Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Mendelssohn - Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 66

Felix Mendelssohn's life was a busy one from the days of his youthful study of music and art to his adult life as a performer, administrator and composer. The year that his C minor piano trio was composed saw him take a break from his strenuous duties as conductor and music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra. His tremendous workload had taken its toll on his health, which was never to be as robust as before. The death of his beloved sister Fanny in 1847 was the final tragedy he could not overcome. She had died of complications from a stroke, a family medical situation that also took the lives of both of his parents and grandfather. Felix had a series of strokes as well, and died at the age of 38 six months after his sister.

The 2nd piano trio came six years after the Piano Trio No. 1 In D Minor, which is more often performed than the 2nd.

I. Allegro energico e con fuoco - The beginning of the first movement starts with a swirl of C minor in the piano:
Mendelssohn's gift for melody was as great (and often greater) than other composers and it is one of the traits for which he is best known. But this opening is not a melody at all, and not much of a theme either. Mendelssohn was one of the musicians that was most involved with the bringing back of J.S. Bach's music to the public in the early 19th century, and this opening is similar to the way Bach created musical feeling by means of harmony without obvious melody. The strings take up the swirl as the piano plays the harmony in block chords. A melody finally begins that is in C minor and is an extension of the harmonies heard in the opening. The music seamlessly segues into what may be thought of as another main theme of the exposition, this time with hints of B-flat major and G minor. The opening motive returns before the exposition seamlessly moves into the development section without being repeated. The recapitulation has the expected modulations of keys in the secondary themes and leads to a coda that turns calm before it erupts in a blast of octaves in the piano and the movement ends in C minor.

II. Andante espressivo - The second movement is a gentle melody in E-flat major that is first heard in the piano. The strings comment upon it, and the melody continues until a section in the minor is heard. The music ebbs and flows, but remains in a graceful humor, even in the more bitter sweet moments in the middle section.

III. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto - A rapid scherzo of the type that Mendelssohn was known for:

If his intensely fast metronome marking of half note equals 88 beats is followed, it is a difficult movement to bring off with the proper lightness. It is quite short and ends before you know it.

IV. Finale: Allegro appassionato -  This movement is a rondo, with the recurring rondo theme solidly in C minor while the various episodes that are played between repeats of the rondo theme differ in character:

One of the episodes sounds somewhat like a chorale that has been described as a chorale tune used by Bach (which indeed he did), a hymn written by Martin Luther titled Herr Gott Dich Loben Wir (Lord God We Praise You), and a melody known as Old Hundredth taken from the association it had with the 100th psalm in the English church that was sung to the words 'Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow'.  Why Mendelssohn used this tune is not known. Some conjecture that it was an affirmation of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity, but he never commented on it. Perhaps he just liked the tune and thought it would be a good fit for his piano trio. This episode returns near the end of the movement, and along with the main theme of the movement returning in C major, the trio ends in a positive mood.

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