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8.572377 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: String Trios (Complete), Vol. 2 (Falvay, Fejervari, Eder) - Op. 9

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
String Trios, Op. 9


Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s former Kapellmeister, whose name he took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven’s father became increasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with his wife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father. Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as a string-player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning some distinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study with Mozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture and her subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, in view of his father’s domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.

Beethoven’s early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by the circumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress Maria Theresa and there were introductions to leading members of society in the imperial capital. Here Beethoven was able to establish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability, coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisation and composition. The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony of Fate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer and into an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes and extensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate his eccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the same time it allowed him to develop his gifts for counterpoint. He continued to revolutionise forms inherited from his predecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, expanding these almost to bursting-point, and introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. He died in 1827, his death the occasion of public mourning in Vienna.

Beethoven’s first attempt at the form of the string trio was in 1793 or 1794 with his String Trio in E flat major, Op. 3, published in Vienna in 1796 and with the number of movements characteristic of a serenade or divertimento. This was followed by a Serenade, Op. 8, completed in 1797. The first of these two works later appeared in an arrangement, not by Beethoven, for piano trio, published in 1807 as Op. 64, and the second as the Notturno, Op. 42, again arranged by another composer but with Beethoven’s corrections, scored for piano and viola. His only other trios for violin, viola and cello are the three works included in Op. 9, written in 1797 and 1798 and published in Vienna in the latter year, with a dedication to Count von Browne. Of Irish descent, Count Johann Georg von Browne-Camus was in the Russian Imperial Service under Catherine II and was a man of some substance, wealth which he squandered in the following years, leading to a breakdown. Beethoven dedicated a number of works to Von Browne and his wife during these early years in Vienna. In his dedication of the String Trios he offers ‘au premier Mécène de sa Muse, la meilleure de ses oeuvres‘, an indication of Beethoven’s estimate of his patron, who had already given him a horse in response to an earlier dedication to the Countess, and his opinion of the new set of trios.

The String Trio in G major, Op. 9, No. 1, opens with an immediate call to attention, the beginning of a slow introduction, marked Adagio. The following Allegro con brio starts with a tentative motif from the violin and an emphatic ascending figure soon echoed by the cello, before the first subject proper of a sonata-form movement. The transition moves through unusual keys, before the second subject is established. The opening motif of the Allegro starts the central development of the material, duly leading to the final recapitulation and a closing section that makes use again of the opening motif. The slow movement, Adagio, ma non tanto, e cantabile, is in E major and in triple metre with triplet figuration in the principal theme, heard first from the violin. As elsewhere in the trios, Beethoven allows a measure of equality between the three instruments, deployed either in dialogue to which all three contribute or in closer conjunction. The G major Scherzo, with its two contrasting Trios, leads to a final Presto. The staccato first subject is in contrast of key and mood with the second subject material, a theme played by the violin and viola, to the cello accompaniment, to make its due return in the final recapitulation.

The second of the set, the String Trio in D major, Op. 9, No. 2, has a first subject of mounting excitement and a lyrical second subject, heard in the repeated exposition, before a development that starts with an exploration of the first subject material, and a varied recapitulation. The D minor second movement, Andante quasi Allegretto rather than an Adagio, after introductory material, offers a violin melody accompanied by viola arpeggios and the plucked notes of the cello. Rôles are reversed when the cello takes over the theme and the violin the plucked notes, while the viola continues its accompanimental pattern. The Menuetto, more of a scherzo than a minuet, brings dynamic contrasts, framing a Trio that is largely pianissimo. The last movement is a Rondo, its main theme offered first by the cello, followed by the violin and serving as a framework for the contrasting episodes of the form.

The String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3, is perhaps the most striking of a set which is in itself a remarkable testimony to Beethoven’s precocious ability as a composer at a period when he was yet to write his first string quartets. The first movement makes much of the interval of an augmented second, heard in the descending figuration at the outset, the first four notes of the descending harmonic minor scale. Sforzando chords herald the E flat major second subject, presented by the violin and echoed by the viola and then by the cello, with the thematic material developed and repeated in varied form in recapitulation. The C major second movement, marked Adagio con espressione, starts softly with separated chords, but soon leads to a dynamic contrast and a repetition of the theme, that had first been entrusted to the violin, by the viola. The movement again brings dialogue between the instruments and always a fullness of texture belied by the medium of the string trio. The original key of C minor is restored in the Scherzo, framing a C major Trio. The work ends with a rapid sonata-form movement, alla breve and making use of rhythmically contrasting triplet figuration at the outset. The movement provides a suitably original ending to a group of works that not only suggests something of what is to come but offers a significant achievement in itself.

Keith Anderson

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