Ethel Smyth: Trio for Piano, Violin & Cello
Dame Ethel Smyth is one of the most important British composers that bridged the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries. She composed a number of orchestral works, chamber music, songs and six operas. Also a talented writer, Smyth also penned 9 books (in 10 volumes) which spanned both her life and the musical life in the Britain she lived in. Smyth is also remembered for her association with the Women Suffragettes between 1910-1912, where she wrote The March of the Women. At age 19, Smyth travelled to Leipzig where she studied at the conservatory, but she left after a year as “she wasn’t being taught properly.” She remained in the cultural hub of a city whilst privately studying composition with Heinrich Herzegenberg.
Smyth composed her Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in 1880, however it did take some time before it was premiered. Encapsulating technique, melodies and arrangement, Smyth’s Trio is a good challenge for musicians.
Movement I – Allegro non troppo
The opening movement starts lyrically, with the cello and violin entangling themselves in the main melody. The piano accompanies, adding a sparkling texture to the music. A sense of nostalgia is felt and this is support by the firm roots in Romanticism that this Trio displays. Long and broad lines of music intertwine as Smyth develops the theme evenly between each instrument in the trio. The parts enjoy peaks and troughs of movement and dynamic changes throughout, with these small climaxes adding to the emotional effect of the piece. After a reprise of opening and a subtle unison passage, the opening movement ends quietly.
Movement II – Andante
After a piano introduction, the violin takes the main melody of this lullaby-like movement. Rich in melody and warm harmonies, this central movement showcases Smyth’s wonderful ability in orchestration and balance between instruments. A slightly faster counter melody is introduced before the rest of the movement plays these two themes off. Smyth writes more unison passages to show power in kernels of her music. Other times, the instruments strongly stand alone, with intricate lines weaving between each other. Similarly to the opening movement, this one also ends quietly.
Movement III – Scherzo
To balance the scales, the third movement is set as a scherzo. The fiery melody and quick tempo add to the excitement of this movement. Here, Smyth pits the instruments against each other, before slowly bringing them back together once more. The cheeky opening melody is light and full of energy, which is what this movement is all about. As the instruments begin to come back together, Smyth writes a dramatic syncopated unison line that descends down a scale until the final proclamation is heard. Led by the piano, the final chords are powerful as it ties up all three of the movements thus far.
Movement IV – Allegro vivace
The finale movement brings together all of the exciting elements of the previous movements into one thrilling finale. From the quick-paced opening to the lyrical central sections, Smyth makes sure there is enough light and shade in this finale movement. Intricate unison passages are bold and often counteract the solo lines that come before them. After reprising many of the themes heard in the trio, the finale comes to an epic conclusion as the instruments unite for the final few chords.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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