A piano trio is a group of piano and two other instruments, usually a violin and a cello, or a piece of music written for such a group. It is one of the most common forms found in classical chamber music. The term can also refer to a group of musicians who regularly play this repertoire together; for a number of well-known piano trios, see below.
Works titled "Piano Trio" tend to be in the same overall shape as a sonata. Initially this was in the three movement form, though some of Haydn's have two movements. With the early 19th century, particularly Beethoven, this genre was felt to be more appropriate to cast in the four movement form. Piano trios that are set in the Sonata tradition share the general concerns of such works for their era, and often are reflective directly of symphonic practice with individual movements laid out according to the composer's understanding of the sonata form.
In the Classical period, home music making made the piano trio a very popular genre for arrangements of other works. For example Beethoven transcribed his first two symphonies for piano trio. Thus a large number of works exist for the arrangement of piano, violin and violoncello which are not generally titled or numbered as piano trios, but which are nonetheless part of the overall genre. These include single movements as well as sets of variations such as Beethoven's Variations on ‘Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu’ Op. 121a and Variations in E flat major Op. 44.
After the classical era, works for piano and two instruments continue to be written which are not presented as in the sonata tradition, or are arrangements of other works. Many of these individual works are popular on concert programs, for example Suk's Elegie.
For individual articles treating works for piano trio, see Category:Compositions for piano trio.
The role of the three instruments
The piano trios of the Classical era, notably those of Haydn, are dominated by the piano part. The violin only plays the melody a certain amount of the time, and is often doubled by the piano when it does. The cello part is very much subordinated, usually just doubling the bass line in the piano. It is thought that this practice was quite intentional on Haydn's part and was related to the sonority of the instruments of Haydn's day: the piano was fairly weak and "tinkling" in tone, and benefited from the tonal strengthening of other instruments. Mozart's earlier trios are also rather dominated by the piano part.
With time, a new ideal of piano trio composition arose, in which each of the three instruments was supposed to contribute equally to the music. This is seen, for instance, in Beethoven's trios, and was likely in part the result of the increase in the power and sonority of the piano that took place during Beethoven's career, making it more feasible for the piano to play independently in an ensemble. The new idea of equality was never implemented completely; the extent to which it is realized varies from one composition to the next, as well as among movements within a single composition. Certainly by the mid nineteenth century, all three instruments had been modified to have a very powerful sound, and each can hold its own in a modern ensemble.
The earlier trios are now frequently performed and recorded using authentic instruments, of the kind for which they were originally written. Such performances restore the sonic balance the composer would have expected, and have proven popular.
Playing piano trios
Piano trios, or works for piano trio, are considered chamber music. Since they involve three musicians who, in most works, contribute more or less equally to the music, the process of collaboration is frequently mentioned as being as important as other parts of musical preparation. The pianist must complement, rather than overwhelm, the other players, and the string players must understand when they have a melodic or harmonic role to play.
Among the piano trios, works by Haydn and Mozart are considered the best starting point for pianists new to chamber music.
Example piano trios, extant and defunct
Among the best known of such groups are or have been:
Famous works for piano trio
- Anton Arensky's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor
- Ludwig van Beethoven's trios, especially Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major "Archduke", Op. 97
- Johannes Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 and No. 2 in C major, Op. 87
- Ernest Chausson's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3
- Frédéric Chopin's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8
- Antonín Dvořák's Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor "Dumky", Op. 90
- Felix Mendelssohn's two piano trios
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's piano trios, particularly K502, K542 and K548
- Sergei Rachmaninoff's Elegiac Trios No. 1 in G minor and No. 2 in D minor
- Maurice Ravel's Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello
- Camille Saint-Saëns's Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor
- Franz Schubert's Piano Trio No. 2 (Schubert)
- Robert Schumann's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor
- Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor
- Bedřich Smetana's Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio, Op. 50
- ^ Wheelock (1999 115)
- ^ See Rosen 1997, 353
- Parakilas, James (1999) Piano roles : three hundred years of life with the piano. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Rosen, Charles (1997) The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. New York: Norton. Chapter VI.2 covers the trios in detail.
- Wheelock, Gretchen (1999) "The classical repertory revisited: instruments, players, and styles," in Parakilas (1999), pp. 109-131.