Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mendelssohn - Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Opus 49

In a review in 1840 of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1, Robert Schumann wrote:
The storm of recent years is finally beginning to abate, and we must admit that it has washed several pearls ashore. Mendelssohn, as one of the many sons of this age, must have had to struggle with and often listen to the insipid declaration of some ignorant critics that ‘the true golden age of music is behind us’ – although it probably affected him less – and has so distinguished himself that we may well say: He is the Mozart of the 19th century, the most brilliant of musicians, the one who most clearly perceives the contradictions of the age, and the first to reconcile them.
Despite Schumann's praise, the very qualities that caused Schumann to praise the music were later looked upon as faults. Mendelssohn's mastery of sonata form was looked upon as old-fashioned and conservative, the nimbleness of his scherzos were deemed emotionally lacking, the lyrical turn of his tunes were regarded as too unemotional. Richard Wagner was one of the main players in the smear campaign when he wrote his pamphlet Jewishness In Music in which his disgusting antisemitism sneers and takes cheap shots at Jewish composers, namely Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn (a pamphlet by the way, that Wagner used a pseudonym for).  And as if all this was not enough, the filth of the Nazi regime in Germany  labeled Mendelssohn's music as degenerate Jewish music.
Watercolor by Mendelssohn
No doubt some of the invective against Mendelssohn was due to his staggering talent as well as his being born into a family that was very well off financially. By some contemporary accounts, Mendelssohn had some of the trappings of personality that economic and social privilege can bring, such as aloofness and class consciousness. He was also afflicted with a terrible temper when he did not get his way.

But Mendelssohn's music has gone through a rehabilitation of sorts. He is now acknowledged as an inspired composer, conductor, pianist, and one of the greatest musical prodigies of any era.

The Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor is written for the standard grouping of cello, violin and piano. The Piano Trio is one of his most popular chamber music pieces,  along with his Octet for Strings.  The Trio is in 4 movements:

I. Molto allegro ed agitato - The cello begins the movement with the first theme, a lyrical tune that Mendelssohn changes as he repeats it as it leads to the second theme in A major that also begins with the cello. The movement is in sonata form, but the skill of Mendelssohn makes the music seem like one long flowing melody. After the development and recapitulation, the music gains in drama (mostly from the florid piano part) as the first theme makes one last appearance as the movement rushes to a close.

II. Andante con moto tranquillo -
The music of the second movement begins with a solo for piano of the main theme. All the instruments join for a repeat and expansion of the theme. A slightly agitated middle section is in contrast to the preceding. The main theme returns and the music slows to a quiet close.

III. Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace -
 A light, agile scherzo, music that Mendelssohn was known for. 

IV. Finale: Allegro assai appassionato -
 A return to D minor, the main theme is in the same general mood as the first movement. The piano especially has a lot to do in this movement. Contrasting material interrupts the main theme's progress a few times, but the main theme is persistent and keeps returning until it is transformed to the key of D major as the movement speeds towards the end.

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