The tradition of the elegiac piano trio

By Julie-Anne Derome

The term elegiac refers to elegy, from the greek word elegeia “song of the dead” and so in music will usually signal a melancholic melody. In the Russian piano trio repertoire, there are five celebrated elegiac trios: one by Tchaikovsky, two by Rachmaninov, one by Arensky and one by Shostakovich. And what they all have in common is that they were written within a very short time frame, as if the grief associated with the works triggered vivid inspiration to the composers and an urgency to transcribe harrowing feelings into powerful compositions.

Élégie, par William Bouguereau (1899)
Élégie, by William Bouguereau (1899).

Tchaikovsky wrote his piano trio between December 1881 and late January 1882. It is subtitled In memory of a great artist, in reference to Nikolai Rubinstein, his close friend and mentor. Rachmaninov Trio elégiaque no.1 was written in 4 days, between January 18 and 21 1892. Rachmaninov’s Trio elégiaque no.2 was written in 1893 in 2 months, Triggered by the death of Tchaikovsky on October 23, 1893, Rachmaninov responded by beginning a work in his memory two days later. Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No.1, whose second movement is named Elegy, was written in 1894 and is dedicated to the memory of the renowned Russian cellist, Karl Davydov. On 11 February 1944, the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky died. Shostakovich wrote to his widow that “Ivan Ivanovich was my very closest and dearest friend … To live without him will be unbearably difficult.” Although Sollertinsky became the official dedicatee of the Trio op.67, it was also during these months that Shostakovich read news reports about the Nazi death camps. So, the trio is a broader elegy reacting to the victimization of humanity.

It is often said that Tchaikovsky started the tradition of elegiac trios, but it should be specified that this would be the case in Russia only because, in fact, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana wrote an elegiac trio in 1855. The prime motivation for his Piano Trio was personal tragedy.

Bedřich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana
Bedřich Smetana was born in 1824. He wrote his Piano Trio in the winter of 1855 in less than two months, when he was 31 years old. In 1849, at the age of 25, his modest income enabled him to marry his beloved Katerina. They lived happily together and had three daughters over the next few years. The eldest, Bedriska, born in 1851, soon showed signs of exceptional gifts. He mother described in her diary taking the little girl, aged four, to a concert in February 1855 at which Smetana conducted his Triumph Symphony.

‘This concert, given by her father, was to be Bedriska’s first and last. How quietly and cheerfully she sat through the whole long concert, listening attentively.’

The previous year, the Smetanas had already lost one daughter to tuberculosis. And now, eight months after that concert, Bedriska died from scarlet fever, in October 1855. Smetana wrote in his diary: ‘Nothing can replace Bedriska, the angel whom death has stolen from us.’

His reaction to the loss was to throw himself into his music, producing at the age of thirty-one the first work to reveal his full power as a composer, the Piano Trio in G minor. Smetana himself acknowledged the inspiration of the Trio in a letter: “The loss of my eldest daughter, that extraordinarily gifted child, inspired me to write the Trio in G minor in 1855. In the winter of the same year, in December, it was performed in public in Prague, with myself at the piano, Königslöw, violin, and Goltermann, cello.

Success—nil. The critics condemned it of one accord … A year later we played it to Liszt at my home; he fell round my neck and congratulated my wife on the work.”

Trio in G minor from Smetana will be performed at our next concert
Friday, April 20, Bourgie Hall, 7:30 pm

French version

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