ARENSKY — Trio No. 1 in D Minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 32


Though the name Anton Stepanovich Aren­sky (1861 – 1906) is not very well known today, he was an inte­gral part of the Russ­ian musi­cal world of his day. He stud­ied com­po­si­tion with Rim­sky-Kor­sakov at the Saint Peters­burg Con­ser­va­to­ry and, imme­di­ate­ly upon grad­u­a­tion (with a gold medal), joined the fac­ul­ty of the Moscow Con­ser­va­to­ry, where his pupils includ­ed such famous future com­posers as Alexan­der Scri­abin, Rein­hold Glière, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The undis­ci­plined Scri­abin incurred Arensky’s wrath on a num­ber of occa­sions and final­ly walked out of his com­po­si­tion class with­out pass­ing the final exam. Rach­mani­noff, on the oth­er hand, did so well he was allowed to grad­u­ate a year ear­ly, and it was to Aren­sky that he ded­i­cat­ed his Opus 3 piano pieces, Morceaux de fan­tasie, which include his most famous work, the Pre­lude in C‑sharp minor.

Tchaikovsky admired Arensky’s music, writ­ing to a friend in 1890 that the com­pos­er was “a man of remark­able gifts, but mor­bid­ly ner­vous and lack­ing in firm­ness — alto­geth­er a strange man.” On more than one occa­sion Tchaikovsky let the younger com­pos­er know what he thought of a piece of music, even if he had not been asked. In the autumn of 1885 he wrote Aren­sky, “Par­don me if I force my advice upon you. I have heard that 5/4 time appears twice in your new Suite. It seems to me that the mania for 5/4 time threat­ens to become a habit with you. I like it well enough if it is indis­pens­able to the musi­cal idea, [but in this instance] your bas­so osti­na­to should be writ­ten in ¾ or 6/4 time, but not in 5/4.”

The fol­low­ing year Tchaikovsky wrote to Rim­sky-Kor­sakov, ask­ing that com­pos­er to replace one of Tchaikovsky’s own pieces in an upcom­ing con­cer­to with a work of Arensky’s. “I have a favor to ask,” Tchaikovsky wrote. “Aren­sky is now quite recov­ered, though I find him some­what depressed and agi­tat­ed. I like him so much and wish you would some­times take an inter­est in him, for, as regards music, he ven­er­ates you more than any­one else. He needs stir­ring up; and such an impulse giv­en my you would count for so much with him, because he loves and respects you.”

All his life Aren­sky was some­thing of a lon­er. He had prob­lems with alco­hol and gam­bling, and these even­tu­al­ly caused a per­ma­nent break with Rim­sky-Kor­sakov. His health under­mined by his way of life, Aren­sky died of tuber­cu­lo­sis. On learn­ing of his death, Rim­sky-Kor­sakov remarked, “The man burned him­self out, but he did not lack talent.”

Arensky’s Trio No. I for Vio­lin, Cel­lo, and Piano is one of his most suc­cess­ful works. It was award­ed the Glin­ka Prize (500 rubles) and was writ­ten in mem­o­ry of the great vir­tu­oso cel­list Karl Davi­dov. The Trio is in four move­ments — none of which are in the 5/4 time Tchaikovsky warned against overus­ing. The first move­ment, Alle­gro mod­er­a­to, opens with a lyric theme admirably suit­ed for the vio­lin and cel­lo, a good exam­ple of Arensky’s abil­i­ty to com­pose won­der­ful melodies and which made his numer­ous songs so appeal­ing. The remark­able, imp­ish sec­ond move­ment is a scher­zo. Its play­ful, puck-like open­ing and clos­ing, with its stac­ca­to and pizzi­ca­to tex­ture, is a splen­did con­trast to the movement’s more lyric cen­tral sec­tion, which seems almost like an affec­tion­ate par­o­dy of a pop­u­lar waltz tune. The pen­sive, melan­cholic third move­ment is labeled Ele­gia. A dra­mat­ic alle­gro finale in ¾ time brings the Trio to a sat­is­fy­ing end,

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nal­ly in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.