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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

2. Wagner's
String Trio


Few people realise that, for all his derisory comments about 'the old forms', Wagner hankered to write a chamber work to stand beside those of his beloved Beethoven and at the same time outshine what he regarded as the meretricious anachronisms of Brahms. But what should it be? - a String Quartet? a Piano Quintet? a Cello Sonata? a Horn Trio? No: Brahms had done all that: he needed a medium that Brahms had not so far commandeered. This left very few options, and finally Wagner had to resort to a String Trio - hardly an appropriate choice.

His friends, Liszt and Wolf tried to deter him, but Wagner was adamant: a String Trio or nothing! and as soon as he had penned the last notes of Tristan and Isolde he set to work. 'He sees it as an enjoyable relaxation after the rigours of Tristan', Cosima noted in her diary. Indeed, the connection between opera and chamber work is striking - little wonder it has been dubbed 'Tristan's Idyll'!

It begins with a long preludial passage (c15 minutes) over a pedal E-flat, from which the main theme, the 'Ecstasy' motive, emerges (violin over arpeggiated chords on viola and cello). There follows an anguished section based on Isolde's Liebestod (high cello accompanied by tremolo violin and viola). After 40 minutes or so the ear begins to crave for the light gaiety of a Brahms scherzo to relieve the gloom, but, alas! this is not to be, and the work ends where it began, with a heroic reprise of the E-flat pedal passage.

Were Liszt and Wolf correct in their misgivings? It must be admitted that to give full flavour to his harmony, Wagner has had to resort to rather a lot of double- and triple-stopping - the piece is a sure test of any viola-player's stamina - and at best the resulting textures can be described as rather thin and strained. Nevertheless, something of the composer's genius still filters through. At 63 minutes, this is probably the longest String Trio in the repertoire. There is a story that Wagner sent a copy of the work anonymously to Brahms, but the wise old bird recognised the handwriting and, still smarting from the rebuff over his opera Tom Jones (q.v.), sent back a curt reply: 'Stick to your operas, Herr Wagner!' Whether this is true or not, we cannot say.

Copyright © Trevor Hold, December 2nd 1999


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