Sunday, 2 September 2018

A Relationship of Equals: Beethoven and the Piano Trio


(This essay was originally published as two programme notes for concerts given at the 2018 Salzburg Festival by Daniel Barenboim, Michael Barenboim, and Kian Soltani.)


MS, Piano Trio in D major, op.70 no.1


As with so many genres – symphony, string quartet, piano sonata – Beethoven seems to have come to the piano trio at just the right time. So, at any rate, our understanding of musical history, inconceivable without him and his music, informs us. Growing out of later Baroque chamber music – solo instrument and obbligato keyboard, probably harpsichord, in two parts, with or without formal cello doubling of the bass line – the piano trios of Haydn and, later, Mozart paved the way (which is not to understand them only as having paved the way). As the early sonata ‘for piano with violin accompaniment’ gave way to a true chamber partnership, a ‘violin sonata’ in the modern sense, so did a relationship of equals emerge between violin, cello and piano and, in a few cases, between alternative ‘piano trio’ formations, for instance viola, clarinet and piano, as in Mozart’s ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio KV 498.


Haydn proved the true emancipator of the cello, so much so that, by the time of his later and Beethoven’s first trios, the violin-cello-piano formation was both favoured and standard – Beethoven even arranged his Second Symphony thus. He also used the formation in other, relatively ‘minor’ works: an early, short three-movement work in E flat major WoO 38, found and published after his death: the Variations on ‘Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu’ op.121a, most of which was probably written in 1793–4, although published much later; the B flat major Allegretto WoO 39, written as a gift for Maximiliane Brentano in 1812, again only published posthumously;  and the Variations on an original theme in E-flat major op.44 (an early work whose opus number is again misleading). The 1797 Trio for piano, clarinet and cello, op.11, may also be performed with violin instead of clarinet. Beethoven’s most important contributions, however, are generally held to lie in the six ‘official’ piano trios.


Compositional Milestone


Carl Alois, Fürst von Lichnowsky-Woschütz

We start at the beginning, with the first trio from Beethoven’s official op.1, that is, the set of three works Beethoven considered important enough, in 1795, to designate with that number. The Nine Variations on a March by Dressler for piano, published earlier, were not afforded that honour; nor were a number of intervening works. There is something undeniably special, debts to Mozart and Haydn notwithstanding, to this epiphany. All three op.1 works were first publicly performed in 1793 or 1794 in the house of Prince Lichnowsky, to whom the set is dedicated, although much of their music had likely been conceived, and some of it written, in Bonn, prior to the composer’s move to Vienna. Like the first set of piano sonatas, op. 2, the trios are all written in four rather than three movements, as would prove the pattern for all but one of Beethoven’s subsequent essays in the genre. They garnered their young composer significant attention, both as composer and pianist – even if, as Marten Noorduin has pointed out, the first official review seems to have appeared more than a decade after publication – and a handsome profit from sales.


Reckoning with Haydn and Mozart


The Piano Trio no. 1 in E-flat major, op. 1 no.1, bears that typical early – and not only early – Beethoven language of Mozart neoclassicised, textures slightly fuller, perhaps closer to later Haydn, with an approach to structure that certainly owes more to Beethoven’s acknowledged teacher. The key had been a favourite for Mozart in all manner of genres, the aforementioned ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio included. Here, in the first movement’s sonata form and beyond, we hear (and feel) Beethoven confidently playing with the inheritance from his two masters, such play never capable of mere reduction to ‘influence’. Subdominant colouring following the first bar’s ‘Mannheim rocket’ announces a composer confident in his mastery of the Classical tonal universe – and already in possession of many elements of personal musical style. Sforzando accents in the hymn-like second subject, while hardly unprecedented, are intensely personal.


