The Kennedy Center

Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97 "Archduke"

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard Freed

Despite the considerable contributions of Haydn and Mozart, it remained for Beethoven to give the piano trio an importance it had not enjoyed before. Without trespassing the boundaries of true chamber music, he achieved a concertante style of unprecedented brilliance and power that was to set the standards for the flowering of the genre throughout the 19th century (as exemplified most notably in the works of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák).

The crowning masterpiece of Beethoven's cycle of piano trios is the last in his series, the celebrated Op. 97 in B-flat, the "Archduke" Trio, still regarded as the greatest of all works for this combination of instruments. In its own time, like the Eroica Symphony, it was as striking for its broad dimensions as for the depth of its substance. Beethoven sketched the work during the summer of 1810 and wrote out the final score the following March. The Archduke Rudolph of Austria was one of Beethoven's truest friends, for a time his pupil, and one of the three men who subscribed an allowance for the composer in March 1809 (the others being Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Kinsky). Beethoven dedicated to him not only this Trio, but nine other major works in various forms; it was Rudolph's appointment as cardinal and Archbishop of Olmütz, in 1819, that moved Beethoven to compose his Missa solemnis. The Trio in B-flat was probably performed at the Archduke's palace soon after it was written, but its public premiere did not take place until April 11, 1814, on which occasion the violinist was Ignaz Schuppanzigh (leader of the famous string quartet that introduced many of Beethoven's quartets and later some of Schubert's), the cellist was Joseph Linke (for whom Beethoven composed sonatas), and the pianist was Beethoven himself, in his last public appearance at the keyboard.

The first movement opens with the piano's statement of a broad, noble theme, similar to the one that opens the first of the three "Razumovsky" Quartets (the F major, Op. 59, No. 1). Repeated and amplified with the entrance of the strings, it leads to a second subject in the unexpected key of G major and then returns to be examined and discussed in the course of an impressive development section. Following the recapitulation there is a brilliant coda.

The second movement is a scherzo which again calls to mind the corresponding movement of the aforementioned quartet. The extended middle section presents two contrasting elements in alternation: a winding, tortured chromatic fugato built on very narrow intervals (anticipating the style of the late sonatas and quartets) and a dashing waltz tune. The coda underlines the humorous element with its abrupt break-off.

The serene slow movement (marked Andante cantabile ma pero con moto) is a series of variations on a hymn-like melody. (After Beethoven's death it was gratuitously adapted to a choral setting of verses by Goethe.) There are four variations of great melodic and rhythmic interest and of growing tension and complexity, but after the fourth the theme is restated in its original purity, to be followed by a dreamy coda which extends as a bridge to the finale (yet again as in Op. 59, No. 1--and numerous other works of its period). The concluding movement itself is a freely handled rondo, alternating lighthearted passages with heroic outbursts. The extended coda is full of surprises, ending in a manner Haydn would have loved--but which is thoroughly and unmistakably Beethoven.