Clarinet Trios, Piano Quartets and Trout Quintets
Have you ever heard one of us radio announcers tell you that a "Piano Quintet" is coming up, and wondered how they ever got five pianos together on the same stage? Not to worry, you wouldn't have been the only one. And actually, in some of the New Orleans-born pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "monster concerts," there really were five or more pianos — as many as twelve, on some occasions —banging on at the same time. But that, fortunately, is not what we mean by piano quintet, which no more consists of five pianos than a "viola quintet" consists of five violas. Now that would truly be a "monster concert!"
No, piano quintets, viola quintets and the like are just musicians' shorthand for what happens when you take the standard string quartet — two violins, a viola and cello — and add another instrument to it. So, a piano quintet is really string quartet plus piano, a clarinet quintet is a string quartet plus clarinet, a viola quintet is a string quartet with a second viola, so on and so forth. The only exception is Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, which despite how it sounds, is not scored for string quartet and a fish (rim shot!). Rather, that work is scored for the unusual lineup of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, and takes its name from its fourth movement variations on the tune of Schubert's song "Die Forelle" ("The Trout").
So, if you add a piano to a quartet to get a piano quintet, how do you make a piano quartet, the medium of great works by Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Fauré and others? Usually, you take away one of the string quartet's violins, giving you piano, violin, viola and cello, Mozart's Oboe Quartet and Flute Quartets do the same thing — in with the extra instrument and out with a violin. We'll leave it to the quartet's violinists to argue over who gets to play and who takes a powder.
Of course, one could regard these hybrid quartets not as modified string quartets, but instead as amplifed string trios. And what does this string trio consist of? Typically, violin, viola and cello, a combination far rarer and sparer than the string quartet, but with a precious repertoire all its own. As with the piano quartet, Mozart was first and best with his Divertimento in E-flat major, K. 563, a work of breathtaking beauty and serenity.
Then there's the piano trio, a favored medium from Haydn onward. Does it consist of three pianos? Can't fool you this time — it's piano, violin and cello. Note, by the way, the almost invariable ordering of the instruments: Piano first, then violin, then cello. That's why you'll hear the "Istomin-Stern-Rose" Trio, or the "Golub-Kaplan-Carr" Trio, or the "Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson" Trio, but usually not some other permutation of the players' names. This demotion to second fiddle, if you will, has over the years chafed more than one star violinist, a class of instrumentalists not renowned for their humility. In his memoirs, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein told of playing piano trios with violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and having to put up with Heifetz's complaints over the billing. Finally, Rubinstein said to the violinist, "Heifetz, if the Almighty himself played the violin, the credits would read 'Rubinstein, God and Piatigorsky,' in that order."
Beyond pianos, however, the lineup of trios isn't terribly consistent. Haydn, for instance, wrote several Flute Trios, but some are for flute, viola and cello, while others are for flute, cello and piano, the combination also used by Carl Maria von Weber in his lovely Trio. Both Mozart and Brahms wrote Clarinet Trios, both with piano. But Mozart rounded out his Trio with viola, Brahms with cello. And Brahms, in his Horn Trio, came up with the unusual combination of horn, violin and cello. That's still a rarity, though a few other composers (György Ligeti comes to mind) have used for works in the spirit of Brahms.
Questions? Hearing none, let's enjoy the aforementioned variations from Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, with some rather fishy cinematography at the beginning.