Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Dvořák composed four piano trios, each more famous than its predecessor concluding with his most celebrated final trio known by the nickname “Dumky”. The prior in F minor is a muscular, serious trio drawing comparisons with Brahms, a contemporary and friend only eight years older. Dvořák’s even earlier second Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 26 is much more rarely programmed, crowded out by its more familiar successors, but it is a very fine piano trio imbued with Dvorak’s vivid musical personality: Color, warmth, lyricism, melancholy, lively dance, Slavic folk elements and artful craft abound. His already masterful skills wielded confidently display a mature composer in fine form.
Yet, as Dvořák began this trio early in 1876, he was a thirty-five-year-old unknown provincial composer. He had just applied to a commission in Vienna that granted funds to struggling artists and caught the attention of two prominent boards members, Eduard Hanslick and Johannes Brahms, both of whom found promising talent in Dvorak’s submissions and awarded him the highest amount allowable. With new funding, an ongoing connection with Brahms and his publisher, and a fresh creative impetus yielding several winning works in short order, within the next year or so, Dvorak would achieve international fame.
Meanwhile, Dvořák had little means for his young family comprising a one-year-old son and his pregnant wife. In August of 1875 Dvořák lost his newborn daughter Josefa who died after just a few days of life. This trio became his first new composition following the tragedy and it initiated a creative spurt whose output some have called tellingly tinged with pain and sorrow. Curiously, Dvorak chose the key of G Minor for this trio, the same used by his compatriot and mentor Bedřich Smetana in his piano trio of some twenty years earlier commemorating the death of his own daughter in a most explicit elegiac fashion. Though Dvořák left no specific indications of his inspiration or expression intent, this trio is thought to convey a dark sorrow with flashes of rage as well as deeply felt, graceful compassion, particularly in the first three movements. With the finale, Dvořák shifts the mood to bright play and sunny dance dispelling any lingering shadow. Eventually, an ever more famous and materially successful Dvořák would produce seven more children, six of whom survived into adulthood.
The trio offers a full-scale, four-movement program reflecting the weighty legacy of trios from Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, etc. yet, in 1876, only one so far by Brahms. The opening is a sprawling, ambitious sonata form definitely flavored by Slavic melodic modes, undulating gestures and colorful, folk-inspired textures that would characterize much of his mature work. The opening phrases vividly presage the “Dumky” trio. With an artful economy of key motives and rhythmic signatures (perhaps three key musical genes), Dvořák spins a long narrative that swirls and flickers between dark and light with surprising transformations. Contrasting sections are strongly punctuated by a recurring motto of two fierce chords.
By contrast, the second movement is slow, spacious and singing, a singularly beautiful and tender lullaby that leans towards lament with its passing pathos, mildly eerie atmospheres and its wistfully wandering modulations. It concludes quietly, softly glowing in the major mode. Back in G Minor, the third movement scherzo gallops resolutely, urgently, with a rhythmic drive whose almost breathless phrases unsettle in their groups of five measures of threes, odd, uneven. The drive becomes keening as staggered lines imitate each other in canon. A little “tail” section curiously recasts the theme in two rather than three counts for a noteworthy effect. A brighter, milder trio transforms any fleeting suggestion of Brahms into one of unmistakable Dvořák.
With the finale, Dvořák pulls us out of any lingering despair with humor, curiosity, a touch of manic fugato and a gay swatch of lively dance. The rondo begins almost like a bombastic satire of Schumann, hushes into a suspenseful, quirky theme, tiptoeing chromatically until it bursts into a polka or catches fire in a fugue. Slowly but definitively, G Minor morphs into G Major and the trio ends in jovial triumph, far from its somber beginnings.