The Piano Trio: Its history, technique, and repertoire by Basil Smallman

Oxford; Clarendon Press


Basil Smallman seems to have heard and studied the entire piano trio repertoire, and performed most of it. He has read widely round his subject as well as deeply into it; on the evidence of his unforced comparisons and thoughtful asides he can, and I hope will, write equally excellent manuals on many other musical genres and topics. His bibliography of some 150 items is impressively comprehensive (though Michael Tilmouths New Grove article was surely worth inclusion). The whole mono­graph is exemplary in its balance, structure and concision; no wonder that those are the qualities it rates highest in works of art.

   The Piano Trio begins by defining the field and delving into the historical background. Apart from an interlude on aspects of technique, the main topics are treated chronologically, with chapters on the late eighteenth century (Haydn and Mozart), grand sonata style (Beethoven and Schubert), the German Romantics (especially Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms), the nationalists (notably French, Czech and Russian) and the twentieth century. This far-spreading family tree, now 200 years high and covering the Western world, surely stems from that prolific father-figure Haydn. But his circa forty trios are essentially keyboard sonatas with sing-along strings attached, on either hand. Even the violin mainly plays second fiddle, while the cello part is almost invariably colla parte with the piano bass. It took the dramatist Mozart to give the cello an individual role with a voice of its own, which has been declaiming memorable melodic lines ever since. But that measure of emancipation soon led to keen competition, further intensified by technical developments among instruments and performers.

   There is much material here for social and political analogy, as well as purely aesthetic theory. But all such wider topics are wisely eschewed. The piano trio was perhaps always more timbre than genre; its only real unity is its threefold sound. Its evolutionary patterns have become predictably difficult to discern, even for so discriminating a musico-historical mind as Professor Smallman's. His detailed study accordingly proceeds by the practical approach of analytical description, enhanced by sixty-three well-chosen musical examples. Some 120 works by seventy composers are mentioned in this monograph, which sensibly concentrates on the thirty or so major masterpieces of the repertoire. The results are unusually readable and rewarding, because they are not restricted to technicalities. The main points made about the reprise of Schubert's Op 99/11 are entirely typical: first that it begins in the subdominant (A flat major) and moves into E (F flat) major, and secondly that it reaches a coda of infinite gentleness by way of heart-stopping modulations. The emphasis remains passim on the former more objective mode of discourse; understandably, in a textbook written for the instruction of serious students. But some account is also taken, without condescension, of the personal feelings that affect all music-lovers.

   This confers a marked advantage over most other academic commentators. Smallman deploys a rare range, from the close analysis of thematic unity to a quasi-verbal empathy for the mysterious Macbeth affinities in Beethoven’s Op 70 No 1/II and the cryptic (not to say cryptographic) quality of  Schumann’s Op 63/I. Such intuitions could have been exploited to even greater effect. They might have suggested, on reflection, the real reason why Brahms later excised from his Op 8/III its clear echo of Schubert’s “Am Meer”, namely that the deliberate allusion was too revealing, not that the “strong similarity… had escaped his notice”. Again, the admittedly quite strong evidence for the authenticity of the A major trio attributed to Brahms ever since 1930 should surely have entitled it to some stylistic analysis. Instead, it is relegated to a footnote in the text and dismissively labeled “unauthenticated” in the index, as though evidence is no real help with authentication, which is anyhow someone else’s responsibility in some other context. But what could be more relevant than a new Brahms trio, and who better qualified than Professor Smallman to adjudicate it?

   Still, this momentary inhibition is ore than compensated by bold and well-argued critical rehabilitations of such neglected masterpieces as the second Bridge trio, “worthy of a place beside the Trios of Ravel, Fauré and Shostakovich”. In general, this is not only the first book on its subject but also the last word.


Times Literary Supplement, 20-26 July 1990 (p. 778) © the estate of eric sams