The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 ("Ghost")

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Countess Anna Maria von Erdödy, born in 1779, was a daughter of the distinguished Hungarian family of Niczk, whose name was associated with the royal houses of both Russia and Austria during the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century. She was wedded to the Hungarian Count Peter von Erdödy when she was seventeen, and bore him two daughters and a son, but the marriage proved to be an unhappy one, and, as divorce was then impossible for Catholics, she separated from her husband and lived in Vienna. The Countess possessed a not inconsiderable talent as a pianist, and her apartment in the Krugerstrasse (where her neighbors included Prince Karl Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven's most faithful patrons and the dedicatee of the Second Symphony and the ballet Prometheus) was the scene of some of Vienna's most elegant and sophisticated musical soirées. She carried on her active life despite the fact that, according to Beethoven's biographer Richard Specht, "she was exceptionally frail and of an almost incorporeal thinness. Though she was partly disabled by paralysis of the lower limbs, this noble lady overcame all physical ills by mental and moral strength and her indomitable will. She could hardly walk, and was forced to drag herself from chair to chair, leaning on the furniture at every step, or had to be helped. She was not beautiful, but the expression of her soft melancholy eyes gave her face a peculiar charm." Beethoven first met Anna Maria around 1804, perhaps through the cellist Joseph Linke, whom she kept on retainer to participate in her household music, or through Lichnowsky. In the fall of 1808, Beethoven, who shifted his residence some two dozen times during his years in Vienna, accepted the offer of rooms in her apartment, and settled in with his manservant. Despite the appearance that this living situation presented, his relationship with the Countess seems to have been friendly rather than intimate. He confided in her, calling her as his Beichtvater - "Father Confessor" - and probably felt drawn to her because each had to bear a physical affliction, deafness in his case, impaired mobility in hers. "It is reasonable to suppose that he and the Countess were friends, good friends, two human beings, kindred in several characteristics and interests, but not lovers," concluded George R. Marek.

Beethoven talked frequently in 1808 of quitting Vienna for some other more welcoming venue. The Viennese premiere of Fidelio had produced a hornet's nest of troubles for him, his request to present a concert in the city for his own benefit in 1807 had been denied, and the Mass in C (Op. 86) that he had written to curry favor with Prince Nikolaus Esterházy had not produced its desired effect. He was all but convinced to abandon the city in October, when he received an attractive offer from King Jêrome Bonaparte of Westphalia to become his Kapellmeister at the generous salary of 600 gold ducats. It was at that critical juncture that Countess Erdödy helped forge an alliance of the Princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolph that guaranteed Beethoven an annual stipend of 4,000 florins if he would pledge himself "to permanently make his domicile in Vienna." A formal agreement was signed, and Beethoven remained a Viennese for the rest of his life, though his annuity was adversely affected by the devaluation of the Austrian currency in 1811, the subsequent bankruptcy of Lobkowitz, and the death of Kinsky. (A lawsuit that Beethoven brought in 1815 to reclaim his overdue stipend was resolved almost entirely in his favor.) In appreciation for the part she played in securing this important agreement, Beethoven wrote two excellent Piano Trios (Op. 70) for the Countess during the autumn of 1808, and played them for her at Christmastime with Linke and violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

The first of the two Trios for Countess Erdödy (D major, Op. 70, No. 1) is disposed in a symmetrical formal design of three large movements arranged fast-slow-fast. Though the main theme of the opening Allegro begins with a bold motive of scalar motion broken by wide rising leaps, much of the first movement is lyrical in nature, a characteristic that also marks the two works which immediately precede this Trio in Beethoven's catalog - the Sixth Symphony (Op. 68) and the A major Cello Sonata (Op. 69). The subsidiary subject consists of the superimposition of a flowing, wave-form line in octaves (strings) and a few interrupted phrases in sweet harmonies (piano). The central development section contains some carefully hewn instrumental conversation extracted from the earlier subjects, and rises to a climax to usher in the recapitulation. In its eerie mood and cautious tread, the Largo stands in strong contrast to the music of optimism and energy that surrounds it. The themes and setting for this movement (which occasioned the work's sobriquet - "Ghost") were derived from some sketches that Beethoven made for the witches' scene in an aborted opera to a libretto by Heinrich Collin on the subject of Shakespeare's Macbeth, one of a sizable number of theatrical projects (including Romeo and Juliet) that the composer tinkered with at that time but never brought to fruition. The sonata-form finale returns the bright spirits of the opening movement to bring this splendid product of Beethoven's most fertile period to a joyful close.