Much the same might be said of the lyrical second movement. Again, its theme bears kinship to Mozart as melodist, while sounding slightly ‘later’, referential perhaps as well as reverential. Melodic turns seem conscious of their neoclassical distance from their Classical master, perhaps even longing to bridge a historical gap that belies mere chronological proximity. Further subdominant colouring proves frequent, this rondo already having moved to the subdominant, A flat major, of the work as a whole. The sprightly, even skittish scherzo and its relatively more relaxed and intimate trio again play with the tonal relationship between E -lat major and A-flat major. Such play is all the more apparent given the genuine tonal ambiguity of the scherzo’s opening, which we seem to hear as a modulatory passage from the slow movement. When are we certain that the movement is actually ‘in’ E-flat major? Not for some time.


If the finale’s conception of sonata form has roots in Haydn, the developmental nature of the recapitulation works on a scale lying beyond, looking forward even to the ‘Eroica’ Symphony. Likewise, the surprise of its tonal upward shift of a semitone, to E major, the return to E-flat major accomplished not without a touch of authentic Beethovenian violence. The invention implied and unleashed by the almost bizarre opening phrase – bizarre until we appreciate, if only retrospectively, what it musically suggests – will never be normalised.


Annuity and Integration


Countess Anna Maria von Erdődy’

Beethoven wrote the two op.70 trios while staying on Countess Anna Maria von Erdődy’s estate in 1808. He would express his gratitude for her role in helping negotiate him an ‘annuity agreement’ with three patrons the following year by offering her the dedication of this set. The second of these trios opens in a fashion it is difficult not to consider ‘symphonic’ – if only with hindsight. There is a slow introduction, the relationship of whose material to the exposition proper is both clear and complex for players and listeners alike, neither section quite making full sense without the other. As Charles Rosen observed in Sonata Forms, once slow introductions had become more common in symphonies around 1780, ‘it was perhaps inevitable that they would be more closely integrated with the allegros that followed, not only thematically but also by their reappearance later in the faster tempo’. That happened in opera too, for instance in Haydn’s Armida. It also worked its way back into instrumental and chamber music, whether at the original, slow tempo, such as in Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, or, as here – and in Haydn’s ‘Drumroll’ Symphony – at the new tempo and rhythm. The cello, following on from the ‘Ghost’ Trio, op.70 no.1, often takes the lead, not least as initiator of contrapuntal discussion. If ever it had been a junior partner in Beethoven’s trios, it certainly is not now. A preoccupation with trills seems to hint at the composer’s late style. So too does the blurring or, better, witty complication of sectional boundaries. A further instance of that is offered by the recapitulation’s creeping up on us, most likely without our having realized, the piano this time ‘correcting’ the cello’s bold assertion of the ‘wrong’ key of D-flat major with the tonic of E-flat major.


The slow movement’s double variation form, in C major and minor, once again takes its leave from Haydn, although surely by now more in homage than influence, should it be conscious at all. One would expect the minuet – even if, by now, one did not expect a scherzo – to return to E-flat major; instead, Beethoven moves to the subdominant, A-flat major; its trio shifts again, to C major. This is the first comparable instance in Beethoven’s oeuvre of movements in three different keys. It would seem that meant something to him, for he would use precisely the same three keys the following year in the String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major ‘Harp’, op.74, albeit in a different order. G major and C major, both a third apart from the tonic, play important roles in the finale, whose playful and, to employ the inevitable cliché, genial spirit again suggests that Beethoven, the impetuous, often difficult pupil, had made his final peace with the frail Haydn, who would die little more than a couple of months after the 1809 ‘annuity agreement’ was concluded.


Profoundly Human


The Piano Trio in D major, ‘Ghost’, op.70/1, is burdened with a singularly unhelpful nickname, still more so than the ‘Emperor’ Concerto – for which, at least, the English-speaking world may be held solely responsible. There is, alas, little we can do about either. Crucially, this is a different Beethoven from that heard earlier: master of all he surveys, and yet more profoundly human. Sublimity – a musical idea essentially, historically defined by Beethoven’s music – is immediately apparent. So too is the increasingly prominent role played by the cello, as foreshadowed in the ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets, op.59. It is the cello that sounds a high F natural, following the unison opening, having us wonder whether we are in D minor rather than major and preparing the dramatic terrain. The second group offers lyrical contrast, not for ‘balance’, but out of what the Romantics would consider inner necessity. Intense developmental concision contributes to the thrill. Brilliant passagework is, like everything else, generative; not a single note is wasted.


