In 1844, at the age of twenty, Smetana was appointed as music teacher to the five children of Count Leopold Thun in Prague. Smetana himself was virtually self-taught apart from violin and piano lessons as a child, and this was his first job. He had already composed a large number of pieces, mostly dances, and wrote in his diary: ‘By the grace of God, and with his help, I will one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition.’ In 1845 he at last had the opportunity to correct his ignorance of music theory when he was accepted as a composition pupil by Joseph Proksch, a leading music teacher in Prague. Smetana worked hard and, from a grounding in harmony and counterpoint, went on to produce at great speed a series of increasingly sophisticated compositions, culminating in a Piano Sonata in G minor, composed in 1846. The last movement of this work, a ferocious two-against-three tarantella, was to form the basis, nine years later, for the finale of the Piano Trio in G minor.
But the prime inspiration for the Piano Trio was personal tragedy. After leaving Proksch’s music school, Smetana had begun to establish himself as a professional musician and teacher, opening his own music school in Prague. His modest income at last enabled him to marry his beloved Katerina in 1849, and they lived happily together and had three daughters over the next few years. The eldest, Bedriska (known as Fritzi), born in 1851, soon showed signs of exceptional gifts. Katerina described in her diary taking the little girl, aged four, to a concert in February 1855 at which Smetana conducted his Triumph Symphony (his first appearance as a conductor in public): ‘This concert, given by her father, was to be Bedriska’s first and last. How quietly and cheerfully she sat through the whole long concert … When her father came on to the stage to conduct the symphony, she stood up to see him, and she remained standing, listening attentively.’ The previous year, the Smetanas had already lost one daughter to tuberculosis. And now, eight months after that concert, Bedriska died from scarlet fever. Smetana wrote in his diary: ‘Nothing can replace Fritzi, the angel whom death has stolen from us.’ His reaction to the loss was to throw himself into his music, producing at the age of thirty-one the first work to reveal his full power as a composer, the Piano Trio in G minor. It may not be so directly autobiographical as his late string quartet ‘From my Life’, but Smetana himself acknowledged the inspiration of the Trio in a letter: ‘The loss of my eldest daughter, that extraordinarily gifted child, inspired me to write the Trio in G minor in 1855. In the winter of the same year, in December, it was performed in public in Prague, with myself at the piano, Königslöw, violin, and Goltermann, cello. Success—nil. The critics condemned it of one accord … A year later we played it to Liszt at my home; he fell round my neck and congratulated my wife on the work.’
The Trio opens with an urgent violin solo. Its sorrowful chromatic line and strong dotted rhythms immediately set the personal and tragic character of the Trio, and elements of this solo recur, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly, throughout the three movements. The intensity builds as the other instruments enter, and the piano takes up the theme fortissimo. A moment of calm brings in a second theme, a gentle lament on the cello. Then the mood lightens, as an almost playful rhythm starts up. But it soon turns insistent, and the cello’s theme builds to a great climax over thundering octaves in the piano.
The development begins with a return to the solo violin theme. Fragments of it are then built into an intricate contrapuntal passage, in which the intensity is unrelenting. Smetana here shows how he has learned to put his command of traditional techniques to strong emotional effect. At last the music quietens, and in the piano a little figure from the violin solo takes on a character of fond reminiscence. The other instruments drop out, leaving the piano musing, as if Liszt or Chopin were improvising. This touching and delicate moment is interrupted by the violin returning to its tragic solo, from which the reprise of the opening section follows, as intensely as before. Smetana ends the movement with a coda that builds up the tension further, accelerating unflinchingly to the end.
The second movement is a sort of scherzo, but its edgy rhythm, and chromatic phrases drawn from the opening violin solo, give its theme a nervous and ghostly quality. Two contrasted episodes interrupt the scherzo; these are marked ‘alternativo’ in the score, another reminder of Smetana’s study of historical techniques and style. The first episode is a graceful melody passed between violin and cello. Its sighing phrases and touches of chromatic harmony again give it a sorrowful, nostalgic tinge. A return to the scherzo ends abruptly, and the second ‘alternativo’ follows. This is a stern and stately episode in bold dotted rhythms, as if fragments of the opening violin solo have been transformed into a baroque French overture. The music gradually finds its way back to the ghostly scherzo, and the movement ends quietly.
The opening section of the finale, and its very last page, are taken almost note for note from the finale of Smetana’s earlier Piano Sonata in G minor. The tarantella of the original, with its agitated two-against-three rhythm, is made yet more ferocious by the intervention of the violin and cello. But beyond that, Smetana’s stroke of genius was to interleave the dance with two episodes of a deeply nostalgic character, rather as he did in the second movement. By contrast with these episodes, the dance takes on an edge of desperation.
The first episode introduces a profoundly melancholy theme, first on the cello and then on the violin, which is elaborated by the piano in another beautiful moment of Lisztian fantasy. The tarantella returns, building up to a frantic climax which suddenly breaks off. The melancholy cello theme returns, and the piano once more muses on it. But this time, instead of returning to the dance, the theme is stripped of its ornament, solemn dotted rhythms appear, and a moment of stark tragedy is revealed as the beautiful melody metamorphoses into a funeral march. There is an attempt to return to the tarantella. But this soon culminates in a great reprise of the cello’s nostalgic theme, now with all the instruments fortissimo, con tutta forza. In other contexts this grand peroration in a major key would seem like a triumphant climax. But here, as the final outburst of this intensely tragic work, it has an effect of terrible poignancy, of memories that can scarcely be borne. Finally, the climax dies down, and one more attempt is made to get back to the tarantella. But it peters out, and the work ends with a final brusque fortissimo in G major, as if the doors onto Smetana’s memories have been slammed shut.