In 1881 Tchaikovsky was on one of his many travels in Western Europe, more precisely in Nice, when he received word that Nicolas Rubinstein, his close friend, mentor, harshest critic, and most loyal supporter of his works, had died suddenly in Paris on March 23. Theirs was truly a love-hate relationship. Rubinstein was imperious, an extremely demanding and supremely gifted pianist; it was he who gave Tchaikovsky his first professional appointment. Referring once to his hatred of Rubinstein as a "heartless, dried up" pianist, Tchaikovsky later wrote to a friend: "I dreamed he (Rubinstein) was dead and that this was a great sorrow for me. Now I cannot think about him without compassion in my heart and a most positive feeling of love." Needless to say, Tchaikovsky was devastated by his friend's untimely death. Upon his arrival in Paris for the funeral, he wrote to his brother Modest some lines implying that, though he was saddened by Rubinstein's death, he was perhaps even more preoccupied by his own mortality: "To my shame, I must own that I was suffering not so much from a sense of fearful, irretrievable loss as from the dread of seeing poor Rubinstein's body."
In December of that year, Tchaikovsky was in Rome when he began work on the Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. Up to this time he had essayed little in the realm of chamber music (most notably three string quartets), and the medium of piano trio was not one of which he was particularly fond. However, he wished to compose a memorial to Rubinstein displaying an elaborate piano part. His patroness Mme. von Meck had been imploring him for a piece for her resident trio (in which Debussy was the pianist), so he was able to kill two birds with one stone. Thus, he composed the trio "to the memory of a great artist."
The textures of the trio range from near concerto for piano and strings (reflecting the virtuosity of Rubinstein) to the intimate transparency associated with chamber settings. The first movement consists of a series of lyric ideas beginning with an impassioned, volatile first subject stated in the cello. The second movement consists of a theme stated in the piano followed by eleven variations. The final section, Variazione Finale e Coda, states the theme for a last time. The piece ends with a funeral march based on the first subject of the first movement.
- Steve Lacoste is the Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.