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  • Writer's pictureHeather Wade

Beethoven, Dvorak, and historical dictation

Program notes for our concerts "Dictator"

Nov 4 and 5 2023

Beethoven Piano Trio Op 70 #1 "Ghost"

Dvorak Piano Trio in #4 in E Minor "Dumky"


The Opus 70 trios of Ludwig Van Beethoven are a set of two works scored for piano, violin, and cello. They were published in 1809. The first of the set, the Piano Trio in D Major, is one of Beethoven's best known chamber works. The nickname "Ghost" comes from the eerie sounding 2nd movement,

but, as is frequently the case with music history, there are differing accounts about the specifics of the name's origin. The moniker was given to the work by Beethoven's pupil (and composer of the etudes currently sitting inside your piano bench) Carl Czerny, who MAY have said that the theme of the 2nd movement reminded him of the ghost scene from Hamlet, or possibly that it reminded him of Banquo's ghost in Macbeth. Other historians claim that the material used for the 2nd movement was originally sketched by Beethoven for an ultimately unfinished opera based on Macbeth. Whatever the specifics, for the purposes of this concert, what is important is that Beethoven was considering a work based on Macbeth at all.


Because here's the thing…Shakespeare's Macbeth is about a corrupt king who craves power, and is ultimately willing to destroy all people in his path in order to achieve it. The fact that Beethoven was drawn to this work is interesting, because as we know, he was struggling with conflicting feelings about Napoleon and the campaigns both in France and globally. Beethoven was in agreement with the ideals of the French Revolution - "Liberty,

Equality, Fraternity", and the abolishment of the French monarchy in favor of a democratic government in France was something that he supported. He wrote his 3rd Symphony as a testament to Napoleon, and the democratic ideals that he embodied, and initially dedicated the symphony to him. When Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, however, Beethoven's feelings seemed to change drastically. Never one to be subdued, Beethoven was outspoken about his disillusionment with the controversial French ruler, and (possibly in a fit of anger) removed the dedication of his Symphony so "thoroughly" that he made a hole in the manuscript.



What I think is important about this story is that it gives us insight into Beethoven's experience, and shows us how his music was shaped by history. It serves to remind us of one of the most crucial functions of art - that art helps us to relive and remember important moments. It is a mirror for our experiences, both in the present and in the past. In our efforts to understand past mistakes, and to improve ourselves as a whole, it is invaluable. We should consider Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio not just as a beautiful piece of music, but also as a work composed during an important time of change, one that functions as reminder of the costs of ambition and greed, written by someone who was there to witness events firsthand.


In 1891, Antonin Dvorak, living in his native Bohemia, wrote his Piano Trio #4 in E Minor, to which he gave the subtitle "Dumky". In the singular, the word “dumka” comes from the Ukrainian word “duma”, which means “reflection” and “contemplation". Initially, a dumka was a folk song, and a lament. Over the course of the 19th century, it was embraced by Slavic composers such as Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Janacek, who expanded its musical bounds significantly. For the purposes of Classical music, a dumka is a brooding, pensive piece of music punctuated with joyous, lively interludes. As I write this, it occurs to me that this is also how one might describe a teenager. huh.


ANYWAY…This Piano Trio gives us a very succinct snapshot of Dvorak's musical philosophy, in which he was far from alone, but for which he is also the figurehead. (What I find fascinating about this is how clearly it shows us that art unambiguously reflects the societal circumstances of the time in which it was written. I believe this is true of all art, we just have to know where to look in order to uncover it. Dvorak is a poster child for this idea).


Europe in the 19th century was immersed in a Nationalist movement. Inspired by the French Revolution, the desire of people to acknowledge their own national identity, and to reject the rule of any monarchy or foreign government, lead to uprisings against both the Russian and Ottoman empires. (Also, we must keep in mind the saga of the Napoleonic Wars happening at this time as well). Simultaneously, an intellectual movement resulting from the Enlightenment, which advocated for happiness, liberty, tolerance, scientific reasoning, and separation of church and state, helped to fuel desires for increased cultural expression in art. That's a lot of fancy words, but basically the idea is that the absolute control of an all-powerful ruler, whether in the form of Emperor, Sultan, or King, can DICTATE how artists describe the experiences of the people who live under the regime. Here again (not to beat a dead horse, but I will repeat this point just one more time), is an incredibly important function of art; to record the experiences of people. Accordingly, when we encounter that art, we can relive those experiences, and hopefully learn from our shared past.

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