Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Program notes for the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle
Not to be reprinted without permission
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019
In October 1880, Nadezhda von Meck, Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s patron and confidante, wrote to ask: “Pyotr Il’yich, why have you not written a single trio? I regret this every day because every day they play me a trio, and I always sigh because you have not composed a single one.” She enclosed a photograph of the resident musicians she employed, including the young pianist Claude Debussy. Neither the photo nor the letter immediately inspired Tchaikovsky to write a trio, but it put the thought in his mind, and the following year another event would prompt him to write the piece we hear today.
Tchaikovsky had been kept extraordinarily busy in Moscow: he had so many performances that one critic declared, “the last week of the 1880 Moscow musical season might truly be called Tchaikovsky week.” In March of the following year, while resting in Italy, he received word that the pianist Nikolay Rubinstein had died in Paris.
Although their professional relationship had often been tumultuous, Rubinstein was Tchaikovsky’s greatest musical champion, and his death profoundly affected the composer. He decided to commemorate Rubinstein in a piece with a virtuosic piano part. By January 1882, he had worked out detailed sketches for the Piano Trio in A Minor, and was soon satisfied with the trio’s musical content but remained insecure about the practical handling of the violin and cello parts. He wrote to his publisher, “before you engrave it…It’s absolutely essential that a stringed instrument expert should give his attention to my bow markings and correct what is unsuitable.”
The piece received a private performance at the Moscow Conservatory on the first anniversary of Rubinstein’s death; it was published the following fall with some revisions and the dedication “To the memory of a great artist.” At its first public performance in October 1882, the critical reception was mixed, but Tchaikovsky was heartened by the comments of the pianist and composer Sergei Taneyev, who said, “I can’t remember ever having experienced more pleasure when learning a new piece…Most musicians are delighted with the Trio. It has also pleased the public.”
The trio’s first movement, Pezzo elegiac, begins with rushing piano chords above which the cello and then violin enter. The piano then takes up the heart-tugging chords that characterize much of the piece.
The second movement, Tema con variazioni, begins with a simple theme in the piano followed by eleven variations and a coda. The first variation brings in the strings, while the second variation takes off at a brisk pace. The third variation features string pizzicato and cheerful piano writing. The fourth contrasts brooding passion with whimsical moments and segues directly into the striking fifth variation, which uses bell-like piano above droning strings and ends quietly with the strings alone. The sixth variation features the cello and violin in succession, while the seventh contains large piano chords and quick runs in the strings. The eighth variation uses low piano writing and vigorous violin and cello lines, and the ninth begins with decorative piano runs and a mournful violin tune, ending with an almost deathly cello note. The tenth variation is once again in the cheerful major mode but is briefly inflected with minor. The final variation features cello pizzicato and a soaring violin melody, ending with calm piano chords.
The coda begins vigorously with running lines between the three instruments, and there is a firm restatement of the theme from the first movement before the work disappears back into mourning.