The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 11

About the Work

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

Beethoven first acquired his reputation after arriving in Vienna in 1792 as a pianist, a flamboyant young man of untamed spirit particularly noted for the power and invention of his improvisations. It was with the premieres of his first two piano concertos in 1795 that his fame as a composer began to flourish. Some of the compositions from the years immediately following show his eagerness to stretch the boundaries of the conventional forms and modes of expression, but most of his music of the 1790s still pays eager obeisance to the traditions and taste of the time. Such a work is the Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello, Op. 11, composed in 1798. Beethoven's disciple Carl Czerny simply said, without specification, that the Trio was written for "a clarinetist," the most likely candidate being Joseph Bähr, a virtuoso then attached to the musical establishment of the Prussian court chapel at Potsdam. Chamber pieces with winds were much in vogue at that time in Vienna, and Beethoven contributed nine works to the genre between 1792 and 1800. (The Septet, Op. 20 of 1800 was by far his most popular piece during his lifetime; in 1805 he arranged it for clarinet, cello and piano as his Trio in E-flat major, Op. 38.) The Clarinet Trio was intended to please the drawing-room sensibilities of the Viennese public, and to help ensure its success Beethoven based the last movement on a well-known tune (Pria ch'io l'impegno - "Before beginning this awesome task, I need a snack") from Joseph Weigl's popular comic opera L'Amor Marinaro ("The Corsair in Love"), which had been unveiled at the Hoftheater in November 1797. (Such a tactic was then common - Hummel and Joseph Wölfl both composed variations on the melody shortly after Beethoven, and Paganini created a Grand Sonata and Variations for Violin and Orchestra on it as late as 1828.) Upon the score's publication in 1798 (which was issued with a substitute violin part for the clarinet to boost its potential sales to Vienna's home music-makers), Beethoven shrewdly dedicated the score to his patroness Countess Wilhelmine von Thun, who had also supported the creative efforts of Mozart, Haydn and Gluck.

The review of the Op. 11 Trio that appeared in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung ("General Music Journal") in 1799 is typical in its mixture of praise and caution of many that Beethoven received throughout his life: "This Trio is by no means easy, but it runs more flowingly than much of the composer's other work, and produces an excellent ensemble effect. If the composer, with his unusual grasp of harmony, his love of the graver movements, would aim at natural rather than strained or recherché composition, he would set good work before the public, such as would throw into the shade the stale, hurdy-gurdy tunes of many a more talked-about musician." Beethoven, of course, paid no attention to this advice, and went on to become, well, Beethoven, but this early Trio, though fitted with a number of harmonic audacities, is music still well within the Classical mold, untroubled by the searching expression of his later works.

The Trio's sonata-form opening movement begins with a bold, striding phrase presented in unison as the first of several motives comprising the main theme group. The complementary themes are introduced following two loud chords, a silence and an unexpected harmonic sleight-of-hand. The movement's development section is largely concerned with the striding motive of the main theme. The Adagio is based on a melody of Mozartian tenderness first sung by the cello before being shared with the clarinet. The finale is a straightforward set of nine variations and a finale on Weigl's melody, a movement that Beethoven repeatedly promised Czerny he would replace with a more substantial one, but never did.