Author Topic: Mendelssohn Trio in D Minor: analysis and exercises  (Read 7579 times)

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Mendelssohn Trio in D Minor: analysis and exercises
« on: August 15, 2015, 10:30:18 AM »
Recording on Youtube

A quick overview

I'd like to suggest a work for a bit of study: The D minor piano trio of Felix Mendelssohn.
I admit up front, I am heavily biased – this is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, and while it's a VERY popular work, I don't think it gets recognition for being the masterpiece that it is.

The score can be found here:,_Op.49_%28Mendelssohn,_Felix%29

**NB: I tried attaching it to this post as a PDF but it was simply too large a file. So you can safely download it from the IMSLP site at the above link. The work is public domain thus there are no legal issues with acquiring it this way.

I don't want to go into massive amount of structural detail and harmonic analysis. I'd like you to use this work as an example of some of the principles we try to instill in our forum participants.

1st movement: Molto allegro ed agitato

This starts with a simple lyrical theme in the cello. Notice the simplicity of the piano part: it's simply the basic harmony played in alternating chords (right hand/left hand). The important thing to notice is the descending bassline in that piano part. There is a gorgeous counterpoint between the bass line and the melody.
Throughout the movement, I'd like you to look at this type of relationship: bass to soprano. And don't expect the cello to always play the bass.

Examine the number of repetitions of the main theme and its elements.
How often does it get stated intact?
At what point does the composer start using fragments of it?

At the bottom of page 15 (in the Edition peters score) starts what to me is one of the most stunning and beautiful passages of any work from the Romantic period. The suspended melody in the violin (beginning in the last two bars of the page).
Notice the lead-up to this passage – harmonics in the strings (the octave leaps, in some recordings they don't sound like harmonics. I suspect it depends on how the string players decide to approach that particular passage).

Now watch that beautiful suspended melody while the cello reprises the main theme.

Overall, examine this movement to see elements of balance regarding material. Just how much 1st theme gets played, how much 2nd, how much is seemingly unrelated to the actual themes.

2nd movement: Andante con moto tranquillo

The 2nd movement starts with a lovely and simple melody in the piano.
Here examine the string entrances, the type of movement between the two lines (violin and cello), whether parallel, contrary, etc...
The main theme is given in two parts: piano solo, then reprise in strings, then the 2nd part in piano solo, and again reprised in the strings.
Again, Mendelssohn was a master of counterpoint, so examine carefully how lines work against each other.

Examine entrances of melodies, examine instrumental entries (notice how often they do or do not enter “on the beat”).

Examine modal changes in the harmony, how Mendelssohn inserts short harmonic marches to gently nudge the harmony from one mode to the other.

Examine the lovely change in texture at the end for the reprise of the theme (violin melody with pizzicato cello beneath and piano playing freely counterpoint around the violin).

And the beautiful codetta at the end (starting at page 31, letter X), look at the simple yet powerfully effective instrumentation, with strings playing gentle tremolo while the piano plays echos of the main theme.

3rd movement: Scherzo, leggiero e vivace

This is structurally a very standard scherzo, so this makes for some solid learning of a fascinating form.
It's actually extremely difficult to play for all three instrumentalists.

Things to look at:  how Mendelssohn tosses material back and forth between the keyboard and the strings. It's always shifting texture, always “exciting” and “nervous”.

Notice that while there is this constant change of texture and instrumentation, there is also a regularity to it. It's not haphazard or arbitrary.

4th movement: Finale, Allegro assai appassionato

Here, the counterpoint is masterful and constant. It may not show at first blush, but it is heavily contrapuntal.

Again, examine how material is shared between the instruments, and how it is modified – if it all – to suit each instrument.

I haven't gone into as much detail in the 3rd and 4th movements, but I expect that once you've been through the first two movements you'll start to get a better grasp of what you are looking at, and looking for.

Please ask questions, comment, even if it's just to say “I HATE this music! GAH!”


Next we might look at a beautiful piano quartet by the American composer Arthur Foote - the first American composer to complete all of his musical studies within the United States, never having travelled to the obligatory (at the time) European conservatories.

« Last Edit: August 15, 2015, 10:32:59 AM by Michel.R.E »
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Re: Mendelssohn Trio in D Minor: analysis and exercises
« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2015, 04:12:36 PM »

Thanks for posting this learning exercise.

I'll be occupied for a week or so .... I look forward to jumping in a bit later.

This is exactly what I need~!



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Re: Mendelssohn Trio in D Minor: analysis and exercises
« Reply #2 on: August 15, 2015, 05:32:30 PM »
My counterpoint teacher always accused me of writing counterpoint "like Mendelssohn." I thought she was being sarcastic, but, after reading this, maybe she was complementing me.
Rules? What rules?