…one of Dvořák’s most affecting songs of yearning
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Piano Trio No. 2 in G minor, op. 26
Finale: Allegro non tanto
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was the son of a butcher and innkeeper. He received his first violin lessons from his father but it wasn’t until his teenage years – when he lived with his uncle – that he began to receive a more thorough music education, learning viola, piano and organ before studying at the Prague Organ School. Afterwards he worked as a gigging violist in Prague, where he befriended fellow Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, and later found employment as a piano accompanist, teacher and organist at Prague’s St Adalbert Church.
Dvořák wrote his Second Piano Trio, op. 26, in 1876, two years before his first set of Slavonic Dances would bring him international fame and set in motion the events that would eventually take him to the ‘New World’.
These were hard years for the composer. Dvořák wrote this Trio a few months after his second child, Josefa, died two days after she was born. Many have therefore concluded that this work is an outpouring of grief, though Dvořák never explicitly indicated that this was the case. The key of G minor, however, lends itself to this theory, as this was the key Smetana turned to when composing a piano trio in memory of his own eldest daughter when she died in 1855.
Dvořák wrote this Trio as he was becoming increasingly well-known as a composer in his homeland. The work – along with his Fifth Symphony and String Quartet in E major – formed part of the portfolio that earned him the Austrian State Stipendium for the third year in a row in 1877, allowing him to resign his job as an organist. He would win the stipend again the following year, gaining a champion in one of the judges, Johannes Brahms.
The Trio was published in 1878 – the first of Dvořák’s piano trios to be published – and Dvořák played the piano at the premiere in 1879, alongside violinist Ferdinand Lachner and cellist Alois Neruda.
Robust chords from piano, violin and cello lift the curtain on Dvořák’s Piano Trio in G minor, a dramatic introduction before first the piano, then the violin give us the movement’s winding first theme. The dramatic chords return as the movement intensifies.
It’s in the slow movement that we hear the clearest indication that the Trio is infused with grief. The cello begins a slow, beautiful lament, accompanied by chords from the piano, before the violin joins them. Dvořák biographer Neil Wenborn describes this movement as ‘one of Dvořák’s most affecting songs of yearning’.
The Scherzo trips along effervescently, the piano chasing the violin. The movement’s Trio section is gentler, piano and strings trading a more lyrical melody, before the swift Scherzo returns.
Finale: Allegro non tanto
The finale gives us a hint of the Slavonic Dances still to come with its boisterous, almost cheeky energy, emphatic chords recalling the opening of the first movement.
© Angus McPherson, 2023