Robert Schumann: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor,
Op. 63

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, performance by St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, July 14, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Somewhere past the five-minute mark in the first movement of Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, there is a sudden shift in timbre. The violin and cello shimmer, bowing low against their bridges, while the piano plays high, like little bells. In addition to the new color, it is also a new theme, introduced at a late point in the movement when it would be far more typical only to develop established material.

This moment is simply one of the most striking in a piece full of surprises, but the kind of surprises that are the result of an artist’s careful planning, rather than the result of spontaneous improvisation. “I used to compose almost all my shorter pieces in the heat of inspiration,” Schumann wrote in a retrospective diary entry. “Only from the year 1845 onwards, when I started to work out everything in my head, did a completely new manner of composing begin to develop.”

The Piano Trio in D Minor, composed in 1847, reflects Schumann’s “new manner.” Between 1843 and 1844 his work had been sidelined by illness and depression, and when his health improved he began to study counterpoint and fugue alongside his wife, Clara. In 1846, Clara wrote a piano trio of her own (Op. 17 in G minor), which inspired Robert to write twotrios, perhaps revealing the competitive element in the couple’s work and marriage.

Compared to his earlier work, Schumann’s “new manner” relies less on literary influences and idiosyncratic references. It’s intuitively expressive, and in some ways more traditionally rigorous, but continuously finds unique solutions to the old problems of classical form.

The D-minor Trio’s urgent first movement has several distinct themes, connected by liquid pianismand delineated by blocky chordal arrivals. The second movement is built around stepped inclines, which the three fleet-footed instruments skip up together. It concludes with a false ending and a surprise coda.

The slow movement, marked “Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung” (Slowly, with tender feeling), finds the violin and cello going their separate ways, speaking in dialog rather than working together in consort. The lush finale is filled with sinewy strings and rippling piano. Sometimes it lurks uneasily, or settles into a hypnotic groove, but in the end it finds an optimistic outlook in D major. The movement is marked “Mit Feuer”—but it’s not a dangerous fire, more a warm fire of the soul.