Rapt and, again, sublime, the slow movement offers the in-itself-dialectical contradiction of a ‘perfect dialectic’, mediated between simple and complex. Its opening theme may be found among Beethoven’s sketches for an opera on Macbeth. Whatever might have become impossible after Mozart’s death, for a few minutes sounds not only once again possible but close to realization, even if the opera itself were but a dream. Arioso or scena? Ultimately the movement remains sui generis. In ‘sonata-like density’, Theodor Adorno likened it to the slow movements of the first two ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets and the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata.


Uniquely among Beethoven’s piano trios, there is no minuet or scherzo. The finale offers release after the slow movement, yet tension aplenty of its own too, playful in its disjunctures, disjoint even in its play. Yet, in the necessity of its contrast with the slow movement, the dialectical nature of Beethoven’s writing is not only comprehensible but, crucially, felt. As Adorno wrote: ‘In isolation, the start of the Presto might not sound very striking; but after the close of the Largo, which is darkened beyond any classicist measure […] has something of the palely comforting dawn of a day which promises to put right all the havoc that has gone before’. Out of the depths of Beethoven’s Romanticism, something of the spirit as well as the invention of Haydn lives – or, rather, is once again reborn.


Turning Point(s)

It has long been customary to understand Beethoven as a turning-point, perhaps the turning-point, in the history of Western art music: at least from the standpoint of late modernity, late modernism, late capitalism, call them what we will. Consider his teacher Haydn’s 1761 contract with Prince Paul Anton Esterházy: we see a liveried servant, who must ‘appear daily (whether here in Vienna or on the estates) in the antichambre before and after midday, and inquire whether a high princely ordre for a musical performance has been given’. Moreover:

The said Vice-Kapellmeister shall be under permanent obligation to compose such pieces of music as his Serene Princely Highness may command, and neither to communicate such new compositions to anyone, nor to allow them to be copied, but to retain them wholly for the exclusive use of his Highness; nor shall he compose for any other person without the knowledge and gracious permission.

In his later years, Haydn was freer from such obligations, more widely feted; indeed, his instruction of Beethoven was cut short – most likely to the relief of both – by his second, 1794 visit to London, for which he would write a further six ‘London’ symphonies, making considerable money from both composition and performance. Perhaps he, then, was the ‘turning-point’, or was it Mozart, in his not entirely successful attempt of the 1780s to live as something akin to a ‘freelance’ pianist-composer in Vienna?


Perhaps – or perhaps we should rid ourselves of the idea of a turning-point, even of multiple turning-points. For whatever reasons, we seem unable to do so. The symphony seems, the ‘Jupiter’ or ‘London’ symphonies notwithstanding, to make a quantum if not necessarily qualitative leap with Beethoven and his ‘Eroica’. So do the ‘standing’ of the string quartet, and of the piano sonata; so too does that of the piano trio. And if we return to the matter of the composer’s own standing, far from unrelated to that of his music, we see Beethoven, also in Vienna, in 1809, the year the op.70 piano trios were published, as beneficiary of a very different contract.


Joseph Franz Maximilian,
7th Prince Lobkowitz



Part negotiated by Countess Erdődy – herself a pianist, separated from her husband and an ally to Beethoven in his battles with fickle Viennese taste – two princes, Lobkowitz and Kinsky, and the Archduke Rudolph, brother to Emperor Francis I, countered an offer from Kassel of Kapellmeister to Jerome Bonaparte, short-lived King of Westphalia, with a quite extraordinary ‘annuity agreement’. They offered 4,000 florins a year, against Kassel’s 3,400, with no duties other than that Beethoven must remain in Austria and give up this salary in the event of a similarly remunerated agreement. Essentially, Beethoven was to be paid by royalty not to do their bidding but simply to be Beethoven.






