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PROGRAM NOTES: The Complete Beethoven Piano Trios: Part I

by Eric Bromberger


Listeners should not be deceived by these trios’ opus number, for they are by no means Beethoven’s first compositions. When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, he had already written many works under the supervision of his teachers in Bonn, including a piano concerto, an oboe concerto, a fragment of a violin concerto, a fragment of a symphony, and numerous chamber works. Most of these have disappeared, but their range and number suggest that Beethoven was far from a novice composer when he arrived in Vienna. And once settled in his adopted city, Beethoven studied with Haydn, Salieri, and Albrechtsberger, working for several years to refine his mastery of sonata form.

Beethoven was particularly anxious that the first work he published in Vienna–and the first work to which he assigned an opus number–should be successful. He chose for this first official publication a set of three piano trios on which he had worked for several years. They were published in July 1795, but all three had been performed before that: Beethoven was so eager for these trios to succeed that he had them performed while still in manuscript so that he could refine the work that would mark the beginning of his career. He dedicated the set to Prince Lichnowsky, his patron in Vienna. There is evidence that Lichnowsky–anxious himself for the young composer to succeed–secretly helped underwrite the publication costs so that Beethoven’s financial success in his first effort would be assured. Another major figure on the Viennese musical scene had a different reaction to the publication of these trios. Franz Joseph Haydn asked that Beethoven include the words “Pupil of Haydn” beneath his name on the trios’ title page. Beethoven’s feelings about the older master varied considerably across his lifetime. At this moment his relations with that older master were a little tender, and Beethoven brusquely refused the suggestion, exclaiming stormily to a friend that he “had never learned anything from [Haydn].”

The piano trio of Mozart and Haydn’s day was typically a brief work in three movements in a fast-slow-fast sequence. In the trios of those earlier masters, the piano usually had the musical interest, and the strings were often cast in subordinate roles. While Beethoven’s first trios are by no means revolutionary, one feels that he has already taken over the earlier form and tried to make it his own. He adds an extra movement–a scherzo–to each of these trios, and he expands the scope and development of the other movements to the point that they become large-scale works: the Trio in E-flat Major that opens this program lasts a full half-hour.

Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Opus 1, No. 1 (1794-95)

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

The opening Allegro of the Trio in E-flat Major leaps to life with an arpeggiated chord in the piano that will recur throughout the movement. The quiet second subject, played in unison by all three instruments, arrives quickly, and this sonata-form movement works through an extended development. The piano announces the opening theme of the Adagio cantabile, and in fact the piano–Beethoven’s own instrument–figures prominently throughout the trio. Here the piano’s line is florid, embellished with trills and turns. The center of the slow movement features some imaginative writing for the strings, whose long lines soar above steady piano accompaniment. Beethoven marks the third movement Scherzo, but formally it is not much different from the classical minuet-and-trio. Its most striking feature is the calm trio, where over sustained string chords the piano has quiet, bell-like cascades of notes; a brief coda brings the movement to a close. The piano’s bright octave leap opens the Finale, marked Presto. The most energetic of the movements, it features a dancing second subject built on three descending notes that is treated by each of the instruments in turn and developed throughout the movement.

Piano Trio in G Major, Opus 1, No. 2 (1794-95)

The Trio in G Major is the most genial of the set, quite different in mood from the Trio in C Minor that follows it. It opens with a slow introduction marked simply Adagio; the violin’s theme in the introduction will later serve as the main theme of the Allegro vivace, and the graceful second subject of this sonata-form movement is also announced by the violin. The Largo con espressione, frequently compared to the lyric slow movements of Schubert, begins with an extended passage for solo piano, soon joined by the strings; this opening episode forms the basis for the entire movement. The Scherzo, fairly restrained by Beethoven’s standards, is formally not much different from the classical minuet-and-trio; Beethoven appends a brief coda to bring the movement to a quiet close. The Presto finale rips along cheerfully on rapidly-repeated sixteenth-notes; a singing second subject provides variety but does not dampen the movement’s high spirits.

Piano Trio in C Minor, Opus 1, No. 3 (1794-95)

We have seen that when Beethoven refused to list himself as “Pupil of Haydn” when these trios were published, he claimed that he “had never learned anything from him.” But there was a further reason for Beethoven’s animosity toward Haydn at this point. The older composer had advised him to publish the first two trios, but to hold back the Trio in C Minor. Beethoven, who believed the Trio in C Minor the best of the set, suspected jealousy on Haydn’s part. Haydn later explained to Ferdinand Ries–apparently in all innocence and sincerity–that he believed the Trio in C Minor too advanced for audiences, but Beethoven bore the grudge for some time.

This trio is remarkable if for no other reason than that it is Beethoven’s first published work in C minor, the key that would call forth some of his most impassioned music: the Pathetique Sonata, the Fourth String Quartet, the Third Piano Concerto, the Funeral March of the Eroica, and the Fifth Symphony, to name only the best-known examples. This trio shares some of that same C-minor spirit. The Allegro con brio opens with an ominous theme for all three instruments in unison. Remarkably, Beethoven introduces the second theme immediately: it is heard in the tenth measure in the piano. The dramatic development treats both themes, often accompanied by showers of sixteenth-notes from the piano. The Andante cantabile con Variazioni is a set of five graceful variations on the piano’s noble opening theme; Beethoven appends a brief coda. The full title of the Menuetto Quasi Allegro is important, for it suggests that–in its rapid tempo–this minuet form is edging toward becoming a scherzo; the trio section belongs largely to the cello. The Finale: Prestissimo rushes along with the opening theme passed from violin to piano to cello. Rather than moving into a major key for the close, Beethoven keeps the movement firmly in C minor and provides an effective surprise by closing the work–which had been so full of turmoil–very quietly.