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Mendelssohn Piano Trios

The monumental collaboration between violinist Philip Setzer, cellist David Finckel, and pianist Wu Han continues as they venture through the piano trios of Romentic-era composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Felix Mendelssohn
Piano Trio no. 1 in d minor, op. 49
Piano Trio no. 2 in c minor, op. 66



Wu Han (piano), Philip Setzer (violin), David Finckel (cello)



Notes on the Music:

Mendelssohn's Piano Trios
by Larry Todd

Chamber music was a lifelong companion of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847), both as a composer and performer. Among his earliest compositions is a one-movement Recitativo in d minor for piano and strings, written in 1820; according to pianist Ignaz Moscheles, the composer’s last efforts included a set of variations in the same key for string quartet, though no traces of this project survive. Between the ages of eleven and thirty-eight, Mendelssohn produced duo sonatas with piano accompaniment (one each for viola and clarinet, two for cello, and several for violin, though he published only one), the two “grand” piano trios recorded here, several string quartets (others were left in his musical estate, including twelve youthful, thoroughly Bachian fugues), two string quintets, one sextet (piano and strings), and the inimitable Octet, which, composed when he was only sixteen, surely counts as one of the most stunning examples of musical precocity in the Western classical tradition.

Notwithstanding Mendelssohn’s legendary abilities as a conductor and organist, as a performer he was chiefly celebrated as a pianist and took his place among the great nineteenth-century virtuosi. He frequently promoted chamber music, whether at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where he founded in the 1840s a chamber music series (the Abendunterhaltungen); at his family residence in Berlin, where his sister Fanny Hensel presided over fortnightly concerts; or at other venues. In London, where Mendelssohn often appeared at the Philharmonic to perform a concerto or conduct, he routinely participated in intimate chamber music gatherings; at least two, in May and June 1844, featured memorable performances of the Piano Trio in d minor, op. 49. At the first, when the violinist missed a page turn, Mendelssohn casually improvised a few measures, causing a banker in the audience to quip that there were more notes in circulation “than allowed by printed authority.” And at another concert just days later, when Mendelssohn discovered that no part for the trio had been placed for him on the piano, he directed an assistant to substitute some other music and periodically turn its pages, lest the composer’s vaunted powers of memory became the center of the performance (playing from memory in the 1840s was still a relatively rare event).

What is not fully appreciated about Mendelssohn is that he was also adept as a violinist and violist, and not adverse to picking up a challenging part from his Octet and joining in a performance, as he did to surprise music-loving Leipzigers at the Gewandhaus in 1840. Mendelssohn knew and associated with the premier violinists of his time. They included Paganini, an “unnatural, wild genius” with the “appearance of a crazed murderer, and the movements of a monkey,” in the judgment of Mendelssohn’s elder sister, Fanny; the French violinists Rodolphe Kreutzer, dedicatee of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, and Pierre Rode; the Belgian Henri Vieuxtemps; the Norwegian Ole Bull, whose playing of the Hardanger folk fiddle was all the rage; Louis Spohr, to whom Mendelssohn dedicated his second piano trio, in c minor, op. 66; Ferdinand David, for whom the composer wrote his Violin Concerto in e minor; and the young Joseph Joachim, whom Mendelssohn took under his wing, alternately dubbing him Posaunenengel and Teufelsbraten—trombone cherub and devilish villain. Though Mendelssohn was not a cellist, his younger brother, Paul, was, and the recipient of some finely crafted variations from the composer. In addition, Mendelssohn knew the young Jacques Offenbach, first established as a cello virtuoso; seriously contemplated writing a cello concerto for the Italian virtuoso Alfredo Piatti; and produced a lyrical Lied ohne Worte for one of the few women cellists of his age, Lisa Cristiani.

In approaching the hallowed genre of the piano trio, Mendelssohn was well versed in the classical examples of Mozart (and, to a lesser extent, of Haydn) and steeped in the trios of Beethoven (the “Archduke” Trio appears to have been his favorite). In 1836, he read Schubert’s newly published Piano Trio in B-flat Major at a private gathering; a distinctive harmonic progression from its first movement (for the music-theory inclined, featuring a recurring augmented-sixth sonority) quite possibly left traces in the first movement of op. 49.

