With every piece of music — really, every piece — there is a crucial matter at the outset: how to begin? It’s almost too obvious to mention, but it’s too important to be left always unsaid. There’s a particularly dense sense of potential in the opening melody of Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio No 44 E Major which brings the question straight up. Haydn writes the first bars to sound as though the three performers are a single plucked instrument (perhaps a mandolin), strumming a tune of absolutest simplicity. It is unsettlingly innocent in its demeanor, and its apparent simplicity is quickly undermined by the second version of the phrase, in which the keyboard adds enough chromaticism that the music seems perhaps to undergo a lyric expansion, and perhaps also to simply melt. The trio then regathers its brightness, but even after two phrases we all know that the game is on — some game of variations and radical shifts of tone is set in motion. A combined sense both of economy and of instability which drives the movement ever forward — qualities derived from the strange singleness of the opening moments.
The second movement introduces itself even more radically. (‘Radical’ in the same sense that a radish is radical vegetable: rooted and reduced to basics.) It presents a dark, open-ended variant of the first movement theme with all voices in unison. There is no variation in the rhythmic profile at the opening, which gives it an ancient or processional atmosphere, and the beginning comes to an end with an open-ended question, almost a challenge: how will we deal with this? The opening thesis is addressed by a remarkably long and singing piano solo, which uses the first few bars as ground-bass for its wide wandering. As the movement goes on, this ground remains stubbornly in place (eighth notes are absolutely constant) even as mood, key and register vary. The raw opening of the movement remains a constant presence. If it weren’t for the Allegretto tempo marking, it might be a dirge: however widely it varies, it seems unable to alter the steady passage of time.
Classical last-movements are most often rondos, which means, once again, it’s worth paying attention to what happens at the start. But in this case, it’s doubly worth paying attention: the last movement becomes so quickly so involved with a minor section inside of itself, it’s easy to forget where it all came from, and hard to decide whether rondo expectations might be met at all. A listener can always hang on to the appoggiatura at the end of each gesture as a sort of unifying principle, but that’s not very much to hold. The mood shifts wildly. And the minor section, toward its end, seems in danger of not escaping itself at all. Even after this escape, a series of pauses seems to indicate that the last movement may have to end as sharply as the second did… which perhaps, in the end, it does… because once things get moving, they can be hard to stop… and sometimes, at the end, you might just have to put your foot down.
Commissioned by the Portland Chamber Music Festival