Piano Trio

Clara Schumann

Piano Trio in G minor

Op. 17

About this work

Clara and Robert Schumann shared so many musical interests that after a few years of marriage, their compositions began to sound quite similar -- that is, Clara's started sounding more like Robert's. In the mid-1840s, they both made a close study of Bach and Clara emerged with a fine hand at counterpoint. During the 1845-1846 season, pregnant with her fourth child, Clara was unable to tour as a concert pianist and so stayed home and put her new contrapuntal skills to work in a piano trio. It is considered one of her best works and it's one of her few compositions more extended than lieder and keyboard character pieces. Like Robert, Clara here maintains a thick sound, but it's because all three instruments are playing contrapuntally much of the time, not because one is essentially doubling another's part, as was often the case with Robert. The substantial first movement, Allegro moderato, could pass for one of her husband's with its stern yet somewhat yearning, lyrical first subject, and the second subject is lighter, chordal, and syncopated. Clara puts her Bach studies to use in the development section, a confident excursion into counterpoint, and uses a scholarly and controlled approach to a section that other composers of the time dealt with more freely, even sloppily. Even so, the composer never relaxes the music's lyrical urgency. Breaking with convention, she inserts a Scherzo before the slow movement. Schumann is mindful of the Italian origin of the word "scherzo," meaning jest; this is a lighthearted piece, not the powerful, imposing fast movement preferred by Beethoven and his followers. The scherzo proper is based on a playful, dotted rhythm known as a "Scotch snap." The trio section is more lyrical, but now the Scotch snap has devolved into a rhythm that seems hesitant rather than skipping. Unexpectedly, Schumann's imagination flags somewhat in the routine harmonization of the Andante; these could be the bland chords in 3/4 time underlying any Victorian parlor song. Melodically, though, the movement has much to offer, the outer sections employing a sweet and ardent theme and the middle section slipping back into the minor mode (from the easygoing G major) for a more agitated episode. The finale, Allegretto, returns to the major mode and to sonata form. The first theme is nevertheless as dark as anything that has come earlier, whereas the second subject is more optimistic, even while alluding to the opening phrase of the slow movement. The short development section breaks into an animated fugue, but soon relaxes the fugal rules to vary the themes with greater freedom. The movement's exposition is recapitulated in full, now building to a dramatic -- yet not stormy -- coda that expertly releases most of its tension just before the final chords.