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Trio for Piano, Violin, and Horn in E-flat major, Op. 40

About the Work

Johannes Brahms
Quick Look Composer: Johannes Brahms
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players: Brahms, Poulenc, Beethoven Sun., Feb. 5, 2006, 2:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Brahms shared with Mozart an exceptional enthusiasm for the clarinet, which both composers developed late in life, and he shared with him as well the distinction of being one of the relatively few composers to write for the horn in chamber music with the same prominence otherwise accorded to the violin or cello. Beethoven, between the two, composed the very successful Septet for horn and other winds with strings that concludes the present program, and also a sonata for horn and piano. The latter work is seldom performed, and is at least as likely to turn up in the arrangement for cello as in its original instrumentation. Brahms's Horn Trio, on the other hand, might be said to assign to the horn a fairly soloistic part, as indeed he gave the clarinet in his considerably later trio for that instrument, cello and piano.

An elegiac mood pervades much of the Horn Trio. Brahms composed it in the spring of 1865, shortly after the death of his mother, and may have intended it, at least in part, as a wordless requiem. In setting the general mood, which is characterized by great intimacy, the opening movement is an Andante instead of the usual Allegro, and the third movement, which bears the funereal marking Adagio mesto, includes an outright quotation of the old German funeral chorale "Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten" (used also by Bach in his funerary cantata of the same title, BWV 93, and in four different chorale preludes for organ).

Various nature pictures are also evoked by the horn, and the listener is reminded that thoughts of nature and of death were closely intermingled in Brahms's personal outlook. The elegiac cast, it must be emphasized, is one of gentle melancholy rather than lamentation, and in fact scenes of the hunt are among the outdoorsy images suggested in the vigorous scherzo and finale. In the scherzo the elegiac mood reasserts itself in the trio section (which resembles somewhat the posthorn solo in the third movement of Mahler's Third Symphony, still more than thirty years in the future when this work was composed), but in the finale sheer exuberance prevails.