Smetana - Piano Trio in G minor Opus 15
Type of Spiritual Experience
In the years between 1854 and 1856 Smetana suffered a series of personal blows. In July 1854 his second daughter, Gabriela, died of tuberculosis. A year later his eldest daughter Bedřiška, who at the age of four was showing signs of musical precocity, died of scarlet fever. Smetana wrote his Piano Trio in G minor as a tribute to her memory; it was performed in Prague on 3 December 1855.
The death of Smetana's daughter Bedřiška was the emotional impetus behind the composition of the Trio for Piano and Strings in G minor, Op. 15. After Bedřiška succumbed to scarlet fever on 6 September 1855, Smetana was devastated; the composer immersed himself in composition, producing the trio soon enough for it to be performed later that year. Critical response was negative and may have prompted Smetana to revise the piece two years later, despite the fact that Liszt praised the work when he heard it in 1856. It was the most significant piece of chamber music he had composed up to that time, but it was not published until 1879, in Hamburg.
A description of the experience
The work is in three movements, all of which are in G minor:
- The first movement is intense and lyrical, and begins with the violin alone playing a theme on the dark G string. The theme's chromatic descent through a perfect fifth evokes a Baroque-era musical symbol for grief. In nineteenth century fashion, however, Smetana extends the melody before arriving at the secondary theme of this gloomy sonata-form movement. The second theme is brighter in character than the first, and this section is further lightened by upward chromatic shifts in harmony. The development section has a central high point, followed by meandering passages that give way to the recapitulation, which brings back the tragic mood.
- In the ensuing Intermezzo movement we hear references to the first movement. Its principal theme, a polka, seems to suggest the playful Bedřiška, although it is derived from the main theme of the first movement. The movement is divided into two alternativo sections, the first of which, pastoral in atmosphere, evokes Schumann. The second of these is more mournful and includes march-like rhythms.
- For the main theme of the rondo finale, Smetana borrows nearly 100 measures from his own Piano Sonata in G minor of 1846. He also uses a fugato figure from his Characteristic Variations on a Czech Folksong. Buzzing with restless energy, the rondo theme creates a stark contrast to the preceding Intermezzo. This energy, however, is interrupted by sad, lyrical episodes for the cello. Smetana creates rhythmic drive through the simultaneous sounding of duplets and triplets through long passages in the 6/8 time movement. When the secondary theme returns near the end, it is transformed into a funeral march, with drum-like figures as accompaniment. Perhaps surprisingly, the work ends in the major mode