February WinterMezzo: Mozart, Britten, and Mendelssohn



Piano Trio (Divertimento) in B-flat major, K. 254 (1776)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

            Allegro assai


            Rondo: Tempo di menuetto



Cello Sonata, op. 65 (1960–61)

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)





            Moto perpetuo



Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 49 (1839)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

            Molto allegro ed agitato

            Andante con moto tranquillo

            Scherzo (Leggiero e vivace)

            Finale (Allegro assai appassionato)


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) — Piano Trio (Divertimento) in B-flat major, K. 254 (1776) 

When we look at the “family tree” of the piano trio, we see several notable forebears. The Baroque trio sonata, with its two upper parts and a basso continuo foundation, was one ancestor, while the string sonata with its obbligato keyboard accompaniment was another. A third progenitor was the keyboard sonata with an “ad libitum” accompanying string part. The violin (or flute) was the instrument of choice, but a cello also might fill the role. Mozart’s earliest keyboard sonatas had violin accompaniments, but his third set (published in 1765, when he was nine) contained both a violin and an optional cello part. It would be another eleven years, however, before Mozart would again combine these instruments.


Despite the engaging liveliness of that three-person ensemble, K. 254 has a core of seriousness; it is not just a lighthearted piece for outdoor performance as suggested by its title, “Divertimento in B-flat major.” Instead, posterity views it as the first of Mozart’s piano trios, even though the violoncello’s role is limited—for all but four measures—to doubling the pianist’s left hand. Even the violin seems secondary for long stretches. Still, Mozartean touches abound, especially in the first movement’s dynamic contrasts and the liquid, serene melody of the Adagio. A hapless court violinist in Munich named Charles Albert Dupreille was not equal to the trio’s challenges; Mozart later complained, “In the Adagio I had to play his part for six bars.” Six years elapsed after the trio’s 1776 composition before it was published, but judging from the several references to the piece in the Mozart family correspondence, K. 254 enjoyed frequent private performances.


Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) — Cello Sonata, op. 65 (1960–61)                                                        

Radio broadcasting has been a “thing” for scarcely a century, but it has had frequent and powerful impact on the arts. For instance, Benjamin Britten listened (as he said, “rather unwillingly”) to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1960. Britten “immediately realized this was a new way of playing the cello, in fact almost a new, vital way of playing music.” Shortly afterward, Britten eagerly attended a concert with Dmitri Shostakovich; Rostropovich was premiering Shostakovich’s Op. 107 cello concerto in England. Afterward, Shostakovich jokingly complained of pain, since Britten repeatedly dug an elbow in his ribs when admiring some nuance of Rostropovich’s performance. Backstage, Shostakovich introduced Britten to the cellist, thereby startling Rostropovich: he had assumed Britten was a long-dead composer, based on Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra that featured the music of Baroque composer Henry Purcell. 


Recovering quickly, Rostropovich begged Britten to write for the cello. (Rostropovich had solicited pieces from dozens of composers, single-handedly expanding the cello repertory enormously.) Britten worked on his five-movement Cello Sonata over the next year; he told Rostropovich that the pizzicato movement would be amusing—adding, “I hope it’s possible!” The two men were nervous when they met to read through the new sonata, but, after fortifying themselves with several whiskies, Rostropovich recalled, “We played like pigs, but we were so happy!” 


Listeners, too, are happy. Britten explained the sonata’s structure: the Dialogo features a discussion of a tiny motive; the Scherzo is guitar-like, and then the cello “sings” the Elegia. The Marcia is “rumbustious,” while the finale’s character shifts from “low and grumbling” to “gay and carefree.”


Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) — Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 49 (1839)                                    

It is highly likely that many audience members recall “Life Before Cellphones”—and a few may still have resisted acquiring one. Others, though, appreciate the numerous handy tools offered by their smartphones, sometimes feeling that they can scarcely function without this technology. The world of music has undergone similar changes, such as the nineteenth-century introduction of the modern piano. Although builders had been crafting wood-frame fortepianos all through the previous century, the new iron-frame version, with its larger range and multiple pedal effects, was a new superstar. Performers such as Liszt and Chopin had been quick to explore the instrument’s expanding capabilities.


When Mendelssohn wrote his first piano trio—an eight-year process—his early drafts did not take full advantage of the piano’s new powers. A friend, Ferdinand Hiller, successfully persuaded Mendelssohn to undertake a revision to eliminate some old-fashioned aspects. The resulting Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 49, was an immediate success, and Robert Schumann heaped praise on the new work, comparing it to the finest trios by Beethoven and Schubert. “It is the masterpiece of our time,” Schumann famously declared in his self-founded music journal (still published today), adding, “Mendelssohn is the Mozart of the nineteenth century.”


Still, Mendelssohn was also “himself”—and so we can catch glimpses of various other much-beloved pieces within the trio. After the luxuriant opening movement, the lyrical second movement is reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, and the Scherzo resembles his sprightly incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The finale revisits the different moods of the prior movements before its own joyous ending.



Copyright 2018 by Dr. Alyson McLamore