About this work
On August 2, 1946, Schoenberg suffered a nearly fatal heart attack. Shortly afterward, almost as though in reaction, he set to work on the String Trio, Op. 45, composed between August 20 and September 23. Commissioned by Harvard University, the String Trio was partially mapped out prior to the composer's heart attack; still, Schoenberg explained to friends and students that he wrote the work with clear programmatic intent specifically related to his infirmity and recovery. The Trio is filled with extreme contrasts and what appear to be nonsequiturs. Schoenberg's onetime pupil Leonard Stein later explained that "the many juxtapositions of unlike material within the Trio reflections of the delirium which the composer suffered during parts of his illness.... These unusual juxtapositions also represent...the alternate phases of 'pain and suffering' and 'peace and repose' that Schoenberg experienced." In an unpublished essay, Schoenberg provided another perspective on the work: "I began the Trio, of which I have told many people that it is a 'humorous' representation of my sickness, soon after I was over the worst." Schoenberg undoubtedly kept these comments private because of his inherent mistrust of program music.
The 12-tone Trio unfolds as a single movement in three sections; the first of these functions as an exposition, the second as a sort of development, and the last as a shortened recapitulation and coda. The first two of these parts are further divided into two sections each. Color and timbre are of the utmost importance in the Trio; in addition to normal bowing, Schoenberg draws upon an extensive palette of playing techniques, including ponticello, pizzicato, harmonics, and col legno.
The harmonic and melodic material are derived from a single primary row and its permutations. After the opening trills, Schoenberg immediately sets into relief the extreme registers of the cello and violin. A sudden change in dynamic and tempo announces the second part of the first section, which begins with a Wagnerian phrase in the violin, harmonized by the viola and cello. Throughout this lengthy slow passage, numerous attempts to reestablish the opening tempo fail. A change in pulse marks the beginning of the second section, while a canonic passage distinguishes the second part. A new melody, which also reappears in the coda, recalls a passage from Act Two of the composer's opera Moses und Aron (1930-1932) associated with a woman healed by faith. Schoenberg described the recapitulation to Stein as "the going back and 'reliving' with the calmness and perspective of good health." Beginning note for note like the first section, the recapitulation immediately undergoes variation. Schoenberg presents some measures that exactly replicate the original while leaving others out entirely, in effect creating a shortened reprise that recalls but does not reproduce earlier events.