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Johannes Brahms

Trio in E-flat, Op. 40 for violin, horn, and piano

May 12, 2024: Chee-Yun, violin; Brad Gemeinhardt, horn; Alessio Bax, piano

Johannes Brahms always loved the sound of the horn. Among many other instruments, his father, Johann Jakob, played horn professionally, in dance halls and taverns, and even substituted on horn in the sextet that played at the fashionable Alster Pavilion. Though he finally gave in to his young son’s pleas to learn piano, Johann Jakob had already begun teaching him “useful” instruments, in particular the Waldhorn—the natural, valveless horn, or “hand horn,” referring to the method of obtaining certain pitches by the positioning the right hand inside the bell.

Valved horns rapidly became standard during Brahms’s lifetime, and the natural horn had fallen out of common use by the time he wrote his Horn Trio in May 1865 while sojourning in Baden-Baden. But he specifically wrote the piece for natural horn out of fondness for its sound, characterized by the muted quality of certain notes.

Brahms may also have been thinking of his early home life—a theory that early biographer Max Kalbeck suggested—in particular since his mother had recently died. But, whereas the poignant slow movement could indeed serve as a memorial tribute, the complete rousting of that mood by the spirited, irreverent music of the finale suggests that the work as a whole is not entirely an homage to her. The two quotation sources that Kalback suggested to back his theory—the folk song “Dort in den Weide steht ein Haus,” which Brahms may have learned from his mother, and the chorale “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten”—are certainly appropriate but do not comfortably correspond to the main theme of the finale and its preview near the end of the slow movement.

Scholar John Walter Hill proposes a different folk-song source, which Brahms likely knew and which fits the finale’s main theme like a glove: “Es soll sich ja keiner mit der Liebe abgeben” (No one should have anything to do with love). This would shift Brahms’s thoughts, says Hill, to the end of his romantic involvement with Agathe von Siebold in the late 1850s.

Brahms had broken off their relationship when it seemed they were headed for marriage, much to Agathe’s heartbreak, but he paid her tribute in his G major Sextet, op. 36, written around the same time as the Horn Trio. Either as a salve to his conscience, or as a farewell, Brahms had woven notes equivalent to the letters of her name into the Sextet’s first movement, composed in September 1864. He completed the Sextet in May 1865, so it is entirely likely that she was still on his mind as he wrote his Horn Trio in the same month. As Hill suggests, the comical jab at love by a confirmed bachelor makes a great deal of sense in light of the newly revealed folk-song source.

No matter what extra-musical thoughts may have come to Brahms in 1865, the Horn Trio stands as an inspired piece of chamber music for the unusual combination of violin, horn and piano. Brahms played the piano part in a trial performance in September in Baden-Baden, and the first public performance took place in Zürich on November 28, 1865, with violinist Friedrich Hegar, horn player Anton Gläss, and Brahms himself at the piano. 

One of the Horn Trio’s greatest surprises, in view of Brahms’s supreme interest in sonata form, is that the first movement is the only example of a first movement in his multimovement works that is not in sonata form. Rather it contrasts a lovely melancholy main theme with two somewhat livelier sections, resulting in an A-B-A-B-A rondo-like pattern.

The rollicking scherzo provides a perfect change of scene, racing along as if on the hunt but without characteristic horn fanfares. The soaring second theme and the lovely pathos of the trio section’s theme provide elegant contrast.

The slow movement, one of Brahms’s most melancholy and moving utterances with its expansive melody, grave chords, and soulful bass notes, gives a taste of his much later Four Serious Songs. The canonic treatment of a new theme begun by the horn alone particularly shows Brahms in a nostalgic light and leads to one of his most glorious climaxes. The preview of the finale’s theme occurs just before that peak, nicely scored with the horn above the violin.

The finale takes off at full gallop, perhaps the banishment of his last thoughts of Agathe, but surely reveling in the historical connection of the horn with the hunt. Here Brahms achieves an ebullient, rondo-like character but in a full-fledged sonata form. He delights in rhythmic play, bits of yearning, the occasional starry twinkle or growling bass, horn calls that are not typical fanfares in horn fifths, and—most exhilarating—a breathless drive to the close.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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