String Trio in C Minor, Op. 9, No. 3
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
When Beethoven embarked on his first chamber works, he initially avoided the string quartet, a form that Haydn and Mozart had effectively monopolized in 1790s Vienna. Instead, he offered the Opus 9 string trios, a collection that in many ways anticipates the moods and techniques of his 32 string quartets.
Beethoven dedicated the Opus 9 trios to Count Johann Georg von Browne, an officer in the Russian army who settled in Vienna. By all accounts, Browne was wealthy, generous, and troubled. Described by an acquaintance as “one of the strangest of men,” he spent a period in an institution after experiencing a mental breakdown. Yet he was a steadfast supporter of Beethoven, and gifted the composer a horse as thanks for a set of piano variations dedicated to his wife. Beethoven found the horse a stable, rode it a few times, then soon forgot about it (the stable owner assumed care responsibilities).
In a dedicatory letter to Count Browne, Beethoven described the Op. 9 string trios as “the best of my work,” and while he didn’t receive a second horse for his effort, he did advance in his creative journey. Set in C minor, his favored key for expressions of dramatic urgency and tension, the Op. 9, No. 3 opens with an ominous four-note motive. This emerges into a full-blown theme, and from there, the movement never loses its impassioned spirit. The celestial slow movement, in C Major, has a hypnotic character as the music ambles between moments of repose and dramatic punctuation. The Scherzo, back in C minor, has a nervous, syncopated energy, eased briefly by a C Major trio section. Beethoven’s finale is full of scampering scales and thematic entanglements before a mischievous, whispered ending.
Danses sacrée et profane (Sacred and Profane Dances)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Debussy’s exquisite Danses sacrée et profane, of 1904, was a commission from the Parisian piano-manufacturing firm of Pleyel, Wolff and Cie to promote its new instrument model, the chromatic harp.
Designed in 1897 by the company’s director, Gustave Lyon, the chromatic harp was said to be a response to the growing chromaticism of modern orchestral music. The instrument did not require pedals to change the pitch of the strings but rather, a second plane of strings. On paper, this had a certain logic. A conventional harp has 47 strings, each of which can be raised two half steps by using foot pedals. A chromatic harp contained 78 strings: 46 strings lining the left side of the soundboard (analogous to the white keys on a piano) and 32 on the right (representing the black keys). All 12 tones of the chromatic scale could be played with the hands alone.
Because harpists would need to be persuaded to learn the new instrument, Pleyel put forward a marketing strategy that included Debussy’s “demo” piece. The composer had by then built his reputation with works including the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Nocturnes, and Pelléas et Mélisande. He delivered two graceful and delicate dance movements, each scored for harp and strings. The first, Danse sacrée, suggests an ancient religiosity, while the second, Danse profane, is a swirling waltz which, as Manuel de Falla once noted, contains a tinge of earthy Spanish color.
Unwieldy and difficult to tune, the chromatic harp didn’t catch on. Manufacturing ceased within a decade. Thankfully, modern harpists have found that Debussy’s piece is just as effective on a conventional pedal harp, with no serious obstacles to the performer.
Piano Quintet in A Major No. 2, Op. 81
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major is one of the great landmarks of 19th century chamber music, and for this we can thank the Czech composer’s willingness to revisit his past.
Early in his career, Dvořák composed a piano quintet in A Major (Op. 5), but after its 1872 premiere, he was apparently displeased and either lost or destroyed the manuscript. As a format, though, the quintet stuck with him, and 15 years later, he borrowed a surviving score from a friend with the goal of making a revision. Out of this process came an entirely new piano quintet, the Op. 81. An optimistic and serene work, it captures his full proficiency as a mature composer, rich in arresting melodies, rhythmic vitality, elegant orchestration, and an Eastern European folk flavor.
The cello opens the first movement with an eloquent theme over arpeggiated piano chords. Barely a dozen measures pass before the ensemble abruptly hurtles toward the second theme in C minor. While this hairpin turn is characteristic of Bohemian folk music, Dvořák’s Slavic sensibility is more fully on display in the second and third movements. The second movement is based on a dumka, a melancholic folk ballad with Ukrainian roots. As Dvořák scholar Michael Beckerman notes, the movement has the tread of a funeral march, and seems to have been inspired by Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major.
The impish third movement is a stylized take on a furiant, a Bohemian folk dance, and a reminder that Dvořák composed much of the score at his rustic summer cottage in Vysoka. The finale is not based on any folk form, but the Czech countryside remains in view, even when Dvořák introduces a “learned” fugue midway through. This builds to a stately chorale — a final moment of reflection before the tempo picks up and the movement darts to an exuberant finish.