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Ives wrote his Piano Trio “mostly in 1904 but fully completed (it) in 1911.” Of its three movements, only the second has a title aside from the Italian tempo markings: 1. Moderato; II. “TSIAJ” (“This Scherzo Is a Joke”). Presto; III. Moderato con moto. According to his wife, the Trio’s three movements reflect the composer’s time spent at Yale University, from which he graduated in 1898.
The first movement consists of 27 measures of music played three times: first by cello and piano, then by violin and piano, and finally by all three players. The movement is just under five and a half minutes, the shortest of the three, and according to Ives, the movement recalled a talk given to some Yale students by an old philosophy professor. The second movement, only seconds longer than the first movement, is a whirlwind of polytonality and musical quotation. Two moments of respite during the movement always brings the players back to thick polyphony, suggesting the “games and antics by the students on a holiday afternoon,” and concluding with ripples on the piano and brusque, rhythmic unison with a punch-line for a final chord. The third movement is by far the longest, at 14 minutes, and contrasts with the second movement’s pastiche of borrowed tunes with its sweeping lyricism. Even so, the third movement quotes other tunes, most significantly the song, “The All-Enduring,” which Ives wrote in 1896 for the Yale Glee Club to sing (but was rejected by them). Its gently rocking melody grows into light, syncopated sections between the piano and strings. In the coda, all three parts are finally very soft and still; the piano plays watery accompaniment to the cello’s quotation of Thomas Hastings’ “Rock of Ages.” Like many of Ives’ works, the Trio is at once overtly American, independent, and vivacious.
- Jessie Rothwell is a freelance writer and musician living in Los Angeles.