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Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 1

About the Work

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quick Look Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Paganini, Grieg, Leisner & Beethoven Sun., Feb. 9, 2014, 2:00 PM
© Thomas May

 "Strong, powerful, and moving," was how the critic of the powerful Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung described the set of piano trios that Ludwig van Beethoven chose to present to the world as his Opus 1. This praise came over a decade after the publication date of 1795-and in contrast to what were deemed the unsettling and overly challenging piano sonatas that had appeared more recently-but right out of the gate Beethoven's first official declaration in print as a composer was a stunning success, both critically and commercially.

The publication had been tactfully subsidized by one of the composer's most prominent and remarkably generous early patrons, to whom they were naturally dedicated: Prince Karl Lichnowsky. The trios-euphoniously called Trois Trios on the French title page, with Beethoven's first name correspondingly rendered as Louis-earned their composer a sum that, according to Maynard Solomon, was nearly equivalent to two years' salary had he remained at his position in the Bonn court. Even more, Beethoven's successful assessment of the public demand for new pianoforte-centered chamber music allowed him to establish a formidable identity with Vienna's leading publishers. The biographer Lewis Lockwood points out that, as a result, "he thought about composition and publication from early on as a single large-scale enterprise."

The Opus 1 set of Trios represents a culmination as much as a starting point. In fact Beethoven waited several years after resettling in Vienna in 1792 before issuing anything, while he continued to work on projects he had carried along from Bonn, initiated new ones, and set about shaping a legend through his hypnotic performances at the keyboard for an ever-growing circle of aristocratic admirers. There is evidence that the Trio in E-flat, which he placed first in the set, may have originated in Bonn.

Beethoven would have introduced these works in performances at Prince Lichnowsky's palace, probably in 1793; perhaps he filled out these musical gatherings with one of his indelible solo improvisations at the keyboard. Thereafter he obsessively revised before allowing them to be published. (The Second Piano Concerto, which predates the First, is an even more extreme example of a work Beethoven held onto for years before allowing it to be published.)

As artistic statements, these trios are extraordinary for their scope and breadth of ambition. Beethoven presents all three as large-scale four-movement works, bringing the set to its climax with a trio in the key he would redefine with his unique imprint: C minor (the most audacious of the bunch, and the one that famously gave Beethoven's sometime-teacher Haydn pause, for fear that it might go over the public's head).

There's something already characteristically Beethovenian about the opening summons of the Trio in E-flat major, with its shot-out-of-the-pistol chord followed by an optimistic, energetic rocket theme. Another of the young upstart's patrons, Count Waldstein, famously wrote in his personal album as he prepared to leave Bonn: "You will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn." In his own way, Beethoven does work out a kind of synthesis of these very different composers, with a Mozartean personality coming to the fore in the first movement's restless generosity of musical ideas. Already the coda reveals Beethoven's expansionist tendencies.

The piano again has the honors of launching the Adagio cantabile in A-flat major, a fusion of song and rondo. In the duet between the strings, Beethoven allots the cello a rare spotlight. This slow movement's pellucid melody-spinning might also be linked to Beethoven's deep regard for Mozart.

The vigorous rhythmic jests and accents of the Scherzo, in contrast, introduce a startling new perspective. "What key are we in?" Beethoven forces us to wonder, hinting at C minor before settling into the expected E-flat major. For all of his love-hate ambivalence toward Haydn, there's no doubting Beethoven's assimilation of the spirit of invention from that master. (Haydn had composed numerous piano trios but would shortly add his most profound contributions to the genre.) The canon-style cat-and-mouse chasing of themes in the main Scherzo frames a trio in which the strings' drone figure almost anticipates the parallel spot in the Scherzo of the Seventh Symphony.

After so much compositional finesse, Beethoven could hardly settle for a predictable rondo wrap-up. The piano's octave leaps-an innocent question mark-raise the curtain on a genuine party full of musical double entendres and other high jinks. Naturally Beethoven implicitly alludes to where we started, this time reversing the rocket's direction downward. As a final surprise, he blows up the coda into the equivalent of a subplot, starting with a non sequitur change of key before abruptly shifting gears to reground us in E-flat major.