Dvorák's Terzetto was completed - in just a week - in January 1887. This was a very fruitful period of composing for Dvorák (1841-1904); it was later that same year that he wrote one of his most famous chamber works, the Op. 81 Piano Quintet. The Terzetto was originally intended as a kind of Hausmusik to be played by Dvorák (on viola) and two of his friends, violinist Jan Pelikan of the National Theater Orchestra and his student Josef Kruis. Dvorák evidently overestimated the talents of the amateur Kruis, and the finished work proved too difficult for him to play. As consolation, Dvorák promptly wrote a second terzetto in a much simpler style, Op. 75a, which was later published in a better-known arrangement for violin and piano entitled Romantic Pieces. Listeners familiar with the Romantic Pieces or the earlier Bagatelles (two other instances of Hausmusik from Dvorák's pen) will be surprised at the comparative depth, complexity, and virtuosity of the Terzetto.
The opening movement is labeled as an introduction. Formally open-ended, the outline is roughly ABA, but the second 'A' section is truncated in favor of transitional material leading without pause (attacca) into the ensuing Larghetto. The two sections are easily distinguished. The first part is sweetly lyrical (with a short outburst), and the second more excited (its material based on the outburst heard in the first part). Rarely has a piece in C major sounded so wistful, thanks to the frequent chromatic and minor inflections.
The Larghetto's opening melody is marked "dolce, molto espressivo," and Beethoven's spirit seems not far away in this fragile, almost prayerful section. Again the form of the movement is ternary, with agitated dotted rhythms announcing the contrasting middle section.
Dvorák's folk style comes to the fore in the Scherzo, a furiant with the characteristic duple cross-rhythms within the triple meter. Once more the form is ternary, with a more relaxed trio in the parallel major whose melody is derived from the furiant.
The Larghetto and Scherzo pose few problems for the listener, but the concluding Tema con variazioni is not at all the typically high-spirited and easy-going finale. The theme itself is quite fragmentary and cast in the dark key of C minor, and once again Dvorák invokes the spirit of Beethoven. There follow ten brief variations, which often blend into one another. Here, as in the other movements, Dvorák makes significant use of silence in the musical texture, with numerous 'grand pauses' strategically marked in the score. In the final variation, C minor is finally (if equivocally) dispelled in favor of C major, bringing this surprisingly complex and musically rich work to its conclusion.
-- Pianist Erik Entwistle studied musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he wrote on "Martinu in Paris."