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Piano Trio in D major, op. 70, no. 1, “Ghost”

December 13, 2015 – Kristin Lee, violin; Paul Watkins, cello; Gilles Vonsattel, piano

In the fall of 1808 when Beethoven began writing his two Piano Trios, op. 70, he was living in rooms generously furnished to him by Countess Marie Erdödy. (For more background about their relationship see the notes for the Cello Sonata above.) Beethoven participated in the first performance of the Opus 70 Trios at Countess Erdödy’s home around Christmas in 1808, and sent them off to his publisher with a dedication to her. At one point he changed his mind and wished to dedicate them to Archduke Rudolph, but in the end let the dedication to the Countess stand.

It had been ten years since Beethoven had composed his Opus 11 Trio for clarinet (or violin), cello, and piano, and twelve years since he had composed his last major works in the piano trio genre—his three Opus 1 Trios, which had served as his public entrée. By 1808 he was at the pinnacle of his productivity and popularity, and the Opus 70 Trios are surrounded by the masterpieces he presented on that famous marathon concert in December 1808—the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the C major Mass, the Choral Fantasy—and equally important works such as his Coriolan Overture and A major Cello Sonata.

The first of the Opus 70 Trios came to be called the “Ghost” because of a comment made after Beethoven’s death about the amazing slow movement. Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s former pupil, wrote in 1842 that the Largo assai ed espressivo “resembles an appearance from the underworld. One could think not inappropriately of the first appearance of the ghost in Hamlet.” The nickname stuck for the entire Trio, and only afterwards it was discovered that Beethoven may have had something supernatural on his mind, because sketches for this movement appear near those for a Witches’ Chorus for a projected Macbeth opera.

The forthright unison opening of the first movement sounds almost as if Beethoven derived it from the first movement of the his Piano Sonata, op. 10, no. 3, and injected it with new energy. He contrasts this immediately with a sweeter phrase begun by the cello. Beethoven allows himself an expansive development section with quite a bit of counterpoint after his extremely concise exposition. The tranquil coda relies on his sweet second phrase until a bright recall of the opening idea ends the movement.

The celebrated “Ghost” movement is one of those marvels that fired the Romantic imagination with its alternating-repeating fragments, plaintive melodic lines, sudden contrasts, agitated tremolos, unsettled harmonies (diminished seventh chords), and above all the eerie floating descents of the piano right hand and rumbling bass notes in the left. As with many of Beethoven’s most startlingly original movements, the overall sonorities mask the quite traditional aspects of his structure, in this case a simple three-part form with coda.

Beethoven opted to return to a three-movement format for this Trio, and hence there is no scherzo. The sonata-form finale returns to the light of day, with a cheerful main theme that keeps halting and digressing. This good-natured meandering flows so naturally that occasional harmonic surprises are swept right along without ceremony. Just before the conclusion, a clever diversion with pizzicato effects, seamless splitting of the melody between the two strings, and piano right-hand glitter gives added urgency to the cadential flourish.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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