There is really no greater pleasure than having composed something and then to hear it.
Clara Schumann (1819–1896)
Piano Trio in G minor, op. 17
Scherzo: Tempo di menuetto
Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor, op. 17, is considered one of her greatest masterpieces and her most ambitious, large-scale work since the Piano Concerto she wrote as a teenager.
Schumann completed her Trio in 1946 during the stressful years following her move to Dresden, in December 1844, with her husband Robert, whose health had declined considerably. During their stay in Dresden, before they moved to Düsseldorf in 1850, Clara had four more children (she already had two daughters), managed the household, cared for Robert, and contributed to the family’s finances by teaching piano lessons and giving performances.
Clara and Robert had studied the chamber music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven together early in their marriage, and dove into a study of polyphony in January of 1845. Clara put these studies into practice in her subsequent compositions, including her Opus 16 Three Preludes and Fugues and this Trio, particularly the final movement’s fugue section.
While Schumann was often ambivalent about her composing in her letters and diary entries, she wrote after completing the Trio: ‘There is really no greater pleasure than having composed something and then to hear it.’
The Piano Trio was a success with critics and audiences, though even among friends like violinist Joseph Joachim, few responses were entirely free of sexism. ‘I recollect a fugato in the last movement and remember that [Felix] Mendelssohn once had a big laugh because I would not believe that a woman could have composed something so sound and serious,’ Joachim wrote.
The Trio inspired Robert to write his own Trio in D minor a year later, and it was performed frequently during the nineteenth century, including by Johannes Brahms.
The opening movement of Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio is grand and romantic, the violin introducing the first theme before the piano picks it up, while the second theme is decisive. The longest of the Trio’s four movements, the Allegro moderato culminates in a return of the first theme, the violin and cello in tandem, before a final dramatic flourish.
Scherzo: Tempo di menuetto
The playful second movement makes a feature of jaunty dotted rhythms, or ‘Scotch snaps’, while the central ‘Trio’ section is more yearning, almost wistful, before the Scotch snaps return.
The Andante is an incredibly beautiful, song-like movement, the piano introducing an exquisite melody which the violin then takes over, accompanied by plucked cello and undulating piano. Dotted rhythms, here more lyrical, recall the second movement’s Scotch snaps.
The swift-moving current of the fourth movement’s main theme soon flows into the brooding lines of Bach-like counterpoint that so impressed Felix Mendelssohn and others. Musicologist Joan Chissell described this movement as Schumann’s ‘craftmanship at its peak.’
‘Not only can the first theme be regarded as a metamorphosis of the opening phrase of the Andante,’ she wrote, ‘but in the development section its own rhythm is changed into a stern, quasi-fugal subject which, juxtaposed with the second subject, is explored with a contrapuntal cunning of which Mendelssohn would not have been ashamed even if a little too academic for [Robert] Schumann.’
© Angus McPherson, 2023