There was, moreover, no doubting whatsoever that that is what his patrons – if one may even call them that any more – were receiving. Haydn and Mozart would always remain important to Beethoven, but they had by now been so thoroughly absorbed into his compositional bloodstream and remade in his singular image that ‘influence’ no longer really seems the right word. Emancipation from patronage and influence as commonly understood went hand in hand – in a way that challenges us to re-examine our conceptions of both. Is that not, however, what Beethoven always demands of us?


Haydn’s Pupil


The op.1 piano trios were dedicated to one of Beethoven’s earliest patron, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, a former pupil and patron of Mozart. They were first performed in Lichnowsky’s house in Vienna, where the Prince had also offered Beethoven accommodation, the composer having responded with a typical mixture of gratitude and something more Romantically ‘difficult’, suspicious both of slights and of preference vis-à-vis the rest of the household. In 1800, Lichnowsky granted Beethoven an annuity: a precursor to the 1809 agreement.


The second is perhaps the closest in the op.1 set to Haydn, from the first movement’s Adagio introduction, already hinting at the first subject, through the transition to that material, which arrives – as Denis Matthews noted (like Haydn’s ‘Oxford’ Symphony, also in G major) – ‘as though in mid-flight, poised on the dominant’, at the very close. The wit of the Allegro vivace, already playing with our preconceptions of form and tonality – just when will that theme come to rest in the tonic? – also has much in common with Haydn, as symphonist and chamber music composer. The move to the relatively distant key of E major for the Largo con espressione is more typical of Haydn than Mozart, although the profundity in siciliano rhythm and style is perhaps reminiscent of the slow movement in the latter’s Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, KV 488. If the tightness of its thematic organization stands in Haydn’s line, it is increasingly clear that, in character, this music owes most of all to Beethoven.


The scherzo jests with material, perhaps more gruffly yet no less humorously than Haydn; the move to B minor for its trio is slightly surprising, if hardly idiosyncratic. So too is its self-conscious ‘popular’ quality, surely a little wry in its affection – and its Affekt. The coda following the Scherzo’s reprise also plays with expectations. Bumptious sforzandos continue to distinguish Beethoven’s humour from that of Haydn in the finale, which nevertheless evinces much of the latter’s spirit and formal dynamism. It is surely no coincidence that E major plays an important role here too, Beethoven already showing himself aware of tonal relationships between as well as within movements.


The C minor Daemon


The third of the op.1 trios has generally, not without reason, been heard as the most personal, even the most fortward-looking of the three. Is the quiet opening a premonition of that to the Third Piano Concerto, also in C minor? It is certainly simpler than the similarly subdued opening to Mozart’s, in the same key, whose complex chromaticism necessitates a forte outburst sooner than either Beethoven work. The elemental is already enthroned here in a manner typically Beethovenian, insistence upon tonic and dominant chords again and again at the close of the first movement not entirely unlike the composer’s practice in his Fifth Symphony, if without its breath-taking concision. Haydn certainly seems to have feared potential public incomprehension – remember, this was Beethoven’s official op. 1 – advising, in vain, his pupil to withhold publication, a reaction Beethoven ascribed to jealousy. For the second movement, a simple, hymnal melody is treated to a series of variations, the shift to the relative major, E-flat, indicative of a need for relative relaxation of mood as well as tempo. The richness of the coda proves prophetic for Beethoven’s later variation writing, almost a development in itself.


No more than any other history does the history of musical genres move in one single direction. Here, Beethoven nominally returns from a scherzo to the very eighteenth-century minuet. Rustic, perhaps Haydnesque charm characterizes the trio’s cello melody; the piano’s syncopated jesting could only be Beethoven. And yet, the ‘Quasi allegro’ indication adds ambiguity, as well as typical urgency. The finale’s tempo marking, ‘Prestissimo’, sets the scene for a boldness of utterance that encompasses C minor fury and, in the second subject, similarly extreme lyrical repose. A closing turn to C major seems a grim nod to convention rather than a blaze of triumph. If the Fifth Symphony would later offer the quintessential barnstorming journey from darkness to light, this is perhaps a rage quieted rather than vanquished, a resigned ‘late’ twilight astonishing in so young a composer.


