Clarinet-violin-piano trio

Clarinet-violin-piano trio

A clarinet-violin-piano trio is a standardized chamber musical ensemble made up of one clarinet, one violin, and one piano participating in relatively equal roles, or the name of a piece written for such a group.

The idea of a clarinet-violin-piano trio is relatively modern. While previous examples exist in which the clarinet was considered to substitute for the more common cello of a piano trio, the clarinet-violin-piano trio was established as a genre of musical composition by the Verdehr Trio's commissioning of over 200 new works since their founding in 1972[1] at Michigan State University.

An example of a clarinet-viola-piano trio existed several hundred years before the clarinet-violin-piano trio; Mozart composed his famous Kegelstatt Trio in the 18th century, and the Romantic composer Max Bruch composed a suite of eight pieces for this combination, as well as a double concerto for viola, clarinet, and orchestra. Many of these works can be (or already have been) transcribed for a clarinet-violin-piano trio.

Unlike a piano trio or a concerto, there is no standard form for a composition for a clarinet-violin-piano trio; a piece can have any number of movements, at any tempo, in any key.

Acoustically, the choice of a clarinet, violin, and piano is characteristic in that most chamber music (and most music in general) contains high (soprano), mid-range (alto/tenor), and low (bass/baritone) parts. However, both a clarinet and a violin play relatively high-pitched parts, making for a less-balanced sound than a trio that contains a more possible range, such as a violin-cello-piano trio. Timbral contrast is provided between the woodwind (clarinet), bowed string (violin), and keyboard instrument (piano).


Verdehr Trio

The trio features Walter Verdehr on violin, Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr on clarinet, and Silvia Roederer on piano. The couple discovered the 20th-early century repertoire for clarinet, violin, and piano pre-existing and set about commissioning works the ensemble. To make this music available the trio released The Making of a Medium CD Series on Crystal Records and a parallel Video Series including performances, interviews and discussions by the composers as well as a complete performance of the work.[2]

Early 20th-century

There are examples of clarinet-violin-piano trios prior to 1970 by composers including Bartók (Contrasts (Bartók)), Stravinsky, Milhaud, Khachaturian, Berg, Krenek, Poulenc and Ives.[2]

Bartok's Contrasts

Béla Bartók's Contrasts was commissioned for violinist Joseph Szigeti and clarinetist Benny Goodman and is one of the best known pieces in the genre. Kárpáti[3] describes the piece as possessing "technical bravura and at the same time...poetic versatility". In contrast, E.R.[4], explains that the "contrasts are "of speed rather than of mood" but that despite this "lack of variety...Bartók's genius consists in gifts of rhetoric so rich that he can spread this one mood, and spread it interestingly, over a score or more of large-scale works".

Seiber[5] considers it "a less weighty, less important work in Bartók's whole œuvre" though the "writing for both violin and clarinet" are "most effective throughout". An article describing a program in which "the standard note on Bartók's Contrasts...was replaced by a sequential, diagrammatic sketch," concluded that, "in fact, Bartók looks as inscrutable as he sounds"[6].

Later 20th-century

Trios were commissioned by Verdehr from composers including Leslie Bassett, Alan Hovhaness, Karel Husa, Thea Musgrave, Ned Rorem, Gunther Schuller, Peter Schickele, Alexander Arutiunian, David Diamond, William Bolcom, Betsy Jolas, Libby Larsen, Philippe Manoury, Gian Carlo Menotti, Peter Sculthorpe and Joan Tower.[2]

Rorem's The End of Summer (1985), which may be found on several recordings featuring his work, features hints of church music. The composer describes the piece's similarities to its direct predecessor, his Scenes from Childhood, in that each of three movements is "suggested by musical works of yore. There are suggestions of Satie, Brahms, hopscotch ditties and Protestant anthems."[7] Rorem says his, Musgrave's, and Dickinson's pieces all "quote literally from the past" and also describes asking "Chuck" if he ever disapproved of Samuel Barber's pieces as Rorem's partner did of Rorem's the evening it premiered[8].

Schuller's A Trio Setting, in "the classical fast-slow-scherzo-fast form" shows the influence of Bartok but is described as "original...varied, affecting and exciting by turns, and inventive" worth listening to again[9].

