu., May 3, 2012, 7:30 PM
© Richard Rodda

Leonard Bernstein was a brilliant and infuriating student at Harvard. Born in 1918 to a Russian Jewish family who had settled in Massachusetts, Bernstein attended the demanding Boston Latin School as a youth and took piano lessons from Helen Coates (whose influence on his life he recognized by dedicating to her his 1954 book, The Joy of Music) and Heinrich Gebhard (a pupil of Leschetizky and the city's finest keyboard teacher) before he enrolled at Harvard as a music major in 1935 to study with some of the country's most distinguished pedagogues - Tillman Merritt (theory), Walter Piston (counterpoint and fugue) and Edward Burlingame Hill (orchestration). Bernstein took the minimum number of music courses, however, and he attended those only sporadically, preferring to load his schedule with as many classes in languages, art, literature and philosophy as possible. He seldom bothered with assignments (he once showed up at Merritt's 16th-century counterpoint class with a wildly modern new piece he was working on. After being told, "Well, Leonard, this isn't really what we're working on," he slammed the piece down on a piano and bellowed, "Well, I like it"), but he aced his exams. Alan Evans, a classmate in analysis and composition, recalled a grueling three-hour exam that thoroughly taxed most of the Harvard undergrads: "After the first hour, there was a loud rattling noise in the back of the room. Leonard was holding up a copy of The New York Times and shaking it until everyone noticed him. Then he folded up the Times, carried his exam to the front, turned it in, waved his hand and walked out." "There wasn't much to teach him," Walter Piston admitted. "He knew it all by instinct."

Bernstein had an amazing and omnivorous gift for the piano during his student days, sight-reading, improvising, playing Malagueña or Rhapsody in Blue or the Ravel Concerto in G or Debussy or Chopin or Liszt or Bach with no provocation at all. "There was a big bunch of kids around, just listening," recalled Mildred Spiegel, a piano-playing friend since high school, of one impromptu recital. "He was just like the Pied Piper. Everyone just stood around listening. There was something about it - wild and lots of expression." During his first two years at Harvard, Bernstein thought he would become a concert pianist, but by his junior year, when he met both the brilliant Greek-American conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, recently appointed music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the 37-year-old Aaron Copland, his interests had turned to composition and conducting. Bernstein's earliest extant work is a Piano Trio that he composed in 1937 for the Madison Trio, a student group comprising pianist Mildred Spiegel, violinist Dorothy Rosenberg and cellist Sarah Kruskall, who premiered the work at Harvard that year. The piece then went into the composer's files and was not heard publicly again until after Bernstein's death, when the New Munich Piano Trio performed and recorded it in 1993.

The Piano Trio is less a truly original composition than a catalogue of Bernstein's musical sympathies during his student days and a testament to his ability to draw disparate influences into some kind of creative cohesion, one of the fundamental characteristics of his style throughout his life. The slow introduction, which draws upon the lyrical but tonally ambiguous idiom of Berg, comprises a series of arching phrases in the strings and a rising, step-wise strain in the piano. The tempo quickens with some pizzicato string notes before the cello introduces a theme with a prominent triplet rhythm and an upward leap. Intensifying imitative discussion of the cello's theme leads to a climactic moment whose breadth and harmony recall the music of Brahms. The piano's step-wise strain from the introduction returns in the strings before the music moves on to a nimble passage influenced by Poulenc's Parisian music hall ditties into which is embedded a reminiscence of the introduction's arching phrases. An episode of stern Hindemithian counterpoint, an echo of the Brahmsian music, and a final iteration of the step-wise motive round out the movement.

The second movement, the one most prophetic of Bernstein's mature creative voice, is a scherzo whose first section is based on two bluesy phrases, one pizzicato, one bowed, introduced by the strings. The central trio exhibits an almost Bartókian folkishness. The bluesy themes are heard again before the movement ends.

The finale opens with a sort of Debussy-like mistiness into which the cello interjects the first movement's theme with the triplet rhythm and the leap. The balance of the movement is fast and brilliant, a kind of driving folk dance that resembles, by turns, the boisterousness of Bartók and the acerbity of Stravinsky.