INTERMEZZO ONE, Online Premiere Friday 3/26 at 7:30pm ET

Piano Trio No.1 in D Minor, Op. 63 (1847)

By 1847, the year he wrote his first piano trio, Robert Schumann had achieved success as a music critic and composer in a wide range of genres, including the piano character piece, string quartet, symphony, and song. However, his muse appears to have been stymied, due, at least in part, to ongoing bouts with depression and lingering self-doubt.

A frustrating tenure as teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory with his wife Clara, a pianist and fine composer in her own right, only heightened Robert’s angst. A move to Dresden did little to lighten his spirits. As she often did, Clara helped her husband overcome his anxiety. Working together, they immersed themselves in a study of counterpoint, a compositional technique using imitative melodies well-known from the works of Bach and before.

Some evidence of this “cure by counterpoint” finds its way into the highly energetic and restless trio heard on this program, though scholars often cite a “completely new manner of composing” to which Schumann refers in his journal from the time. This new approach involved more attention to working out compositions, rather than relying on sudden inspiration and the literary connections that characterize many of his earlier works.

Those listening for clearly delineated sonata form in the opening movement of the D-minor Trio must forego that considering the subtle ways in which Schumann expands and alters it, including a long and interesting development section. Nevertheless, two main themes are recognizable, the second of which features a dotted (long-short) rhythmic pattern that helps unify not only the opening movement, but also the entire trio. Just before the five-minute mark of the first movement, Schumann writes an extended passage of this dotted figure, slows the pace, and then sounds the most arresting moment of the work: a brief passage in which the strings play near the bridge of their instruments and the piano moves to its extreme, high register. The effect is stunning and magical.

Following the path of many in his generation, Schumann decides to place the dance movement (a rousing scherzo) second in the cycle. The Romantic tendency to play with the listener’s organization of the beats of the music becomes an obsession here, often shifting the normally triple patterns to grouping of twos. Also in this movement are several obvious contrapuntal passages in which one can hear melodic material presented and then imitated in similar fashion to composers of the 16th and late 18th centuries.

Dominated by the plaintive melody of the violin, the third movement is marked “Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung” (slowly, with tender feeling). The word translated “tender” here can also be used to describe feelings toward a significant other. One can only wonder if Schumann was in some way expressing his sentiments for his beloved Clara, who helped him through many dark periods in his life and championed her husband’s music long after his untimely death in an asylum.

Played without pause, the “fiery” finale reinstates the restlessness and drive of the opening movement. Analysts have also found a thematic resemblance to that movement, hinting at what has been called “cyclicism.” We hear more counterpoint, and, like Franz Schubert before him, Schumann vacillates between major and minor keys, driving to a brilliant ending in D major.

© 2021 Phillip Thomas, Ph.D., Lee University, Cleveland, TN

GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Quartet for Piano and Strings in C Minor, Op. 15 (1876-79)

Like most musical contemporaries in fin-de-siècle Europe, the French composer Gabriel Fauré faced the question of how to respond to 19th century Romanticism, which had most recently been dominated by Germanic influence, notably that of Richard Wagner. What Fauré devised, in collaboration with his mentor and friend Camille Saint-Saëns, was a purposefully French approach that relied on earlier models of formal clarity and counterpoint infused with a richly chromatic harmonic language.

That richness is certainly a feature even in the quartet on this program, which was Fauré’s first attempt at writing for a chamber music ensemble. The warm, sometimes cheery, atmosphere of the piece seems counterintuitive when viewed through the lens of the composer’s biography. During the time Fauré was working on the quartet, his engagement to Marianne Viardot, with whom he was madly in love, abruptly ended. Though hints of the pain may be suggested in the slow movement, the lovely melodies in much of the quartet seem to reflect the calm resignation signaled in the composer’s later comments about the incident.

Harmonically, much of Fauré’s music seems to move quickly through distant keys with as little effort as a chameleon changes color. We hear this near the opening of the quartet where the piano begins a melodic dialogue with the strings. It is also especially evident when the piano’s figuration moves to arpeggiations that span several octaves (at a transitional section of the sonata form). Though the overall approach to the ensemble is to juxtapose the piano against the strings, Fauré does engage in occasional contrapuntal writing in this wonderfully melodic outpouring of Romanticism.

Like the trio by Schumann on this program, the composer presents a scherzo as the second movement. The frequent shifts from compound to simple meter (underlying patterns of three and two, respectively) suggest the influence of Brahms. In fact, that influence in sufficiently pervasive in Fauré’s works to cause Aaron Copland and many others to refer to the composer as the “French Brahms.” This movement certainly lives up to the playfulness of its title, though the central trio section features muted strings for timbral contrast.

Darker colors cloud the beginning of the slower third movement, though even this is short-lived. Optimism seems to return in the second theme, which modulates to a major key. Since the movement is ternary, we are left with a certain resigned melancholy that ends with a broadly spaced C-minor chord.

Abruptly, the finale shifts to an energetic, almost erratic, mood that features an ascending figure and dotted rhythms. Like the first movement, respite is provided by a second theme, which is beautiful and singing. The composer chooses a brief cadenza in the piano to introduce an extended, exuberant coda that closes the quartet in the sunny key of C major.

© 2021 Phillip Thomas, Ph.D., Lee University, Cleveland, TN