The Kennedy Center

Serenade in D major for String Trio

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Paul Horsley

Because Beethoven's early published works are so meaty, we sometimes tend to think of the composer as having emerged full-blown. But a closer look reveals that he didn't leap feet-first into symphonic textures, for example, until he'd worked through certain stylistic and formal problems that he later explored in works of ever increasing size. Most of his first twenty published works are piano sonatas or chamber works, and he achieved an almost unprecedented level of formal and technical sophistication in these genres before tackling the large-scale First Symphony in 1799. Among these chamber pieces were several works for string trio composed during the late 1790s (Opp. 3, 8, and 9), which were themselves a sort of preparation for his first set of String Quartets, Op. 18.

The string trio is a challenging genre, and thus its repertoire remains relatively small. It calls upon the composer to fill up, using three instruments, a texture normally requiring four or more. The trio did not have a long history like that of the quartet, as Classical-period harmonic theory was geared more toward the idea of four distinct voices, or of melody with accompaniment.

Yet Beethoven meets the challenge of the string trio with amazing aplomb. No doubt he had Mozart's E-flat Divertimento (K. 563) in his ears when he took up, probably in 1797, a work he called a Serenade, the publication of which was announced in the Wiener Zeitung on October 7, 1797. (Later it was published in a version for violin and piano, billed as “arranged by the author,” though Beethoven adamantly stated in 1803 that he was not the author of this version, but only edited and touched up someone else's handiwork.)

Like Mozart's Divertimento, the Serenade follows a plan more in keeping with the incidental music of the day -- that is, instead of a traditional four-movement sonata form (Allegro, Slow movement, Minuet, Rondo), it consists of a free sequence of compound movements that are all or nearly all derived from some dance type or other.

Beethoven begins Op. 8 with an introductory Marcia: Allegro, a sort of throwback to the days when outdoor courtly music began and ended with a march, giving the musicians an opportunity to parade on and off the grounds. This leads directly into a touching and intense Adagio, which forms the main part of this movement. Then comes a brief and witty Menuetto: Allegretto, openly Haydnesque in its inspiration, but with the easy audacity that we associate with Beethoven even in his youngest years.

The third movement is another curious compound: An almost tragic Adagio in minor-mode alternates with a buffoonish Scherzo: Allegro molto. The Allegretto alla Polacca is a nod to another favorite 18th-century dance, supposedly Polish in origin, and the Andante quasi allegretto is an elegant set of variations on a discursive subject. The initial Marcia is reprised.