The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49

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 took on the additional responsibilities of family life when he married Cécile Jeanrenaud. Mendelssohn's duties kept him close to Leipzig for most of 1839, but he did manage to escape in May to conduct at the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Düsseldorf and in September to oversee the presentation of his oratorio St. Paul in Brunswick. The D minor Piano Trio was completed in July, between those two engagements. The work has remained one of Mendelssohn's most popular and beloved instrumental creations —Pablo Casals chose to play it with Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Alexander Schneider when he was invited by President John F. Kennedy to perform at the White House in 1961.

Though Mendelssohn was careful to involve all of the participants equally in the D minor Trio in the presentation and development of the thematic material, the piano is granted the most brilliant of the three parts. The opening D minor movement, heroic rather than mournful, is in a closely worked sonata form. The cello presents the main theme, a flowing melody of grace and eloquence, immediately at the outset. The complementary subject, also initiated by the cello, is a gently arched strain in the brighter tonality of A major. The extensive development section is an ingenious elaboration of these two lyrical inspirations. A full recapitulation of the principal themes rounds out the movement. The Andante, led by the piano, is reminiscent in its three-part structure and melodic style of the Songs Without Words. The Scherzo is an elfin essay in the quicksilver, effervescent manner of which Mendelssohn was the peerless master. The dactylic motive (long-short-short) given at the outset of the Finale by the piano serves as the germ from which most of the movement grows. A brief but energetic coda spawned by the same motive brings the Trio to a triumphant close.