A tender look back at a great teacher

After the rain, a new day begins. © Charles Thibo
After the rain, a new day begins. © Charles Thibo

It is hard to imagine, but yes, it is true: Pyotr Tchaikovsky could not stand the sound of a violin or cello accompanied with a piano! Can you believe that? All those trios written by Mozart, Haydn or Schubert, and here comes Tchaikovsky and says: I don’t like it, it sounds awkward. In a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, dated 18 October 1880 he justifies himself after she had teased him why he had not written a trio when she would hear so many of them in Florence, where she stayed in autumn 1880.

Rubinstein’s death as a trigger

But as we have seen in earlier post, Tchaikovsky was a man full of contradictions and von Meck’s question probably hit one of Tchaikovsky’s weak spots. Before anyone would have a chance to say that writing trios would be beyond his capacities, he would rather start to compose one on the spot. Within two years, he had come up with an absolute masterpiece: the Trio in A minor for piano, violin and cello, Op. 50. Something had happened. His great mentor Nikolai Rubinstein had died in 1881. That came as a profound shock to Tchaikovsky. Rubinstein was one of the closest friends Tchaikovsky ever had, and his death compelled Tchaikovsky to write a piece to commemorate the musician that meant to much to Tchaikovsky.

Between struggle and joy

In December 1881, he writes to von Meck: “Despite my antipathy, I have decided to test myself in this field [the piano trio]. I do not hide from you that I have to overcome myself at times to express my musical ideas in this new and unusual form”. A few days after he had written this, he came – again in a letter to von Meck – to the conclusion: “This piece interests and entertains me a lot, and the idea that you are going to like the trio, makes my work quite seductive”. By January 1882, the sketches were finished, a month later he had written the whole score and sent it to his publisher Jurgenson.

Eleven variations

Now to the piece. From a formal point, it is written in three movements, but the second movement consists of a single theme with eleven variations. Tchaikovsky characterized the first movement as “weeping”, and that is exactly what it is: a tender look back at a friend who has gone forever, beautiful memories mixing with regret and pain about the loss. In the second movement, the piano first explores the main theme, and later the violin and the cello pick it up through the different variations, in different pitches and at different speeds. He integrates a “Tempo di valse”, his favourite dance, and a fugue. The final movement is a little special. It is as long as the variations of he second movement taken together and first expresses a lot of joy, inspired by a popular Russian dance, but towards the end it returns to the mournful atmosphere of the first movement.

Op. 50 is one of the many pieces written by Tchaikovsky that move me to tears. In my opinion, few composers have been able to express the feeling of tenderness between grown-ups in such an unobtrusive way. Tchaikovsky’s melodies carry admiration and true friendship without tilting into the ridiculous or the pompous. A great work!

Lang Lang, Vadim Repin and Mischa Maisky have released an exceptional recording of the trio in 2009. It also features Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor.

© Charles Thibo

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