Program Notes

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 (1845)

Notes for: July 25, 2006

As a precocious teen-ager, Mendelssohn was interested in string sonorities – he composed his unique String Octet when he was only 16. As a brilliant pianist, he also took an early interest in the piano’s expanding resources, and it was inevitable that he turn to works combining piano with strings. During his lifetime, in fact, he wrote three piano quartets (piano plus three strings), a sextet (piano plus five strings), and two piano trios. The quartets and sextet were early works, however, and only the two trios, composed when he was 30 and 36, have entered the standard repertory.

Mendelssohn composed the second of his two piano trios in April, 1845, when he was at the peak of a hectic career as a composer, performer and music educator. He was the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, then as now one of Germany’s finest. In addition, he was the founding director of a new conservatory in Leipzig, and was in demand all over Germany as the guest conductor and pianist of his own music. Further, in the spring of 1844 had completed his eighth concert tour of England, conducting six concerts of the London Philharmonic in his own works and those of Bach and Beethoven.

Exhausted, in mid-July of 1844, he decided to take a year’s vacation at Soden, a resort near Frankfurt, where he could relax with his family except to meet a few long standing concert commitments. During this interlude, he composed his great Violin Concerto in September, this trio the following April, and his second String Quintet in July. In October he resumed his duties as director of the Gewandhaus, but on a reduced schedule of commitments, and his health and energy level continued to deteriorate until his untimely death in November, 1847.

In the trio’s first movement, Mendelssohn was particularly bold and resourceful in blending the sounds of the instruments. His basic building block is the arpeggio – a chord whose tones are heard in succession rather than simultaneously. Arpeggios are particularly effective on the piano when the damper pedal is used since the pedal permits the individual tones to accumulate.

The first theme, heard at the outset, consists initially of restless piano arpeggios, played pianissimo, with sustained notes in the cello and violin to establish an atmosphere of controlled tension. The tension is increased with a repetition of the arpeggio theme by the strings against piano chords. The music then breaks into a passionate strain for the violin and cello, against a 16th note accompaniment in the piano-derived from the opening arpeggio figure.

The second theme is stated forte by the violin and cello, with the cello soaring into its upper register. While the melody is more lyrical, the piano continues the tension through another 16th-note arpeggio accompaniment. These elements are subjected to a long and dramatic development, with further exploration of the ubiquitous arpeggio pattern in the coda.

The second movement is more relaxed salon music in an undulating 9/8 rhythm. The main part of the ensuing scherzo, in fugal style and fast 2/4 time, is another of those excursions into fairyland that were a Mendelssohn speciality. However, a short contrasting middle section adds a Hungarian Gypsy flavor with trills, accented notes and fluctuations from major to minor.

The finale is again in sonata form, with a jogging first theme set off by the cello with an upward-leaping minor 9th and a buoyant second theme stated by all three instruments. But the real drama of the movement is deferred until the development when the piano introduces a chorale-like melody based on a Lutheran hymn Vor Deinem Thron. The climax of the entire work comes in the coda when the chorale is proclaimed fortissimo by all three instruments with almost orchestral sonority.

Copyright © 2006 by Willard J. Hertz

Notes for: August 4, 2009

As a precocious teen-ager, Mendelssohn was interested in string sonorities – he composed his unique String Octet when he was only 16. As a brilliant pianist, he also took an early interest in the piano’s expanding resources, and it was inevitable that he turn to works combining piano with strings. During his lifetime, in fact, he wrote three piano quartets (piano plus three strings), a piano sextet (piano plus five strings), and two piano trios. The quartets and sextet were early works, however, and only the two trios, composed when he was 30 and 36, are played today with any frequency.

Mendelssohn composed the second of his two piano trios in April, 1845, when he was at the peak of a hectic career as a composer, performer and music educator. He was the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, then as now one of Germany’s finest. In addition, he was the founding director of a new conservatory in Leipzig, and was in demand all over Germany as the guest conductor and pianist of his own music. Further, in the spring of 1844 he had completed his eighth concert tour of England, conducting six concerts of the London Philharmonic in his own works and those of Bach and Beethoven.

Exhausted, in mid-July of 1844, he decided to take a year’s vacation at Soden, a resort near Frankfurt, where he could relax with his family interrupted only by a few long standing concert commitments. During this interlude, he composed his great Violin Concerto in September, this trio the following April, and his second String Quintet in July. In October he resumed his duties as director of the Gewandhaus, but on a reduced schedule of commitments, and his health and energy level continued to deteriorate until his untimely death in November, 1847.

In the trio’s first movement, allegro energico e con fuoco, Mendelssohn was particularly bold and resourceful in blending the sounds of the instruments. His basic building block is the arpeggio – a chord whose tones are heard in succession rather than simultaneously. Arpeggios are particularly effective on the piano when the damper pedal is used since the pedal permits the individual tones to accumulate.

The first theme, heard at the outset, consists initially of restless piano arpeggios, played pianissimo, with sustained notes in the cello and violin to establish an atmosphere of controlled tension. The tension is increased with a repetition of the arpeggio theme by the strings against piano chords. The music then breaks into a passionate strain for the violin and cello, against a 16th note accompaniment in the piano derived from the opening arpeggio figure.

The second theme is stated forte by the violin and cello, with the cello soaring into its upper register. While the melody is more lyrical, the piano continues the tension through another 16th-note arpeggio accompaniment. These elements are subjected to a long and dramatic development, with further exploration of the ubiquitous arpeggio pattern in the coda.

The second movement, andante espressivo, is more relaxed salon music in an undulating 9/8 rhythm. The main part of the ensuing scherzo, molto allegro, quasi presto, in fugal style and fast 2/4 time, is another of those excursions into fairyland that were a Mendelssohn specialty. However, a short contrasting middle section adds a Hungarian Gypsy flavor with trills, accented notes and fluctuations from major to minor.

The finale, allegro appassionato, is again in sonata form, with a jogging first theme set off by the cello with an upward-leaping minor 9th and a buoyant second theme stated by all three instruments. But the real drama of the movement is deferred until the development when the piano introduces a chorale-like melody based on a Lutheran hymn Vor Deinem Thron. The climax of the entire work comes in the coda when the chorale is proclaimed fortissimo by all three instruments with almost orchestral sonority.

Copyright © 2009 by Willard J. Hertz