Piano Trio in E-flat major, op. 1, no. 1

October 30, 2016: Wu Han, piano; Philip Setzer, violin; David Finckel, cello

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.

The Trios were performed privately in 1794 at the house of Prince Lichnowsky, the dedicatee of the Opus 1 Trios. 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 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, “[I]t 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 E-flat major Trio in four movements, despite the custom of the day to compose chamber works with piano in three movements. Beethoven’s first public utterance, the first theme of the first movement, takes simple repeated chords and upward-rushing arpeggios and makes distinct motives out of them—short “building-block” kinds of motives that remained central to his mature style. Three quiet repeated chords begin the second theme, which stays within a narrow range in contrast to the more ebullient first theme. His sonata-form movement concludes with an extended coda, showing even in his early work the tendency toward substantial codas that begin almost as second development sections.

The Adagio cantabile gently follows a rondo scheme as three presentations of the graceful main theme alternate with two contrasting episodes. Beethoven adds ornamental variants with each recurrence of the main theme and subtracts from its total length in the second appearance to make a more concise form.

Beethoven wrote a scherzo instead of a minuet for the third movement of his Trio. Haydn had written minuets in fast enough tempos to be considered scherzos and even used the term Scherzo in his Opus 33 Quartets of 1781, but he was not writing scherzos in his piano trios or for that matter giving them a fourth movement. Beethoven’s sense of humor surfaces in the present Scherzo as it merrily begins in a key twice removed from the home key (the dominant of the dominant). The recurring little three-note motive with a grace note contributes to the section’s cheerful character. The Trio certainly changes character and texture, with long sustained notes in the strings supporting quiet legato figures in the piano.

A striking leap of a tenth, heard three times, initiates the exuberant Presto Finale, which contains elements of both sonata and rondo form. The second theme, with its arpeggiated then stepwise descent, enters in each instrument in turn—violin, cello, piano, and again in the violin. Beethoven shows a little harmonic ingenuity late in the movement when this theme appears in E major before returning dramatically to the home key of E-flat. Just before the affirmative closing measures he has a bit of fun with his leaping motive. All in all the Trio makes a very assured as well as promising first opus.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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