Once bitten by the counterpoint bug, Schumann never entirely shook off the effects. “I find it strange and remarkable,” he wrote, “that nearly every motif that forms in my mind lends itself to contrapuntal treatment. It is not that I start with the slightest intention of composing such themes. It just happens that way. There seems to be something basic and natural about it.” And indeed, Schumann’s piano trios are full of fugues, fugatos, and canons.
Schumann wrote his first two piano trios in 1847, a remarkably productive year, considering that it was full of turmoil and shocks: the sad death of the Schumanns’ sickly 16-month-old son Emil, and the sudden and unexpected deaths of Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny. Still, Robert managed to finish his opera Genoveva and make good progress on his Eight Scenes from Faust, despite taking time off to write the trios. He wrote the G-minor piano trio, his last, in 1851, amid increasing decline in his physical and mental state.
Schumann’s trios, like his symphonies, gravitate toward the middle in sound and substance. Neither the piano nor the violin use much of their higher registers, and Schumann being Schumann, there is no superficial brilliance in any of the parts. Schumann composed rather like most of us paint and decorate a house: stick with the simple, basic colors. Both the F-major Trio and the G-minor Trio are carefully laid out, and full of unifying devices (movements have themes, thematic contours, moods, or stylistic touches which remind the listener of the other movements.
The opening movement of the F-major Trio is athletic and optimistic, with a feeling of jovial bigness. The descending theme introduced just before the contrapuntally dense development is an allusion to one of Schumann’s songs, and the main theme of the slow movement is a cousin to that song-theme. The third movement is not a scherzo, but a sort of barcarolle in “moderate tempo” (“Im mässiger Bewegung”). Members of this audience, thoroughly schooled by the Six Studies, will no doubt quickly recognize the canonic imitation in this movement between violin and cello, then between piano and violin. (The cello and piano are also in strict canon with each other at the beginning of the slow movement, but Schumann knew that a listener would not be likely to catch it, and on at least one occasion had some fun with a composer friend in a parlor-game sort of way: “Notice anything unusual about the slow movement?”) The jaunty finale, like the first movement, has a heavily contrapuntal development.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and for the Coleman Chamber Concerts.