A string trio is a group of three string instruments or a piece written for such a group. The term is generally used with reference to works from the Classical period to the present. The earliest string trio form consisted of two violins and a cello, a grouping which had grown out of the Baroque trio sonata, while later string trios more commonly are scored for violin, viola, and cello (Tilmouth and Smallman 2001).
Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, although the trio configuration for two violins and cello was not wholly abandoned in classical chamber music (even during the 19th century), the scoring for violin, viola, and cello began to take precedence. Joseph Haydn appears to have been the first composer to use this combination (Tilmouth and Smallman 2001). One of the first great masterworks for string trio is the Divertimento in E-flat, K.563, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In it Mozart blends the concertante style typical of composers such as Luigi Boccherini, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Felice de Giardini, and Alessandro Rolla with the more dynamically conversational style of composition perfected by Haydn in his string quartets. Ludwig van Beethoven wrote five string trios. His first, Op.3 in E-flat, is an ambitious six-movement work that was very likely inspired by Mozart's K. 563. His second, the Serenade in D, Op. 8, shows Beethoven experimenting with more extreme characters and unusual uses of form. In Beethoven's final three trios, Op. 9 Nos. 1-3, the young composer speaks with both intense passion and stunning authority. They are considered to be highlights of his early style and masterpieces in their own right.
Writing for a violin, viola and cello trio provides a wide palette of textures and colors for a skilled composer. The leaner instrumentation (as compared to the more common string quartet) also poses compositional challenges especially within a musical tradition typified by four-part harmony writing. In the 19th and 20th centuries countless composers after Mozart and Beethoven have successfully taken up this challenge, including Franz Schubert, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Richard Strauss, Sergei Taneyev, Ernst von Dohnányi, Max Reger, Eugène Ysaÿe, Alexis Roland-Manuel, Miklós Rózsa, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Paul Hindemith, Jean Sibelius, E J Moeran, Bohuslav Martinů, Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, Gideon Klein, Jean Françaix, Lennox Berkeley, William Schuman, Robert Simpson, and Heitor Villa-Lobos. More recently, string trios have been written by Alfred Schnittke, Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Charles Wuorinen, Iannis Xenakis, Krzysztof Meyer, Bertold Hummel, Wolfgang Rihm, Brian Ferneyhough, Karlheinz Essl, Murray Adaskin, Robert Carl, Talivaldis Kenins, Nick Norton, David Macbride, Wayne Peterson, Thomas Schuttenhelm, James Wintle, and Graham Waterhouse
While string trio ensembles are certainly more rare than string quartets, there have been and continue to be ensembles dedicated to performing and recording the string trio repertoire. The Pasquier Trio and the Trio Italiano d'Archi were internationally renowned in the twentieth century and currently groups such as the Aspen String Trio, the Adaskin String Trio and the Leopold String Trio carry on this tradition. The Pasquier Trio performed in 1956 for the Peabody Mason Concert series in Boston.
Examples of more unusual string trio configurations include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's trio for two violins and double bass, and Antonín Dvořák's trio for two violins and viola. This sort of trio is known as a terzet or terzetto, and others who have written trios for this combination including Robert Fuchs (three, two in his opus 61 and one in his opus 107) and Sergei Taneyev (his op. 21.) The Masada String Trio, a group that performs the music of John Zorn, is configured for violin, cello, and double bass.
- Tilmouth, Michael, and Basil Smallman. 2001. "String Trio". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.