Grieg, Andante con moto in c minor (for Piano Trio)

Edvard Grieg, 1843-1907

Andante con moto in c minor (for Piano Trio), 1878

Edvard GriegEdvard Grieg is known primarily for his orchestral works, his songs and his numerous piano miniatures. His completed chamber music output was quite small: one complete string quartet, three violin sonatas and a cello sonata. Grieg left a few other salon pieces and two fragmentary works: two movements of an unfinished string quartet and a lone movement for an unfinished piano trio. Grieg’s powerful String Quartet in g minor was completed in 1878 when he was in his mid-thirties. Apparently during the same year he began work on a piano trio but only managed to complete one movement, the Andante con moto in c minor. The manuscript was discovered posthumously by Grieg’s Dutch colleague and close friend of many years, Julius Röntgen. Röntgen was elated by the discovery and communicated his reaction to Grieg’s widow Nina:

It is a beautiful piece and completely in order. . . . What a solemnity it conveys! How he can’t get enough of that single theme, that even in the major mode retains its mourning character, and then develops so beautifully its full power . . . The piece can very well stand by itself and does not at all give the impression of being a fragment, as it constitutes a perfect entity in itself.

Röntgen subsequently wondered whether Grieg would have wanted to publish the trio “fragment,” and so it lay unpublished until 1978 when it was placed in the context of the complete Grieg Edition, a full catalog of his work. Comments in Grieg’s own hand on the manuscript suggest that he was not yet done with even this single movement: he hoped to shorten the middle section. In this sense, it is perhaps most appropriate to regard the movement as a fair draft, a peak into the creative mind of a composer mid-process, where circumstances have left the process frozen in suspended animation.

Röntgen was absolutely correct to emphasize the monothematic nature of the movement. It is a study in dramatic narrative with the most austere constraints. Using a single powerful theme of just six notes, Grieg introduces variety and musical plot by adjusting just about every variable besides the consistently recognizable theme: key, harmony, rhythm, tempo, instrumentation and texture. The theme is also fragmented into constituent motifs during a particularly tense segment of development leading to a great climax. Grieg achieves a wide range of affect and color within what might best be described as a meditation on a theme, something more subtle and overarching than a theme and variations. Much like the two movements of his unfinished second string quartet, the Andante con moto tempts one to speculate how Grieg might have completed a larger structure around this pregnant music. But alas, we can only savor this piece as it stands like a compelling, partial treasure from an archeological dig, a fragment of an ideal vase complete only in Grieg’s own mind.

© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion. All rights reserved.

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