The string trio is an ensemble in which all instruments are of vital importance—there is nowhere to “hide.” The sound is generally lighter, crisper, more agile, and more widely spaced than larger ensembles with the many details immediately exposed to the ear. Yet despite its compactness, the ensemble can still generate a rich string sound. Responsibility rests on all players in democratic distribution of musical material— literally nobody plays “second fiddle.”
In the baroque, “trio sonatas” (two treble instruments and cello) often employed a fourth instrument—a keyboard continuo to fill out the harmonic space and double the bass line. Composers of trios often deal with the traditional need for a fourth voice by assigning an instrument (usually the viola) double-duty-- taking on two voices either through arpeggiation (breaking the chord) or double stopping (playing on two strings simultaneously). The other solution is to embrace the added challenge and turn the quandary into an opportunity. Both Mozart and Martinu do just that, capitalizing on the string trio’s unique sound balance.
Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) String Trio No. 2
Martinů always kept a photograph of the church tower in Polička (a village 100 miles east of Prague) where he was born and raised. The family lived there because the father was assigned the task of winding the bells and keeping a lookout for fires to supplement his income as a shoemaker. Young Bohuslav rarely descended from the tower because the 196-step stairwell was dangerous. The sheltered young boy started to play the violin at the age of 6 and practiced diligently up in the bell tower.
At the age of 16, Martinů was sent to the Prague Conservatory but after his second year was expelled for “incorrigible negligence." The country boy was too fascinated by the city’s attractions to be cooped up in a practice room. During World War I, Martinů evaded conscription in Polička and after the war he was hired as violinist by the Czech Philharmonic. At the same time, his inclination towards composition increased and in 1923 he moved to Paris, where he would stay until 1940. He eventually moved on to live in Nice, New York, Rome, or Switzerland, and came to be regarded as one of the principal Czech composers of the 20th century.
His music reflects the story of his life—Moravian themes tinged with nostalgia mix with French impressionistic riffs and the restless spirit of an increasingly mechanized world. His music is truly Bohemian in both the geographic and the cultural senses of the word. Expert string writing is another hallmark of his style—as one would expect from a professional violinist.
Martinů wrote two string trios. The first was composed in 1921 while still in his homeland and performed by members of the Sevčik Quartet (pupils of the author of famous violin technique books). The second trio was composed in Paris in 1934 for Trio Pasquier. It opens with an explosion busily overlapping and churning vectors that raise quite a fury before relaxing in smooth languid melodies. These two ideas interplay throughout the first movement before settling on three big juicy chords. Officially, the
piece has only two movements, but the second movement rolls both a slow middle movement and fast finale into one. Extended dreamy wanderings are by interrupted by sometimes vigorous, sometimes searching awakenings of fast virtuosic sequences. The piece shows Parisian influence: the rhythms of Stravinsky, the harmonies of Debussy, though always with memories of Polička.
Though Martinů achieved fame in the 1930’s for his ballets and operas, his name survives internationally today through his chamber music. In addition to seven string quartets and the two string trios, he also wrote for other under-utilized combinations-- duets for violin and cello or violin and viola. He even has a serenade for 2 Clarinets, Violin, Viola and Cello in his considerable oeuvre of over 400 compositions.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Divertimento in E flat, K. 563
Mozart started his musical career in noble courts and palaces, performing divertissements for the upper class. But he soon realized that his musical gifts could take him beyond mere entertainment. Swept up in the spirit of the Enlightenment and a newfound resentment for the upper class that Beethoven would take to a further extreme, Mozart sacrificed a life of financial security and worldly comfort in favor of artistic independence.
It therefore comes as a surprise that Mozart’s Trio in E-flat, K. 563, dating from relatively late in his career (1788, the year of his last three symphonies), is entitled “Divertimento.” The title harks back to his younger days in the Salzburg court, pleasing the aristocracy with serenades—amusement for their parties. The six-movement structure also adds to this connotation. But titles can be misleading.
K. 563 is full of complex contrapuntal interweaving that characterizes Mozart’s best late works. The developments explore distant keys and are not afraid of dissonance. The melodic turns and conversations are dramatic and full of drastic character changes. This is no mere divertissement.
Though Mozart achieved his artistic independence as a freelancer in Vienna he still needed money, especially given his extravagant lifestyle. Composition has seldom been a financially promising career, no matter the level of talent. Mozart was forced to borrow money from wealthy friends, and died heavily in debt. He dedicated the Divertimento to J.M. Puchberg, perhaps in lieu of repayment of money owed. Puchberg was a member of the Freemasons, a secretive club of intellectuals that counted Mozart and many of America’s founding fathers among its brotherhood.
This divertimento is among the first compositions for the string trio ensemble, and probably inspired Beethoven’s early set of string trios.
-Be’eri Moalem (www.beeri.org)