Piano Trio Op. 70 no. 1 “Ghost” by Ludwig van Beethoven
Dedicated to Marie Erdody, one of Beethoven’s patrons in Vienna, Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op. 70 no. 1 was composed in 1808.
Beethoven starts the first movement Allegro vivace e con brio, with all three instruments playing in unison an exuberant scalar passage marked with jagged leaps. This short introductory passage ends on an F-natural, held by the cellist, which is unexpectedly outside of the key of the movement (D major) and suggests the key of B-flat major. This brief moment of tonal ambiguity is followed by a contrasting lyrical phrase in the cello back in D major. This pull between D major and B-flat major foreshadows the recapitulation where Beethoven gives a more prolonged B-flat major section in the cello part which the piano then modulates away from. In the development, Beethoven demonstrates his mastery of contrapuntal writing in the fun fugal section. This is a movement of contrasts; the lyrical versus declamatory, loud versus soft dynamics, and even an unexpected presentation of the theme in minor in the recapitulation. The coda starts out peacefully beautiful but transitions into a triumphant end in D major.
The second movement largo assai ed espressivo, “very slow and expressive,” is the reason the work is now known as the “Ghost” trio. Beethoven’s former pupil Carl Czerny remarked that the second movement reminded him of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Macbeth and the nickname stuck. Beethoven may have had this in mind because sketches for this movement did indeed appear near sketches he had for a never realized Macbeth opera. This movement has an eerie and unsettled feel due to its harmonies, fragmented thematic material, and the quavering tremolos in the piano. This movement ends softly and ominously on three pizzicatos on D.
The last movement Presto, contains abrupt stops and a chattiness among the instruments which brings a feeling of vivacious humor. The sparkling runs and arpeggios add to the feeling of joy that embody this movement which concludes in D major.
Piano Trio in a minor by Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel had been planning his piano trio for years but completed the work in a frenzy with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 so that he could enlist. (However, being a frail and small man, he wasn’t allowed on the front lines and instead served as an ambulance driver for the war.) He wrote to Igor Stravinsky, "The idea that I should be leaving at once made me get through five months work in five weeks! My Trio is finished."
In this piece Ravel utilizes the full range of the piano, violin and cello in pitches, dynamics, effects and timbres, which requires maximum virtuosity from all players. The work follows standard format for a four-movement classical work- movements 1 and 4 in sonata form, movement 2 in scherzo and trio form and movement 3 as a slow movement.
The opening movement Modéré has a rhythmic pattern derived from Basque dance. The meter is marked 8/8 but each bar subdivides into 3 + 2 + 3 beats, giving a charming lilt. The theme on which most of the movement is built is introduced at the outset by the piano and contains lots of stepwise motion with parallel chords juxtaposed over a pedal point E in the pianist’s left hand. The movement ends distantly, the rhythm of the first theme is preserved on a pedal point C, ending the movement in C major in pianississimo.
The second movement Pantoum is so named after the Malaysian pantun, a verse form in which the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza becomes the first and third lines of the next. With a tempo marking of Assez vif which translates to “rather lively” this movement is comprised of three elements; a pointy staccato first theme which begins in a minor in the piano, a waltz-like second theme in f-sharp and a chorale like theme in F major which can be considered the theme of the trio. The trio part of the movement starts with the strings playing in the scherzo’s 3/4 time while the trio theme is set in 4/2 time in the piano. This layering creates an extraordinary effect as if looking through two different lenses at the same time.
The third movement Passacaille, is based on the passacaglia, a Baroque form that repeats the bass line. The ancient-sounding theme seems to slowly unwind, revolving around a tonal center of C-sharp and F-sharp. The movement moves in an arch, starting and ending with the melody deep in the low registers of the piano and reaching a climax in the middle with thick textural density, which requires the piano part to be written in three staves.
The fourth movement Final (Animé) is filled with trills, tremolos, arpeggios, harmonics, exotic harmonies and odd number meters of 5/4 and 7/4 (often found in Basque music) which give it an ecstatic, breathless and unsettled quality. Although there are only three instruments playing, this movement has an orchestral effect because of all the textural and technical effects in the strings and the massive chordal harmonies used in the piano. The movement ends triumphantly in A major.