Complete Beethoven Trios, March 27

Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 1, No. 1 (1795)

The three trios known as “Op. 1” were not the first set of compositions by Beethoven to appear in print:  after all, he had written three piano sonatas at the age of twelve that were published with a dedication to the Elector of Cologne.  Yet by calling a group of mature works explicitly “Op. 1,” the 24-year-old Beethoven was sending the world a message that he was embarking on a career as a professional composer.  With twelve years of experience and a newly-won fame as a piano virtuoso in Vienna, the city that mattered the most in the world of music, Beethoven was definitely ready.

Dedicated to one of Beethoven's aristocratic patrons, Prince Lichnowsky, the three piano trios proclaim, loud and clear, that a major new voice had appeared on the scene.  The piano trios of Haydn and Mozart were always in three movements.  Beethoven added one more movement that he already called a “scherzo” in two of the three trios—as opposed to the minuet that had long been customary in string quartets.

The very first phrase of the first trio brings a surprise:  a note foreign to the main tonality (D-flat) is heard as early as the third measure.  This unusual move sets the stage for a movement where the traditional conventions, although observed, are stretched in all sorts of interesting ways.  In the heartfelt Adagio cantabile, the second movement, the returns of the lyrical main melody are graced with elaborate written-out embellishments, giving us an idea of how Beethoven might have improvised at the piano.  The third-movement Scherzo is the first of many Beethovenian examples of tonal ambiguity:  the key of E-flat major is not confirmed until measure 16.  After a delicately scored middle section (‟trio”) and a return of the scherzo, Beethoven, in another unusual move, adds a few extra measures in which the strong closure of the scherzo is effectively demolished in favor of a hushed and mysterious ending.

The word ‟scherzo” means joke, but Beethoven’s finale is possibly even funnier than his third movement.  The playful skips of its primary theme introduce a sparkling sonata form filled with surprises, such as distant modulations, dynamic contrasts, and more.  In spite of the undeniable influence of Haydn and Mozart on young Beethoven, we would never find a movement like this among the works of those masters.


Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3 (1795)

Many qualities commonly associated with the “heroic” Beethoven of the middle years are already on display in this early work.  The  special emotional climate associated with the key of C minor in the Pathétique sonata or the Fifth Symphony makes its first appearance just a few years after Mozart’s death, at a time when Joseph Haydn was still actively composing.  Haydn must have felt that his erstwhile pupil had gone a little too far; he reportedly “doubted whether this trio would be easily understood and accepted by the public”—certainly a veiled criticism.  In the event, Haydn’s worries notwithstanding, the three trios had a resounding success in Vienna’s musical circles. 

The musical events happening in the first few seconds of the C-minor trio (energetic opening gesture, hesitant stop on a fermata, agitated continuation) strike a brand-new tone, and the movement as a whole more than lives up to the expectations of such an unusual beginning.  Alternations of extremes (turbulence and gentleness, very soft and very loud volume), novel modulations into distant keys and other musical surprises enrich the musical language.  The cello, which, in the trios of Haydn and Mozart, was often treated merely as a provider of harmonic support, plays a few prominent solos, in an important step toward the complete equality of the three instruments realized in Beethoven’s later trios.

The second movement is a set of variations on a cantabile (eminently singable) theme of utmost simplicity.  In the course of five variations, the theme receives the usual virtuoso figurations, but it seems that the changes in melodic character were much more important to Beethoven than mere technical display.  The piano melody of the first variation is more memorable than the theme itself in its intense lyricism.  In the second, the roles of the three instruments (melody and accompaniment) change with great frequency, resulting in a novel instrumental texture.  In the third, the pizzicato (plucked) notes of the strings are particularly effective against the fast notes of the piano. The fourth brings sighing accents, unsettling syncopations and chromatic progressions along with the dark key of E-flat minor (with six flats!).  The staccato (separated) notes of the piano and the double-stops of the violin enliven the fifth and last variations, leading into the coda that recapitulates motives heard separately in some of the earlier episodes.  (German musicologist Helga Lühning has pointed out that one of Beethoven’s shorter piano works, the Bagatelle Op. 119, No. 2, is so close to this movement that it could almost qualify as another variation on the same theme.  Despite its high opus number, this bagatelle was actually written as early as the 1790s.)

