Click here to view the complete May 2016 Program Book

PROGRAM NOTES: The Complete Beethoven Piano Trios: Part II

by Eric Bromberger


During the years 1807-8, Beethoven composed some of his most dramatic orchestral music. From early 1807 came the Coriolan Overture, the Mass in C Major was composed that summer, and during the fall and winter Beethoven was occupied with the Fifth Symphony. Once the Fifth was complete, he proceeded immediately to the Sixth Symphony and worked on that through the summer of 1808. With these mighty works behind him, Beethoven appears to have needed a break. He took leave of orchestral music and turned to the smaller canvases of chamber music, composing the two piano trios of Opus 70 and a cello sonata in the fall of 1808; the “Harp” Quartet followed the next year. Beethoven dedicated the two trios of Opus 70 to Countess Anna Maria Erdödy and–despite failing hearing–took part in performances of them at her home during the Christmas season in 1808.

Piano Trio in D Major, Opus 70, No. 1 “Ghost” (1808)

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

The exact source of the nickname “Ghost” for this trio is unknown, but it clearly refers to the middle movement, a striking Largo in D minor. This is dark, almost murky music–the piano murmurs a complex accompaniment while the strings twist and extend bits of melody above it. This unusual music (Beethoven rarely marked a movement Largo) has excited a great deal of curiosity about its inspiration. One possibility is particularly intriguing.

Beethoven had worked on his opera Leonore (later renamed Fidelio) from 1804 until 1806. It had not achieved success, and–anxious to try another opera–Beethoven explored many possible subjects. One of these was Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and he and the playwright Heinrich Collin went so far as to discuss a libretto. In fact, Beethoven actually began work on the music for Macbeth, for there are sketches in D minor marked “Macbeth.” Nothing ever came of them, though the idea of an opera based on this play continued to fascinate Beethoven, even in his final years.

But on the same sheet that contains the sketches for Macbeth are the first sketches for the Largo assai ed espressivo movement of this trio, also in D minor. Whether this somber and brooding music, written in 1808, grew out of Beethoven’s projected music for Macbeth cannot be known for sure, but the connection–however distant–is clearly there, and this movement may be our one hint as to what Beethoven’s music for that tragedy might have been like. Surely it is not too great a leap to imagine this music in conjunction with the witches or Macbeth’s dark final days.

Beethoven frames this remarkable Largo with two fast movements, both in radiant D major. The middle movement is so powerful that the outer movements seem a little light by comparison, and some observers have gone so far as to suggest that they should be seen as prelude and postlude to the Largo. The Allegro vivace e con brio opens with a pithy rhythmic figure that recurs throughout the movement and finally brings it to a close. The main theme is a flowing, elegant idea heard first in the cello and quickly passed between all three instruments. This theme dominates the opening movement, giving it an atmosphere of easy expansiveness. The concluding Presto sounds innocent after the grim pizzicato strokes that end the Largo. It offers long melodic lines, a graceful partnership between the instruments, and a smooth flow of good-spirited music throughout.

Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Opus 70, No. 2 (1808)

The Trio in E-flat Major has been much admired, and with good reason. Some have claimed that in this trio Beethoven consciously wrote thematic material in the manner of Haydn and Mozart and then treated it in his own mature style–the music thus combines the elegance and restraint of an earlier era with Beethoven’s own powerful sense of form and musical evolution. Beyond this, the music is distinctive for its gentleness and for Beethoven’s many structural innovations.

The first movement opens with a stately and poised Poco sostenuto introduction, with the three instruments making terraced entrances. This reaches a moment of repose, and violin and cello announce the leaping, graceful main theme of the Allegro ma non troppo, which is soon followed by a flowing second idea. The development, marked by a series of swirling trills from all three instruments, is exceptionally gentle, and Beethoven continually reminds the performers that their playing should be dolce. The ending is remarkable: instead of a mighty recapitulation, Beethoven brings back the music of the introduction, and the movement comes to its quiet close as the Allegro theme gradually dissolves.

Beethoven’s choice of tempos for the inner movements is surprising: instead of making a defined contrast between a slow movement and a fast one, he instead writes two Allegretto movements. The hopping four-note figure heard in the piano at the very beginning of the first Allegretto will dominate this genial movement, either whispered in the background, stamped out vigorously, or simply implied. The third movement is marked Allegretto ma non troppo, and Beethoven’s performance markings are noteworthy: once again he constantly reminds all three instruments to play dolce, and at some points his dynamic indication is ppp, a marking he rarely used. The form of this movement is quite original: it is built on its flowing opening idea and a chordal melody offered as statement-and-answer by strings and piano; Beethoven simply alternates these sections as the movement proceeds. Particularly striking here is the contrast between the elegant string lines and the harmonic pungency of the piano’s transition passages. The seemingly easy-going Finale: Allegro, in sonata form, is built on a wealth of quite different ideas; Beethoven gradually pulls these together in a lengthy coda and drives the trio to a sonorous close.

Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Opus 97 “Archduke” (1810-11)

The archduke of this trio’s nickname was Archduke Rudolph von Hapsburg, youngest brother of Emperor Franz. Rudolph studied piano and composition with Beethoven, beginning about 1804, when he was 16. A contemporary portrait shows a young man with fair hair and the full Hapsburg lips; he appears to have been blessed with a sense of humor. Beethoven remained fond of Rudolph, who was destined for the church, throughout his life; it was for Rudolph’s elevation to archbishop that Beethoven composed the Missa Solemnis, and he dedicated a number of his greatest works to Rudolph, including the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the Hammerklavier Sonata, and the Grosse Fuge, as well as this trio. For his part, Rudolph became one of Beethoven’s most generous and reliable patrons, furnishing him with a substantial annuity for many years and maintaining a collection of his manuscripts. Rudolph, however, did not long survive his teacher–he died in 1831 at age 43.

Beethoven sketched this trio in 1810 and composed it during March 1811, shortly before beginning work on his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. He was 40 years old and nearing the end of the great burst of creativity that has come to be known as his “Heroic Style,” the period that began with the Eroica in 1803 and ended in about 1812 with the Eighth Symphony. Beethoven was growing increasingly deaf at this time–an unsuccessful performance of the “Archduke” Trio in 1814 was his final public appearance as a pianist–and he would soon enter the six-year period of relative inactivity as a composer that preceded his late style.

The “Archduke” Trio seems well-named, for there is something noble about this music, something grand about its spacious proportions and breadth of spirit. At a length of nearly 45 minutes, it is longer than most of Beethoven’s symphonies, but–unlike the symphonies–this trio is quite relaxed: it makes its way not by unleashing furious energy to fight musical battles but by spinning long, lyric melodic lines. It is as if Beethoven is showing that there is more than one way to write heroic music.

The nobility of this music is evident from the opening instant of the Allegro moderato, where the piano quickly establishes the music’s easy stride (it is characteristic of this music that both outer movements should be marked Allegro moderato rather than the expected Allegro). The piano also introduces the slightly square second theme, and this sonata-form movement develops easily over its lengthy span. Strings open the huge Scherzo, with the piano quickly picking up their theme. Particularly striking here is the trio section–its deep chromatic wanderings alternate with an exuberant waltz and furnish the material for the coda.

The gorgeous Andante cantabile is a set of variations on the piano’s expressive opening subject. These variations proceed by making this simple melody more and more complex: the music appears blacker and blacker on the pages of the score before it falls back to end quietly, proceeding without pause to the concluding Allegro moderato. Full of energy, this rondo-finale is also full of good humor and imaginative rhythms. The music flies to its close on a coda marked Presto.