Zemlinsky's D Minor Piano Trio: Viennese Classicism
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Zemlinsky's D Minor Piano Trio: Viennese Classicism

A discussion on post-Brahmsian composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky's piano trio.

Austrian composer and conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky was highly regarded as a composer during his lifetime. He joined the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein in 1895 and attracted wide attention, including the admiration of Brahms, with several chamber works, some of which are now lost. Among his early large-scaled works, the opera Sarema (1895) and the Second Symphony (1897) were received with great public acclaim and critical success. As a composer, he received much encouragement from Mahler who conducted his second opera , Es war einmal, in 1900. In 1895 Zemlinsky met Schoenberg who became a life-long friend (and brother-in-law, when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister in 1901). Zemlinsky taught Schoenberg counterpoint and guided his early compositions. It was with Schoenberg that in 1904 he founded the Vereinigung Schaffender Tonkünstler to foster the creation of new music in Vienna.

Zemlinsky's stylistic development, as in this Trio, Op. 3, reflected the conservative Romanticism tinged with Viennese Classicism in which he was brought up, having received his musical education at the Vienna Conservatory during the late nineteenth century. Later he would adopt a more Wagnerian style, but was always hesitant about the rapid innovations of Schoenberg and his followers, Berg and Webern.


Zemlinsky as a young man

The Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 3 is perhaps better known in its alternate version in which the clarinet part is performed by a violin; the examples for this article are detailed in the alternate version. The work was written in 1895 for the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein, a Viennese Society for the musical arts.  It was awarded the first prize by the Society's jury, whose members included Brahms. Brahms was so enthusiastic about the piece that he recommended it to his own publisher, Simrock. This in itself is probably not too surprising, as the work reflects the influence of Brahms' own Clarinet Trio written four years earlier.

The opening movement of the Trio in D minor, Op. 3, is built upon a sonata form. At the outset, the clarinet and cello, in octaves, present the somber main theme over an animated piano accompaniment. An orderly transition leads to a second theme, stated first by the piano alone and then with the clarinet. With much imitation between the cello and the clarinet and some canonic writing in the piano part, most of the development section is built around the pervasive first theme, with striking ventures into some remote keys and culminating in a stormy climax. In the recapitulation, the only major departure is a countermelody that accompanies the now-familiar main theme. The main theme is also the basis for the coda that concludes the first movement.


The Andante recalls some of Mahler's symphonic slow movements. The solo piano presents a broad sentimental theme, after which the clarinet and cello, in alternation, share the theme against sweeping arpeggios from the keyboard. After some elaboration, the original piano solo returns briefly before an elegiac ending.


The lighter final movement, Allegro, is built upon a rondo structure, and is clearly derivative of the last movement of Brahms' Clarinet Trio. Its propulsive opening theme is a direct paraphrase of the one found in the last movement of the older master's work. The broader and more expansive secondary theme follows in the clarinet against a measured chordal accompaniment in the piano.  As the piano part starts getting more elaborate, the cello joins the clarinet in a duet. Soon both themes are heard against each other, combined in artful counterpoint. Towards the end, Zemlinsky introduces cyclic procedure when he returns to the opening idea of the first movement before bringing his youthful Trio to a close.


* Author's addendum:

* The cover image is Zemlinsky's grave at Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, Austria.

* The embedded audio files above are the overall best examples I can cite on Youtube, and while they are far from great with respect to recording quality as well as performance practice, the video of this ensemble shows some nice camera angles.  It is often a luxury to see the keyboard from above, so the performance is more fun to watch than actually listen to critically.  These are only examples.  Please support working musicians and purchase music and art legally.  Thank you.

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Comments (14)

Thanks again for this great musical piece, IIeen. Best wishes!

I knew the name, but not the music. Very interesting style and choice of instruments.

Thanks, Ron and James.

Thanks for this added classical piece, Ileen.

You're welcome, Will.

I do like a trio and your article composition was interesting to read and learn about this classic. I enjoyed the videos too.thank you. Promoted since I am out of votes.

Thanks, Roberta. Zemlinsky wrote some terrific chamber music, and I'm glad you liked it.

I feel so guilty for not known much about chamber music, my husband on the other hand is very familiar and applauds your information.

Lovely! I enjoyed reading your commentary while listening. Thank you for sharing this classical treat!

Thank you, Sharla. And you're welcome, Brenda. But you see, by just listening to it, now you ARE in-the-know. My job IS done!

Returning with a well deserved vote up plus I got another earful.

Thanks again, Roberta.

Wow, this is a really great piece of work.

This music is really lovely. I'm not too familiar with Zemlinsky, but I love Schumann and Chopin, and I hear some parallels in his composition.