Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

I think that at any moment I shall go mad or lose my mind. I have never worked so hard, with such insane heroic rage.


The source of Ravel’s rage was the dawn of World War I, and the output of his labor was his Piano Trio. In composing the Trio, Ravel was aware of the compositional difficulties posed by the genre: how to reconcile the contrasting sonorities of the piano and the string instruments, and how to achieve balance between the three instrumental voices, especially since the cello often is not heard as easily. Ravel addressed this problem by taking an orchestral approach, using the extreme ranges of each instrument, creating rich textures and effects with trills, harmonics, and arpeggios. To achieve clarity in texture and secure balance, Ravel frequently spaced the violin and cello lines two octaves apart, with the right hand of the piano playing between them.

Inspiration for the musical content of the Trio came from a wide variety of sources. In the opening movement, Modéré, Ravel evokes the Basque music from his native region by using an irregular 3+2+3 meter. The Pantoum of the second movement refers to a form of verse used in Malaysian poetry, where the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next. The third movement, a stately Passacaille reflecting Baroque techniques, is a haunting set of ten variations progressive in their intensity until the seventh one. The Final is orchestral in nature, containing many references to Ravel’s Spanish influences.

Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, op. 60

You may place a picture on the title page, namely a head—with a pistol in front of it. This will give you some idea of the music. I shall send you a photograph of myself for the purpose. Blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots would do well, as you seem to like color printing.

Brahms, to his publisher

Brahms first worked on the C minor piano quartet from 1854 to 1856, a period of great strain and anxiety for the young composer. With his benefactor and dear friend Robert Schumann suffering with severe mental illness, Brahms found himself torn between fidelity to Robert and deep affection for Clara, Schumann’s wife. When Robert was hospitalized, Brahms rushed to Düsseldorf to help Clara and her seven children, writing to her, “Would to God that I were allowed this day… to repeat to you with my own lips that I am dying for love of you.” He remained with her only until Schumann died in July 1856.

Many of the complex and turbulent emotions Brahms was suffering seem to have flowed into the piano quartet. When Brahms played through the piece, though, he was not pleased and set it aside. Seventeen years later, Brahms finally returned to the quartet.

Brahms’s vivid pictorial description above fits Werther, the morbidly sentimental hero of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, who kills himself for the unrequited love of his friend’s wife, hence the quartet acquired the subtitle “Werther.”

While the tragedy of the piano quartet is most strongly felt in the first movement, its emotional center is the third. Biographer Richard Specht considers the opening cello melody to be Brahms’s reluctant farewell to Clara, a pained acknowledgement of their doomed relationship. Brahms took inspiration from the opening theme in the first movement of Mendelssohn’s second piano trio to create the underlying current for the final movement.

Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, op. 66

Mendelssohn’s second piano trio was completed in 1845, two years before the end of his short life. The piece is laid out on a large scale, featuring soaring, lyrical melodies and intricate, virtuosic passagework for the three instruments. Mendelssohn, who played piano in the first performances, was joined by the famous violinist Louis Spohr, to whom the piece is dedicated.

In contrast to the restless first movement, Mendelssohn offers a warmly reassuring Song Without Words as the basis of the second movement. The third movement Scherzo, which Mendelssohn himself described as “a trifle nasty to play,” is brisk and sparkling, leading way to a spirited finale of contrasting themes, one of which is most notably a quotation of a psalter known in English as Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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