Nathan Currier's Variations is described as "more difficult" and seemingly "too long at almost 34 minutes." It repeatedly quotes as a theme a song from Binchois, "De plus en plus", sounding like a Brahms lullaby. The piece also shows the influence of Bartok's Contrasts.[9]

Husa's Trio Setting [W22], commissioned by the Verdehr Trio in 1981, showcases each instrument in one movement and has been described by William Crutchfield as, "standout...with its sure sense of climax and dramatic variety in the instrumental handling."[10]

Musgrave's Pierrot

Thea Musgrave's Pierrot was commissioned by the Verdehr Trio and first performed in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1986. Consistent with Musgrave's earlier work, such as her Second Chamber Concerto (1966), Clarinet Concerto (1967), and Space Play (1974), Pierrot is highly programmatic and the score contains indications for stage locations, lighting plots, and movements. The score to Pierrot is printed so that parts may be extracted so as to facilitate the movements of the players so as to ensure successful performance of these optional stage directions.

Musgrave cites Debussy's "La Sérénade interrompue" (Préludes, Bk. 1) as the "starting point for this work", a highly appropriate fit given the featuring of interrupted serenades as part of a commedia dell'arte love triangle. They appear to share little beyond the aesthetic concept of interruption, the relative tonal plans of the serenades (Bb minor and D major in Debussy and A minor and Db major in Musgrave), and the V13 chord built on E serves as an interruption in both pieces. In the Musgrave the V13 first creates somewhat of a half cadence in A minor and later jarringly intrudes in the more remote Db major context of the Harlequin's serenade.[11].

Rorem describes Pierrot as a "charmer, purposefully virtuosic, and visual in the sense that each instrument represents a character: clarinet Columbine, violin Pierrot, piano Harlequin."[8]


Clarinet-violin-piano concertos have been commissioned by Verdehr from Buhr, David, Ott, Skrowaczewski, and Wallace. They have also commissioned violin-clarinet double concertos from James Niblock, William Wallace, Dinos Constantinides, Paul Chihara, Ian Krouse and Richard Mills.[2]

Composers of clarinet-violin-piano trios

(This is an incomplete list.)

  • Edward Manukyan
    • Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (2007)
  • Gian Carlo Menotti
    • Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1996)
  • Darius Milhaud
    • Suite for clarinet, violin and piano Op.157b (1936)
  • Denis Pousseur
    • Le Silence du Futur for clarinet, violin and piano (1992/93)
  • Manel Ribera
  • Ned Rorem
    • End of Summer
  • Peter Scholes
    • Island Songs, clarinet trio (1995)
  • Peter Sculthorpe
    • Dream Tracks
  • Rick Sowash
  • Franklin Stover
    • Trialog, for violin, clarinet, piano (2011)
  • Igor Stravinsky
    • L'histoire du soldat (1918)
  • Johann Baptist Vanhal
    • Trio in E flat, Op. 20, No. 5

Current clarinet-violin-piano trio ensembles

(This is an incomplete list.)


  1. ^ Porter, Cecelia "Verdehr Trio's Pioneering Path", Friday, February 22, 2008; Page C04.
  2. ^ a b c d The Verdehr Trio website.
  3. ^ Kárpáti (1981), p.201-207.
  4. ^ E. R. (1943), p. 61.
  5. ^ Seiber (1949), p.28-29.
  6. ^ "Program Notes: Better Unwritten than Unread", Music Educators Journal, Vol. 54, No. 7. (Mar., 1968), pp. 96-97.
  7. ^ Rorem, Ned (2001). Quoted in Gotham Ensemble Plays Ned Rorem, liner notes. Albany Records (2002): Troy 520.
  8. ^ a b Rorem (2002), p.56.
  9. ^ a b Max, Stephen (2008), p.1.
  10. ^ Hitchens (1991), p.14
  11. ^ Carbon (1993), p.X.


  • Carbon, John. "Pierrot for Violin, Clarinet and Piano by Thea Musgrave", Notes, 2nd Ser., Vol.50, No. 2. (Dec., 1993), pp. 761–762.
  • E. R. (1943) ."Review: Contrasts, for Violin, Clarinet and Piano by Béla Bartók", Music & Letters, Vol. 24, No. 1. (Jan., 1943), p. 61.
  • Hitchens, Susan Hayes (1991). Karel Husa: A Bio-Bibliography. ISBN 0313255857.
  • Kárpáti, János (1981). "Alternative Structures in Bartók's 'Contrasts'", Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 23, Fasc. 1/4, Centenrio Belae Bartók Sacrum#.
  • Max, Stephen R. "Verdehr Trio 3." American Record Guide 57.n6 (Nov-Dec 1994): 218(1).
  • Rorem (2002). Lies: A Diary: 1986-1999. ISBN 0306811065.
  • Seiber, Mátyás (1949). "Béla Bartók's Chamber Music", Tempo, New Ser., No. 13, Bartók Number‎. (Autumn, 1949), pp. 19–31.

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