Haydn’s fears proved unfounded; popular and musical success were as one. Beethoven spoke dismissively of his instruction from Haydn; he seems to have wanted something more formal, more disciplined. Whatever the truth of that, it is clear that he learned far more from Haydn the composer than from Haydn the teacher. Not the least of his lessons learned was that it would often involve a great deal of work to be and to speak as oneself, to address the world as such.


Final Mastery


(Cardinal) Archduke Rudolph


In the Piano Trio in B-flat major, op.97, its nickname ‘the Archduke’ a reference to its Habsburg dedicatee, there can be no doubt that Beethoven addresses his own world and indeed posterity in just such fashion. This final essay in the genre stands on the threshold of the composer’s ‘late’ period. Another turning point or at least staging post suggests itself, almost irrespective of whether we like it or not.


Archduke Rudolph was not only a signatory and contributor to that agreement of 1809, he was also Beethoven’s pupil, both in piano and composition, a genuine friend to the composer and dedicatee of a number of works, as far as the Missa solemnis, originally intended for Rudolph’s installation as Archbishop of Olmütz (Olomouc). Perhaps appropriately, it is the largest in scale of Beethoven’s piano trios. As William Kinderman has observed, its spacious lyricism looks back to the Fourth Piano Concerto and yet it also looks forward, not least in the inversion of its inner movement, Scherzo placed before slow movement variations, to the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata and beyond


That breadth is certainly to be felt in the opening Allegro moderato, inherent, in Kinderman’s words, in ‘the poise and inner strength of the [opening] theme itself’. At thirty-three bars in length, it is indeed ‘one of the broadest in the entire Classical repertoire’. The composer’s increasing interest in key relationships of a third is once again signalled by the move to G major – the ‘true’ dominant, F major, having been voiced yet not settled upon – for the second subject, also lyrical in quality. There is no ‘textbook’ sonata form, itself an invention of a later generation, for Beethoven now, if indeed ever there were. Trills again suggest ‘late’ serenity, development in dialectically ‘strong fragility’.


The scherzo’s sprung, impulsive rhythms likewise result in no loss to its undeniable lyricism. Beethoven rarely, if ever, indulges in zero-sum games: in such dialectical composition, the one impels the other. Its Trio’s chromaticism, contrapuntal preoccupations, and, most surprising of all, larger scale likewise emerge as both continuation and contrast. The Andante cantabile, in D major, a third above B flat, continues the association of thirds and stands tonally, perhaps also temperamentally, close to the first movement’s second subject. Liszt, one of the work’s most celebrated proselytizers as pianist, would arrange it for piano and orchestra as the slow introduction to both of his Beethoven cantata tributes (1845 and 1870); Daniel Barenboim has also performed it as such. If the spaciousness of the Rondo Finale offers kinship to the first movement, and indeed takes its part in the character of the work as a whole, its Presto coda reminds us that form – that is, structure in time – will always for Beethoven be dynamic, as should be the case in performance.


One Beethoven


Beethoven wrote to Lichnowsky, in 1806, in perhaps the quintessential verbalization of his human dignity and irascibility: ‘Prince, what you are, you are through accident and birth, what I am, I am through myself; there are and will be thousands of princes; there is only one Beethoven’. Or, as Hans Werner Henze would write in his essay ‘Does Music have to be Political?’, ‘Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress’.  The claims are not so different. There has indeed only been one Beethoven in the history of the piano trio and those trios are not the least of his contributions to what we might still just think of as human progress. Even if, the state of the world being what it is, we cannot quite think in those terms right now, Beethoven’s music and his spirit hold out the hope that, one day, we might do so again.


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