The third movement is not quite the graceful “minuet” its designation in the score would suggest—but it is not a playful scherzo either.  Its main theme is related to the agitated motive from the first movement, but it is put in even sharper relief here.  In the trio, the tonality changes from minor to major and the mood brightens up accordingly.  The fast runs of the piano alternate with a simple but engaging melody in the cello.

High drama returns in the finale, significantly marked Prestissimo.  After a few introductory measures that function as a musical “curtain,” the violin intones a main theme full of nervous tension.  Its insistent minor thirds are subsequently developed in an almost maniacal fashion; a more relaxed second theme brings only temporary calm.  The movement ends with a most astonishing coda.  For the first time, Beethoven used a strategy to which he would often return in his later works:  just when one would expect the music to settle down in the home tonality, a surprise modulation sends the harmony off into very distant regions.  In this instance, Beethoven resolved this last-minute complication only to make another unheard-of move.  He modulated into C major without resolving any of the dramatic tensions: the soft C-major scales of the piano against the quarter-notes of the string instruments, repeated ostinato (without any changes), end the work on an oddly mysterious note.

Beethoven himself thought particularly highly of this early work of his.  More than twenty years later he returned to it and made an arrangement for string quintet, which he published in 1819 as Op.104.


Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 (‟Ghost,” 1808)

We don’t know who gave Beethoven’s D-major trio the nickname ‟Ghost” but, as nicknames go, this one is singularly apt.  There is something undoubtedly ‟spooky” about the work’s central Largo, and even though it is framed by two cheerful fast movements, it is the memory of the Largo that lingers in most listeners’ minds as they leave the concert.

Along with its companion work in E-flat (Op. 70, No. 2), this trio marks the first time Beethoven returned to the piano-violin-cello combination since the three Op. 1 trios of 1795.  In the meantime, the composer had created many of his greatest works:  six symphonies, five concertos, the opera Fidelio, more than twenty piano sonatas and nine string quartets.  The piano trio was a medium associated with private chamber music parties in aristocratic salons; the two trios Op. 70 were dedicated to the Hungarian Countess Erdődy, in whose Viennese palace they were first performed.  Yet there is something in these works that the sumptuously decorated walls of the Countess’s music salon can’t seem to contain. 

The unison melody at the beginning of the ‟Allegro vivace con brio” shoots up with uncommon energy, only to stop abruptly on a note outside the key of D major.  A new, lyrical melody appears; it, too, picks up considerable dramatic momentum as it is developed.  The exposition is relatively brief but extremely intense.  In the development, the two themes previously heard are combined contrapuntally in constantly changing configurations.  The recapitulation temporarily darkens the mood by an unexpected modulation from D major to D minor, but it soon recaptures the upbeat energy of the opening.

The D-minor that was adumbrated in a few measures in the first movement takes center stage in the second.  Sketches to this ‟Largo assai ed espressivo” were found on the same page where Beethoven had also jotted down ideas for an opera based on Macbeth that was never written.  We will never know whether there is a connection between the Largo of the piano trio and the witches in Macbeth.  Yet the unusual harmonies, the eerie tremolos and the sudden outbursts of this music are indications that Beethoven had something extremely dramatic in mind.  This Largo has an atmosphere not found in any other of Beethoven’s works (or anyone else’s, for that matter).

The dark clouds vanish without a trace in the concluding Presto, a sparkling movement full of playful melodies and delicious harmonic surprises.  At the same time, there is plenty of that Romantic fire that heralds a new century and with it, a whole new era in the history of music.


Peter Laki

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