Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Trio in A minor, Op. 50, was written in Rome between December 1881 and late January 1882. It is subtitled In memory of a great artist, in reference to Nikolai Rubinstein, his close friend and mentor, who had died on 23 March 1881. It is scored for piano, violin, and cello.
The work's first version was completed by late January 1882. Private performances were held in March and April. The work underwent considerable revision before its premiere on 30 October at a quartet concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow. The pianist at the performance was Sergei Taneyev; the other performers are unknown.
The piece is marked by a tragic perspective and is in two movements:
Total timing: approx. 47:00
The variations are as follows:
The pezzo is a darkly brooding and rather conventional romantic first movement with a beautiful opening cello solo with a theme that returns for a final funeral march.
The second movement is rather more unusual: it opens with an almost classical melody, much like Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello, and then proceeds with an assured set of variations, also like the Rococo Variations. After working itself into more and more ecstatic heights culminating with the final variation, it suddenly goes through a surprising modulation to the original minor key, and the theme from the first movement returns with an even greater gravity, and the entire piece concludes with yet another death march.
The work, and the second movement in particular, is arguably the most difficult piece Tchaikovsky wrote for piano, whether solo, with orchestra, or in a chamber group. It remains popular, despite its length (it plays for more than 45 minutes), for its breathtaking lyricism and the cosmic finality of its final statement.
This was the only work Tchaikovsky ever wrote for the combination of piano, violin, and cello. In 1880, his benefactress Nadezhda von Meck, had asked for such a piece, but he refused, saying in his letter to her of 5 November 1880:
A year later, he composed the piano trio without being asked to do so, when any number of other genres or instrumental combinations were also available to him.
In a letter to von Meck of 27 December 1881, he again referred to his "antipathy for this combination of instruments". He wrote: ... in spite of this antipathy, I am thinking of experimenting with this sort of music, which so far I have not touched. I have already written the start of a trio. Whether I shall finish it and whether it will come out successfully I do not know, but I would like very much to bring what I have begun to a successful conclusion ... I won't hide from you the great effort of will required to set down my musical ideas in this new and unusual form. But I should like to overcome all these difficulties....
He completed his rough sketches on 20 January 1882, and completed the scoring by 25 January. On that day he wrote to von Meck again: The Trio is finished ... now I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad. But I am afraid, having written all my life for orchestra, and only taken late in life to chamber music, I may have failed to adapt the instrumental combinations to my musical thoughts. In short, I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments. I have tried to avoid this, but I am not sure whether I have been successful.
He put the finishing touches to the Trio by 9 February (the score is annotated "Rome 28 January-9 February 1882"), and sent it to his publishers on 11 February, asking that Sergei Taneyev appear as piano soloist at the first performance. Taneyev, the cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen and the violinist Jan Hřímalý were given access to the score, and they made a number of suggestions for improvement, which Tchaikovsky accepted.
A private performance with the above-named soloists was held at the Moscow Conservatory on 23 March, the first anniversary of Nikolai Rubinstein's death, while Tchaikovsky was in Italy. He returned to Russia in April and heard the Trio for the first time, at another private performance, after which he made revisions. These included inserting a break before the Andante coda and rewriting the piano part in the Finale. Taneyev also rewrote Variation VIII, a change Tchaikovsky approved.
The work was performed during Tchaikovsky's visit to the United States in 1891, at a reception for the composer at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.