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Exploring Music: '' ... What The Composer Had In Mind''

The MHS Review 385, Vol. 11 No. 7, 1987

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David M. Greene


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I don't know who wrote the first piano trio. No one seems to want to talk about it. Apparently it "jus' growed"--from the baroque duo sonata. This release appears designed as a course in the history of the chamber sonata. On page 46 I have tried to explain how the sonata for violin and piano derived from the sonata for violin and continuo by way of the sonata for piano and violin. The so-called piano trio had much the same line of descent.

As noted, the sonata for melody instru­ment and continuo commonly involved three sound sources--a treble, a chor­dophone, and a bass, the choice being often dictated by what specific instruments were available that could do the job (and what does that do to "authentic performance"?). The chordophone was usually a strung­-keyboard type, the treble often a violin, the bass frequently a cello. (You can see the plot thickening!) Now, as I have carefully ex­plained, the keyboard instrument, partly for sociological reasons (set forth in great detail by Arthur Loesser in his 654-page book Men, Women, and Pianos) assumed increasing dominance, the violin being reduced to a sort of vestigial appendage. Old practices die hard, however, and many thought it good to bring in a cellist to rein­force the bass line of the piano part: it sounded nice and kept the fellows off the streets.

Joseph Haydn wrote at least 40 works for keyboard, violin, and bass. The earliest, dating from the 1760s or before, were as just described and were designated as diver­timenti or partite. The later ones, covering a long decade from the mid-'80s to the mid­'90s, are "sonatas," save for Hob. XV:15-17 (1790), which are "trios." Those of the '80s have very simple violin parts, and, with one exception, cello parts that double the keyboard bass. It is only when we get to the final 19 trios, written between 1790 and 1796, that Haydn settles down to writing serious compositions with independent and worthwhile string parts.

Mozart, with considerably less output in the genre, followed a similar path. At the age of eight he wrote what their publica­tion described as "6 Keyboard Sonatas which can be played with the accompani­ment of a violin or transverse flute and a cello." Today these are usually designated violin or flute sonatas, not trios.

In 1776, he produced the first of his six canonical trios for piano, violin, and cello which, Haydn-like, he called a divertimen­to. (A seventh trio is unfinished and pro­blematical.) At the time Mozart was still unimpressively employed at the Salzburg court, and the piece was probably written. for the archbishop's guests to shout over or for home consumption. Typically, the cello doubles the bass line, and the violin has it relatively easy. A year later when the composer, having reached his, majority, set forth vainly to gain his fortune, he played the work with a court violinist in Munich, who, to his amusement and chagrin, made hash of the fiddle part.

Twelve years passed before Mozart com­pleted his penultimate trio (one year to the day before the fall of the Bastille, if you're interested). This work was a very different matter--a full-fledged trio in the modern sense, with each instrument asserting itself independently. We have no specific infor­mation on why it and its two companions were written.

We do know that 1788 was a bad year. The Don Giovanni of the year before had not caused patrons to beat a path to Mozart's door, and the Imperial appoint­ment turned out to pay peanuts. Then Con­stanze got sick and needed medical treat­ment. Soon the Mozarts were broke and desperate, reduced to begging "loans" from friends. No doubt Wolfgang hoped that essays in a now-increasingly popuJar form of Hausmusik would help put him back on an even keel.

In this recording you get to hear the first and next-to-last trios played as Mozart might have heard them, on the instruments and with the techniques of his day. However right or wrong such ventures may be, they certainly present the parts in a rela­tionship that is closer to what the composer had in mind than do performances on modern instruments.

Review of Fine examples of the Evolution of the Piano Trio Wolfgang A Mozart

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