Piano Trio in f minor, Op. Post.
If reputation could be likened to a horse race, then in the “19th Century Czech Composer’s Derby” Antonin Dvorak would cross the finish line several lengths ahead of his nearest rival, Bedrich Smetana, and then, after an even greater distance, would come Zdenek Fibich, far behind in third place. But reputation must not be confused with quality. Fibich (1850-1900) is no third rate composer. His music is of very high quality, and totally undeserving of the near obscurity into which it has fallen.
The fall into obscurity can explained by the fact that Fibich lived during rise of Czech nationalism within the Habsburg empire. And while Smetana and Dvorak gave themselves over entirely to the national cause consciously writing Czech music with which the emerging nation strongly identified, Fibich’s position was more ambivalent. That this was so was due to the background of his parents and to his education. Fibich’s father was a Czech forestry official and the composer’s early life was spent on various wooded estates of the nobleman for whom his father worked. His mother, however, was an ethnic German Viennese. Home schooled by his mother until the age of 9, he was first sent to a German speaking gymnasium in Vienna for 2 years before attending a Czech speaking gymnasium in Prague where he stayed until he was 15. After this he was sent to Leipzig where he remained for three years studying piano with Ignaz Moscheles and composition with Salamon Jadassohn and Ernst Richter. Then, after the better part of a year in Paris, Fibich concluded his studies with Vincenz Lachner (the younger brother of Franz and Ignaz) in Mannheim.
Hence Fibich, in contrast to either Dvorak or Smetana, was the product of two cultures, German and Czech. He had been given a true bi-cultural education. And during his formative early years, he had lived in Germany, France and Austria in addition to his native Bohemia. He was perfectly fluent in German as well as Czech. All of these factors were important in shaping his outlook and approach to composition. And this outlook was far broader than that of Smetana and Dvorak, who in their maturity, exclusively took up the Czech cause and never let it fall. Such an approach was too narrow and constricting for a man like Fibich, trained at the great Leipzig Conservatory by colleagues and students of Mendelssohn and Schumann; too narrow for a man who had sojourned in Paris and Vienna; a man who understood that German, along with French, was clearly one of the leading languages of Europe. And Fibich could plainly see that writing opera and vocal works (his main areas of interest) in Czech would limit their appeal. What he did not appreciate was that writing such works in German would profoundly affect the way in which he and his music were regarded by Czechs. In his instrumental works, Fibich generally wrote in the vein of the German romantics, first falling under the influence of Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann and later Wagner. It seems, that like Tchaikovsky, Fibich did not wish to write music that merely sounded nationalistic, but unlike Tchaikovsky, for the most part, Fibich succeeded. And therein lies the reason that Fibich has never been held in the same regard by his countrymen as either Dvorak and Smetana or even Janacek.
The Piano Trio in f minor, dating from 1872, is Fibich’s earliest known chamber work and was one of the first works which brought him to the attention of musical Prague. Although it received favorable reviews upon its premiere, Fibich never submitted this surprisingly mature work for publication during his lifetime and it was not until 1908, eight years after his death that it was finally published. It is in three movements. The opening Molto con fuoco begins with a very powerful and original syncopated theme. Interestingly, almost immediately, the strings bring forth echos of Bohemia. Not much later the piano is given an unmistakably Czech-sounding passage. The lovely second theme follows without any real development. Highly romantic, lyrical and longing, it stands in sharp contrast to the main subject: The beautiful monothematic second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is one long lied given entirely to the strings. In the finale, Vivacissimo, the piano is entrusted with the first half of the heroic sounding main theme. The strings’ entrance adds a lyrical element. The second theme, with its quarter note triplets creating hemiolas has the aura of Brahms to it. Finely crafted and very appealing, this trio would be warmly received by audiences if professional groups were to give it a chance which it certainly deserves. Amateurs will find it much to their taste as well.