Richard Wernick: Piano Trio Nr. 1

Here’s Richard Wernick’s program note for the Piano Trio of his that will be heard at Penn on November 5:

My Trio for violin, cello and piano was jointly commissioned by the Koussevitsky Music Foundation and the Mohawk Trail Concerts, and is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky. It was written for violinist Joel Smirnoff, cellist Joel Krosnick and pianist Gilbert Kalish.

As composers grow older I think they get either more traditional or more radical depending upon the extent to which they were traditional or radical before they began to gage. I have always found myself stuck in the middle. My conservative friends think I’m an avantgardnik; my more adventurous friends view my style as rather conservative. But in these days of stylistic plurality the terms really mean nothing at all.

The Trio is cast in three movements, roughly fast-slow-fast which is traditional enough to begin with. And it does “take off” from traditional forms. But the harmonic language is very personal, and one that has evolved over many years. It is “bass line generated,” and involves the same sorts of tensions and resolutions found in music of the common practice periods. But the harmonies, although “functional,” are not those of the more familiar sort, however they are “harmonies” nonetheless, and are intended to treat musical time in precisely the same way as those of the major-minor system.

The first movement, mazurka, is not really a mazurka at all, but I called it that in retrospect because of the emphasis on the syncopated ¾ rhythm. It has that feel about it. It is generally bright and fast, with a good deal of contrapuntal interplay among the three instruments. The main sections are delineated not by change of key (there isn’t any), but more by the relationships created by the organic “modulation” of one speed into another. The first of these changes introduces a cascading descending figure that figures prominently in all three movements, and is intended to help bind the movements together.

The second movement is entitled passamezza. The Italian “passamezza” (half pace) is roughly equivalent to the French “pavane,” a slow and rather languourous dance step. In the trio this is realized by a slow moving ostinato of piano harmonics, with one or two cello ostinato interpolations. This movement was originally intended as an “interlude” between the outer movements, but it gradually took on a life of its own to the extent that it is almost one half of the entire piece.

The final movement is called a Tarantella, but with all its meter changes it does not have a single 6/8 bar. The persistent dotted rhythm that runs almost throughout came from the ending of my Violin Concerto. As a compositional problem I was interested to see if I could begin a piece with the same bit of musical material I had used to end one. The musical “stuff” is thrown around from player to player; there is a brief return of the music from the second movement; and there is an optional cadenza (a real one; I did not write it) for the violinist.

I express my thanks to the two Joels and Gil, as well as to Arnie Black, Artistic Director of the Mohawk Trail Concerts for giving this piece its life.

—Richard Wernick

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