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Piano Trio in G major, op. 1, no. 2

December 4, 2022 – The Sitkovetsky Trio

Beethoven carefully considered his presentation to the musical world of Vienna. Though he had composed quite a few works by 1795, he chose the three Trios that form Opus 1 as his first publication. He had been sponsored by Elector Maximilian Franz to move from his hometown of Bonn to Vienna at the end of 1792, to study with the great Joseph Haydn and to make his name in a musically more active world.

Haydn was writing piano trios at that time, and though Beethoven probably had started work on his trios before he left Bonn, it was natural for him to work on them under the influence of his new teacher. When Haydn left for a sojourn in London in January 1794, Beethoven immediately began studies with Johann Albrechtsberger, which continued for fourteen months until Haydn’s return. A sketch for one of the movements of the G major Trio, op. 1, no. 2, was found among lessons Beethoven had done for Albrechtsberger.

Beethoven’s Opus 1Trios were performed privately in 1794 at the house of Prince Lichnowsky, who received the dedication. Ferdinand Ries, later Beethoven’s pupil, reported many years after the fact that Haydn was among the distinguished guests in the audience and that the older composer had many nice things to say about the works, but advised against publishing the Third in C minor, saying the public would have difficulty understanding it. Ries also reported that Beethoven took this to be a sign of jealousy on Haydn’s part.

It has been shown more recently that Ries’s account mixed up the chronology and that any possible qualms Haydn may have had about the C minor Trio were raised upon his second return from London in 1795, after the Trios had already been published. In response to this and other accounts that Haydn was envious of the younger composer, esteemed musicologist James Webster wrote, “It is inconceivable that the powerful and original genius of Haydn at the height of his powers should have had any difficulty with this work . . . or indeed any of Beethoven’s music of the 1790s, unless for reasons that reflect on Beethoven’s limitations rather than his own.” Furthermore, Webster demonstrated that no irreparable falling out between the two composers occurred in the 1790s, though they did experience a period of distrust between 1800 and 1804.

Beethoven may have worked more on the Trios after the 1794 performance and perhaps other performances of them at Prince Lichnowsky’s. But his most likely reason for delaying their publication until 1795 was to build up a following—meaning a sufficient number of subscribers.

Like the other Opus 1 Trios and the Opus 2 Piano Sonatas, Beethoven conceived of the Trio in four movements, despite the custom of the day to compose chamber works with piano in three movements. The G major Trio opens with an elaborate slow introduction in which the piano predominates. Both the piano and violin preview the main theme of the Allegro vivace, which makes its entrance in the “wrong key” before righting itself to G major.

The slow movement contrasts with the surrounding fast movements by its 6/8 meter, expressive nuances, and unusual key of E major. Haydn also used the key of E major for the slow movement of his famous G major Gypsy Trio, but his Trio was written in England in 1795.
Beethoven wrote a fleet scherzo instead of a minuet for the third movement of his Trio. Haydn had written minuets in fast enough tempos to be considered scherzos, whereas Beethoven actually called these movements scherzos. The cello, playing quietly in its lowest range, initiates the furtive-sounding main section. The hushed quality remains until the loud closing bars of the main section. The Trio provides contrast in texture, but remains quiet. The principal section’s return is literal, followed by a soft coda that ends pianissimo.

The sonata-form finale also begins quietly but soon bursts forth exuberantly. Beethoven’s obvious fun with repeated notes generates the first theme and, in a different fashion, the second. He must also have enjoyed disguising the beginning of his recapitulation, something that Haydn also did on occasion. Beethoven winds down the movement with quiet fragmentation of motives then jolts the listener with the final fortissimo chords.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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