Mendelssohn’s piano trios are unthinkable without these precedents; yet, they inhabit a special realm all their own. Robert Schumann was among the first to recognize their value in a review in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that greeted the release of op. 49 in 1840. Here he declared that Mendelssohn was the “Mozart of the nineteenth century” and the most brilliant among living musicians, who had perceived the contradictions of his time and reconciled them. Schumann’s prose was often as elusive and sphinx-like as his music, and he did not elucidate the contradictions, though some enlightened speculation might allow us to tease out his meaning. Schumann was writing at a time when German aestheticians were beginning to develop the idea of a classic-romantic divide in music history, in which the classical style of Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven was set against nineteenth-century romanticism, whether manifested in Carl Maria von Weber’s “romantic” opera Der Freischütz (1821), Schubert’s poetic song cycles, or Schumann’s fanciful, at times madcap, piano cycles. In 1812, E. T. A. Hoffmann had used a review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an outlet to describe effusively the romantic power of instrumental music, and without hesitating he grouped Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven together as romantic composers.

But by the 1830s and 1840s, romantic styles had separated from Viennese classicism in more and more pronounced ways, and the idea of a classic/romantic divide began to gain currency. As a young composer, Mendelssohn was raised in eighteenth-century traditions, yet he was captivated as well by the music of his time. He became, in effect, a classic-romantic composer whose music mediated between these contrasting poles of musical expression and reconciled them. In labeling Mendelssohn the Mozart of the nineteenth century, Schumann was plausibly hearing the op. 49 in terms of this binary construct, with all its seeming contradictions.

These two sides of Mendelssohn’s music manifest themselves in striking ways in the piano trios. On the one hand, their surface betrays a classical poise and equilibrium in the composer’s approach to thematic construction and application of form. Mendelssohn tends to prefer themes—e.g., the openings of op. 49 and of the finale of op. 66—that readily parse into symmetrical units, often four-bar phrases, that recall the classical symmetry and balance of Mozart’s music. In his approach to form, Mendelssohn also remains indebted to classical paradigms—in the outer movements, sonata form, and rondo—that depend upon clearly demarcated, well-proportioned sections. But beneath the surface equipoise, the music conveys a quite different spirit, one beholden to romantic subjectivity. Thus, the four-square cello theme that opens op. 49 is accompanied by an undercurrent of syncopated chords in the piano, which inject an agitated, dramatic element in tension with the theme as it unfolds. The murky, blurry opening of op. 66, with its gradual emergence of three harmonic tiers, has much more in common, say, with the evocative opening of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture than with the classical tradition. And in the inner movements, the composer reveals fully his nineteenthcentury sensibilities. The slow movements are expressive Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), inspired by the miniatures for piano solo that became identified with Mendelssohn’s style. And the nimble, mercurial scherzi, with their gossamer textures and puckish excursions, are pure caprice and fantasy. Their composer is the romantic Mendelssohn, the composer of the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, or of the scherzo of the Octet, based on the phantasmagoric Walpurgis Night’s Dream sequence from Goethe’s Faust.

Finally, what of Mendelssohn’s own influence on nineteenth-century chamber music? As it happened, both piano trios inspired other composers. In the case of op. 49, the most obvious responses were from Fanny Hensel and Robert Schumann, both of whom wrote piano trios in the same key, d minor, in 1847. In particular, the opening movements of the Hensel (op. 11) and Schumann (op. 63) betray striking similarities to Mendelssohn’s opening theme (its defining gesture, the pitches A–D–C-sharp– D–F, is transformed by Hensel to A–A–A–D–A–F, and by Schumann to A–D–C-sharp–F). But it remained for Brahms, the last great nineteenth-century German proponent of chamber music, to have the final say by drawing on Mendelssohn’s op. 66—though not in any of his own three piano trios. Rather, the locus of Brahms’s preoccupation with Mendelssohn was the finale of his first Piano Quartet, op. 60, finished late in 1874 and cast in the same key as op. 66, c minor. The quiet opening of Brahms’s finale is like a distant, receding memory of the opening of Mendelssohn’s op. 66, later made more vivid by Brahms’s use of two specialized techniques borrowed from op. 66—turning the opening piano figure upside down (mirror inversion), and presenting its rhythmic values twice as slow (augmentation). If that were not enough, for his second theme Brahms fashions a chorale-like melody, an idea almost surely borrowed from the finale of op. 66. There, near the middle of the movement, Mendelssohn introduces one of his so-called “free chorales,” in this case a melody that partially alludes to the Lutheran chorale “Gelobet seist Du, Jesu Christ” before veering off into freely composed strains. That Brahms would recall this device in 1874, when German music was roiled by the great divide between Brahms, on the one hand, and Wagner and Liszt on the other, suggests that Brahms grappled with the contradictions of his own time and, in his own way, sought to reconcile them.

