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Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8

About the Work

Johannes Brahms
Quick Look Composer: Johannes Brahms
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Fortas Chamber Music Concert: The Morgenstern Trio Thu., May 3, 2012, 7:30 PM
© Richard Rodda

In April 1853, the twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms set out from his native Hamburg for a concert tour of Germany with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. The following month in Hanover they met the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom Brahms had heard give an inspiring performance of the Beethoven Concerto five years before in Hamburg. Joachim learned of Brahms' desire to take a walking tour through the Rhine Valley, and he arranged a joint recital to raise enough money to finance the trip. Along with the proceeds of the gate, Joachim gave Brahms several letters of introduction, including one to Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf. On the last day of September 1853, Brahms met the Schumanns for the first time. "Here is one of those who comes as if sent straight from God," Clara recorded in her diary. The friendship was immediate and unstinting.

Filled with zeal and ideas by his soaring fortunes of 1853 (during which he also met Liszt, Berlioz and Hans von Bülow), Brahms visited Joachim in Hanover to celebrate the New Year, and there he began the B major Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. When Clara and Robert arrived in town for some concert engagements at the end of January, Brahms said that that week consisted of "high festival days, which make you really live." The Trio was completed soon after the Schumanns went home to Düsseldorf. It was only shortly thereafter, however, on February 27th, that Robert, long troubled by severe nervous disorders, tried to drown himself in the River Rhine. Brahms rushed to Düsseldorf, and a week later helped Clara admit him to the asylum at Endenich, near Bonn; Schumann never left the place, and died there on July 29, 1856. Despite the turmoil of her life during her husband's final months, Clara continued her professional career as one of the day's leading concert pianists (her appearances were the principal financial support for her six children), and acted as spur, confidante and critic of Brahms' creative efforts. She judged the new Piano Trio worthy of her recommendation to Breitkopf und Härtel for their publication, and they issued the score in November 1854; the work was thoroughly revised in 1889.

In its original form, the B major Trio is perhaps Brahms' most unabashedly Romantic creation, revealing, according to Richard Specht's voluptuous description, "the whole twenty-year-old composer with all his inner stress, his fullness of heart, his ardent longing; all the apprehension, pride, restraint and expectation of a soul in flower." Brahms headed the manuscript "Kreisler junior," a reference to E.T.A. Hoffmann's quirky fictional Kapellmeister, whose unexpected turns of phrase and action and constitutional impetuosity were highly prized by the Schumann circle. (One of Schumann's best piano cycles, Kreisleriana, Op. 16, of 1838, was inspired by Hoffmann's character.) Half a life later, in 1889, Brahms re-evaluated the Trio for a complete edition of his works then being contemplated by Simrock, and found that the prolixity and unbuttoned Romanticisms of his original no longer pleased him as they had in 1854, so he undertook a complete renovation of the score: second themes were rewritten, entire paragraphs were excised or abbreviated, formal structures were tightened. From his vacation retreat at Bad Ischl in the Austrian Salzkammergut, Brahms wrote to Clara on September 3, 1889, "With what childish amusement I whiled away the beautiful summer days you will never guess. I have rewritten my B major Trio.... It will not be as wild as before - but will it be better?" Simrock issued the revised score in February 1891, but Brahms did not formally withdraw the original, allowing both versions to exist, thereby providing a rare glimpse into the compositional workshop of one of the most secretive of all the great composers.

A broad and stately piano melody opens the B major Trio. The cello and then the violin are drawn into the unfolding of this lyrical inspiration, which amounts to an almost orchestral climax before quieting to make way for the second theme, given in unison by the strings. A triplet motive, introduced as the transition linking the exposition's two themes, serves as the underpinning for much of the development section. A truncated recapitulation of the earlier thematic material rounds out the movement. The second movement is shadowy and mysterious and sometimes dramatic, a spiritual descendant of the Scherzo in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; a central trio in warm, close harmonies provides contrast. The Adagio uses a hymnal dialogue between piano and strings as the main material of the outer sections of the movement, while the middle region is more intense and animated in expression and more complex in counterpoint. The finale juxtaposes a somber main theme, begun by the cello above the agitated accompaniment of the piano, with a brighter subsidiary subject, played by the piano while the cello contributes little off-beat punctuations. It is the unsettled, B minor main theme rather than the more optimistic second subject that draws the work to its restless close.