Chelsey Hamm

Musical Stagnation and Expressive Failure in Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor

The first movement of Bedřich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor (1855) was written immediately following the death of his young daughter, Friederika. A biographical program based on this grim event can account for the formal failure of this sonata-form movement, where neither expositional nor structural closure occurs in the expected key. Within this movement a musical struggle between stagnation and motion transpires. Grief and transcendence can be mapped onto this opposition, and the failure of the sonata to overcome the stagnation indicates an expressive failure as well, leading to a narrative reading of the movement as a token of the tragic archetype.
This struggle between stagnation and motion centers on an unchanging melody
which permeates the movement in three ways. First, this melody consists of a seven-measure phrase, which can be heard as a prototypical four-measure phrase whose third measure is expanded. This phrase expansion becomes stuck 
on ^2 within a linear progression from ^5 to ^1, creating a sense of melodic stagnation. Second, this melody repeats multiple times throughout each action zone of the sonata, creating an unremitting cycle of formal stasis in which an action zone seems to break free of it only to find it intruding again. Finally, Schenkerian analysis reveals that the melody also lurks in the middleground of the work, violating its structural normativity by disrupting the descent of the ‘Urlinie’ with chromatic interpolations. This results in a structural stagnation which is not overcome by tonic closure.