About this Piece
By 1845, the year he composed his Trio in C minor, Mendelssohn was one of the leading figures in European music. As director of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig, he was responsible for premiering his own music and works by other leading composers such as Schumann and Schubert. He had just completed a period as music director to the King of Prussia, overseeing a musical reform of the church service and composing music for revivals of plays by Sophocles and Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). He had also befriended Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, playing music with them and dedicating his “Scottish” Symphony to the British monarch during a visit in 1842.
Mendelssohn spent the early part of 1845 taking time off from his performing activities, holed up with his family in Frankfurt, working on a series of compositions that included the Trio. He was serious enough about his work as a composer that he even turned down a lucrative invitation to conduct in New York. But in July he began performing again and accepted several important commissions, including one from England that resulted in his oratorio Elijah. The furious pace took its toll, as did the death of his beloved sister Fanny, and Mendelssohn died after a series of strokes on November 4, 1847.
The C-minor Piano Trio finds Mendelssohn at his impassioned, rhapsodic best. The pianist immediately sets the tone with the unsettled, restless first theme of the opening movement. After a transition, Mendelssohn introduces an ardent, lyrical second theme in the major mode, played first by the violin and cello with the piano accompanying. This material forms the basis for a fastidiously crafted sonata-form movement.
The piano opens the E-flat-major slow movement with a melody whose surface simplicity is clouded by a wistfulness in keeping with the troubled atmosphere of the preceding movement. The breathtakingly fleet Scherzo recalls other movements by Mendelssohn in this vein, such as that from the Octet or the Midsummer Night’s Dream music.
The finale, again in sonata form, contrasts material in the minor and major modes, shifting from tempest to calm. Mendelssohn reserves his dramatic master stroke for the development, where he modulates into the dominant, A-flat, and combines fragments of the opening theme with the Lutheran chorale “Vor deinen Thron,” introduced first by the piano, then taken up by the violin. This hymn, a plea from the sinner to God not to abandon him when he dies, returns as the work’s coda, a triumphant affirmation after the preceding turmoil. —Program notes from the Philharmonic’s archives