-R. Larry Todd (Arts & Sciences Professor of Music, Duke University, and the author of Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, and Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn)

Notes on the Music
by Patrick Castillo

(Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg; died November 4, 1847, Leipzig)


Composed: 1839
Published: 1840
Other works from this period: String Quartets, op. 44
(1837–1838); Cello Sonata no. 1 in B-flat Major, op. 45 (1838);
Symphony no. 2 in B-flat Major, op. 52 “Lobgesang” (1840)

Mendelssohn drafted the Opus 49 Piano Trio between June and July of 1839 and completed a revision in September. The work is a study in Romantic Sturm und Drang, which is strongly present from the opening measures of the first movement Molto allegro ed agitato. Mendelssohn entrusts the initial statements of both the ominous first theme and the lyrical second theme to the cello. Though disparate in character, these diametric ideas mirror each other in the arch of their respective melodic contours and consequent Romantic ardor.

For much of the first movement—indeed throughout the trio—Mendelssohn casts the piano in a concertante role. The pianist and Mendelssohn intimate Ferdinand Hiller apparently steered Mendelssohn toward the work’s more progressively virtuosic style. When shown an early draft of the trio, Hiller remarked that he found the piano writing old-fashioned. He later recalled:

I had lived many years in Paris, seeing Liszt frequently and Chopin every day, so that I was thoroughly accustomed to the richness of passages which marked the new pianoforte school. I made some observations to Mendelssohn on this point, suggesting certain alterations. . . . We discussed it and tried it on the piano over and over again, and I enjoyed the small triumph of at last getting Mendelssohn over to my view.

The middle movements demonstrate two essential dimensions of Mendelssohn’s musical language. The second movement begins in the style of Mendelssohn’sLieder ohne Worte. The piano introduces the lied, thereafter set as a loving duet between the violin and cello. The scherzo reflects the Midsummer Night’s Dreamcharacter frequently encountered throughout Mendelssohn’s catalog.

The finale begins with a portentous quiet. The dactyl that marks the opening theme drives the entire movement; even the sunnier second theme, introduced by the piano, marches to this rhythm. Underneath an ensuing cantabile section, reminiscent of the second movement’s Lied ohne Worte, the piano recalls a triplet accompanimental figure used in the first movement. Mendelssohn thus confirms this finale as a thoughtfully wrought summation of the entire work. After thorough development of the movement’s various thematic ideas, the work emerges from the brooding key of d minor to the sunnier D major and ends with a triumphant hurrah.


Composed and published: 1845
Dedication: Louis Spohr
Other works from this period: Violin Concerto in e minor, op. 64 (1844); Six Organ Sonatas, op. 65 (1844–1845); Elijah for choir and orchestra, op. 70 (1846)

Mendelssohn completed the second of his two piano trios, the Opus 66 Trio in c minor, in 1845, six years after the first. Though he presented the work as a birthday present to his sister Fanny, the published score bears a dedication to Mendelssohn’s friend and colleague Louis Spohr. In addition to his compositional renown, Spohr was known as one of the leading violinists of the day and took part in numerous performances of Mendelssohn’s Trio in c minor with the composer at the piano.

Like its elder sibling, this trio exudes Romantic pathos immediately from its opening strains. A serpentine piano melody rises to a forceful cadence, only to return to a nervous whisper in the strings. Mendelssohn extends this theme to another upward arching musical idea in the violin and cello; a frenzy of sixteenth notes in the piano underneath inverts the contour of the theme, quietly sinking lower and lower. The movement’s second theme, introduced by the violin, could be the doppelgänger of the first: the heroic counterpart to the tortured opening measures.

The Andante espressivo, analogous to the Andante movement of the Opus 49 Trio, is a vintage Lied ohne Worte: this music encapsulates Romanticism at its most deeply heartfelt. Of the quicksilver third movement, Mendelssohn yielded that the perilously fast tempo might be “a trifle nasty to play.”

Among the themes of Mendelssohn’s life is his complicated relationship with religion. He was born into a prominent Jewish family—his grandfather was the distinguished Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn—but Felix’s father, Abraham, insisted that the family convert to Christianity as a means of assimilating into contemporary German society. The hyphenated surname often used in reference to the composer, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, was likewise insisted upon by Abraham Mendelssohn on the premise that “there can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius.”

Though it does not bear any explicit program, the Opus 66 finale might nevertheless be heard to reflect the nuanced role of religion in Mendelssohn’s life and artistry. The movement begins with a dance-like theme whose shape and articulation (and opening melodic interval of a minor ninth) suggest Jewish folk music. Later in the movement, Mendelssohn unexpectedly introduces the Lutheran hymn “Gelobet seist Du, Jesu Christ.” While the piano offers the hymn, the strings play fragments of the opening theme. Extending this juxtaposition of musical ideas—indeed, ultimately reconciling the two—the movement escalates to an ecstatic climax. A radiantly transfigured version of the opening dance-like melody gets the last word, propelling the trio to a riveting final cadence.