Beethoven Piano Trio no. 3 in Cm, op. 1 no. 3

performed by Szeryng/Fournier/Kempff or below by Vegh/Casals/Horszowski

Our third and final Beethoven trio for now is the opus 1 no. 3 trio, the most daring of them all. Haydn approved of the first two trios, but suggested with whatever degree of strength that Beethoven perhaps sit on the third one and not publish it with the other two.
Did Beethoven listen? Of course not.
Granted, as we perhaps have already learned, Haydn, while humorous and very creative, was also old-fashioned, obviously relative to now, but more importantly to Beethoven. Beethoven resented this suggestion, as if it was a personal affront or commentary on Beethoven’s skill or perhaps even ill taste. In all likelihood, Haydn was giving his student some constructive advice about how to make his first published work as successful and approachable as possible. The first two (yesterday and the day before) kind of gave the public (or the teacher) what they (or he) wanted. The form was newer and bigger and more epic, but the content was generally comprehensible, nothing too earth-shattering.
Listening to this work now, you wouldn’t think it would cause any kind of stir, but it was something new. The most Bold and Beethoven of the set, it was likely the work he was most proud of and most excited to present. But what was so new about it? As we mentioned in the previous two articles, Beethoven took the piano trio to new depths. This piece does it again. Things like its emotional scope and technical difficulty made it uniquely Beethoven.
Let’s also take a minute here to talk about C minor. Or you could just read this article about it. C minor was a favorite key for Beethoven, and some scholars claim that his most ‘extroverted’ or passionate or intense pieces are in this key. This trio is the first published work of Beethoven’s to be in the key he would later use in many of his notable works. That may not seem significant, but C minor carries three flats. This is not an absurd key signature like G flat or anything, but it was very rarely used before Beethoven. Mozart only very rarely used it, notably in a C minor mass and
his 24th piano concerto (one of only two of his piano concertos to be written in a minor key). So while it isn’t revelatory, it was another way Beethoven made a statement with this work.
Again, as I mentioned in the Mozart works, I’m not very good at catching ‘strange’ or ‘nonstandard’ modulations or musical jokes of that sort, so some of the specifics are lost on me. At the very least, however, I can say it sounds more… new, more developed, more interesting, varied, or dramatic. The LA Philharmonic’s program notes for this piece say the following:

If the modernity or difficulty of the C-minor Trio was a problem for some, it must have been a revelation for others. Here was a new, important, and bold musical voice, with powerful things to say. From the very outset, it sets foot into the turbulent world that Beethoven would later explore in such works as the “Pathétique” Sonata and the Fifth Symphony. Seven notes into the first movement, the first theme suddenly moves up a half-tone. Shifts of a semitone introduce instability and tension, and often make for music that is impassioned and embattled.

… and that’s what we have in our first movement. The C minor work opens kind of… darkly, almost as if it’s posing a question that’s answered when it reaches a major key, as the themes move between major and minor. If Beethoven got nothing else from Haydn (and he certainly did), he at least mastered the sonata form, and I am appreciating more and more the exposition repeats in these earlier works (of Beethoven and Mozart, etc.). It’s a very effective mile-marker of sorts, and it’s nice to know you’ll get to hear everything over again once more before the composer, especially someone like Beethoven, begins to warp and distort and play with the themes as he does here. With the exposition repeat, the first movement should come to around ten minutes or so, and without it, it’s only something like 7-8 minutes, maybe? Anyway, I’ve seen some shorter videos of the first movement and I can only assume it’s because they ignore the repeat, which I feel is a bit presumptuous, although I can see how others might find it stuffily old-fashioned. The second theme of the movement is as light and pleasant as the first is dark and maybe just barely longing or pleading. This is easily the most intense, personal, stormy, fired-up music we’ve talked about since we started with Mozart, easily.
The middle two movements don’t provide anything too shocking. The slow movement is a set of five variations, perhaps something Beethoven would have been expected to excel at, and he did. This movement and the one that follow it are perhaps easier to digest and may have been more approachable for audiences of the time. In any case, they provide a delightful contrast to the outer, more stormy passionate movements that bookend a soft, gooey center.
The third movement is, unlike in the first two trios, marked as a minuet, but in some ways is the most like the scherzos that Beethoven would later write, not least because it opens in C minor, with some nice exposure for the cello.
The finale is the other big shocker of a movement in this piece, and brings us back, satisfyingly, to the stormier opening mood that we left behind in the middle movements. It’s hard hitting. Even the tempo marking ‘prestissimo’ which could be interpreted as “as fast as possible” or just “very fast” sits outside Classical ideas of balance and modesty of expression and style. Again from the LA Philharmonic’s wonderful little article on this piece:

Just as it seems to have settled finally into the home key of C minor in preparation for a big finish, it modulates down to B minor, in context the unlikeliest of keys and perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole Trio. Beethoven was fond of just-before-we-get-home detours (the sort of thing that critics found “strained and recherché”), probably because he had so much fun getting back on track. It is not the Trio’s last surprise: the end itself is not what any listener is likely to expect.

What is that ending? Well, you should listen to the piece, but as much as the first movement seems like it’s heading for a quiet ending but ends powerfully, this one takes a turn as well.
While the first two trios are pieces you just want to curl up in and enjoy, this is the first one that really wows me. It has shock value of a very tasteful kind. It does perhaps seem strange to think that audiences would be challenged by something like this, but it wasn’t what they were used to; there’s a lot of drama coming out of what used to be such a small-scale piece, in orchestration, form, and emotional content. Not anymore. With this piece, Beethoven made his presence known, and it was apparently a huge success. When his op. 2 sonatas were published, the success of op. 1 was used as a selling point. Those are the exact pieces we’ll be discussing starting tomorrow! See you then.

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