Melartin String Trio, op. 133

performed by the Echnaton Trio, or below by Peter Sirotin, Violin; Michael Stepniak, Viola; Fiona Thompson, Cello

(cover image by Geoffrey Datema)

Today’s work is obviously a much later piece than the first symphony, with an identifiably chromatic vocabulary.

Its four movements are as follows:

  1. Andante – Allegro
  2. Andante funebre
  3. Presto- tempo di minuetto
  4. Finale- vivace

The piece has a duration of about 17 and a half minutes, the third movement being the shortest, at a bit shy of 3 minutes, the others hovering at four and a half or five minutes in length. Per Music Finland, the premiere was given on April 26, 1927 in Helsinki with “Leo Funtek, violin, C. Lindelöf, viola, Ossian Hohström, cello.” We’ll see more of Leo Funtek’s name eventually. (Music Finland also offers a link to the PDF of the score, “for promotional use only,” if you’re interested.)

Aside from giving cursory listens to the later symphonies, I can’t say I’m familiar with really anything else of Melartin’s, so I can’t speak with any authority, but this work, with a much higher opus number than the symphony of his we discussed at the beginning of this series, it sounds like a much more mature piece. I could talk about the harmonic language, how it sounds to the ear, but all of that would obscure how approachable this work really is. Perhaps it’s easier and more understandable just to say it sounds like the work of an older man, maybe tired, perhaps even world-weary.

The first movement opens rather softly, with a broad opening gesture, and its echo, before the quartet blossoms out a bit more. Wait for a cello line to unfold after some of the busy-ness of the opening. With just a few basic ideas, this movement gives us glimpses of delicacy, solemnity, and even some march-like passages. Overall, despite these different characters unfolding and intertwining, there’s a sense that there’s something secretive, unsaid, perhaps because the work always devolves back to a sort of unintentional melancholy.

After the first movement, just barely the longest, we do indeed have something more outrightly somber. The second movement is marked andante funebre, and it feels more soul-baring, none of the half-convincing pleasantries of the first movement, as moving as they were. It’s a short movement, but shows the kind of maturity in the work, a really full-bodied and yet intimate movement. Remember, this is only a string trio, with no second violin.

The scherzo continues the introspective mood, and the only break in the melancholy is the trio, dominated by pizzicato with just a little dash of humor here and there, but in that way has the effect of people laughing far away, in a pub down the block, not in this room. The scherzo, or part of it, returns to end the shortest movement of the work, and still sounds shadowy and a little brooding.

The scherzo was marked presto, and the finale is vivace, but it too lacks jubilance. It’s probably my favorite movement of the four, with a poignant melody played in unison by the upper voices. Surprisingly from this, though, there erupts a pentatonic, almost celebratory section that suggests Dvorak’s American works, or Copland. It has the most drive of anything we’ve heard in this small, mellow work.

No matter the descriptors and adjectives I try to use for each chapter of this small story, what stands out is the clarity and strength of the music. Melartin’s writing for the string trio is robust but transparent, marked by finesse and great intricacy, More than any single melody or thematic development or anything, it’s the texture and sound of the work that I find most impressive.

It’s also not a large piece, and is more engaging than you might at first expect, like getting lost in a small house. How could that happen? Give Melartin’s string trio a listen, especially if you found his first symphony a bit too optimistic or a bit saccharine. Life changed the man, clearly, and that’s another aspect of discovering music that is so fulfilling, the personal aspect: how someone’s life unfolded, how they responded, how that story is told.

This is the only chamber work for the weekend, but starting next week, we’ll have three midweek pieces almost through to the end of the year. There’s lots more on the way, and some of it is shockingly, unbelievably good, so do stay tuned, and thanks for listening.

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