Overcoming the absurdity of life

The force of life. © Charles Thibo

Serenity and joy – those were the emotions that I felt after I had listened several times to Bedrich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15. Interesting when sou consider that the composer wrote this piece st a moment of incomparable sorrow. “The death of my eldest daughter, an exceptionally talented child, motivated me to compose my Trio in G minor”, he confided many years after the tragedy in a letter to one of his physicians.

A musical act of defiance

Smetana wrote this wonderful piece in 1855 at the age of 30. It is a deeply Romantic piece, written before start to develop his own style that would mark the birth of a Czech music school. It is over many parts introspective, an intimate dialogue between the piano, the violin and the cello. But contrary to the reviews I read while writing this post I don’t find much of that dark pessimism they emphasize. Despair and grief? Where? I can’t hear it on my recording by Antje Weithaas (violin), Marie-Elisabeth Hecker (cello) and Huw Watkins (piano).

Here is what I hear: a self-interrogation about the absurdity of life. A way to overcome grief by looking beyond the finity of life. Bedriska’s death was a tragedy for Smetana, no doubt, but it did not paralyse the composer, much to the contrary, it showed him a way to overcome his grief by composing this very special trio. This exemplified by the very rhythmic dance-like theme in the second movement and in the finale, a fast-paced rondo that sounds like an act of defiance, that evolves into a calm elegiac hymn.

Under the influence of Romanticism

At its premiere in 1855 did not meet much success, and one wonders why. Did it sound too German, a reproach that critics were quick to use to stigmatize a piece or a composer? The themes that Smetana uses may remind you of Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, two leading figures of German Romanticism. And quite obviously these two composers had a lasting effect in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

A year later, the audience received the trio more warmly. Smetana himself performed the piano part and another key figure of Romanticism was among those who applauded the piece: Franz Liszt. Liszt was deeply moved, which says a lot, and promoted the works performance in Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Liszt liked to promote other composers; he would come a second time to rescue Smetana when he would recommend his appointment as the director of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Gothenburg (Sweden) aftre Smetana had temporarily emigrated to Sweden.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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