Beethoven Trio for violin, viola & cello in E flat, Op. 3

performed by the Zurich string trio, or below in a much brisker rendition by the Grumiaux Trio


So trios… We talked about Beethoven’s op. 1 piano trios starting here, the first of those also in E flat. That was last summer, and we talked about how Beethoven’s choice of publishing piano trios as an opus no. 1 was a bit of a strategic one, since Haydn, Beethoven’s at least brief teacher, had pretty much invented and mastered the string quartet and the symphony (at least in classical terms); the piano sonata might have been intimidating as well, but that was his op. 2, three of them. In any case, his third published work was a string trio. What’s that?

Or, what’s that about, rather. Wikipedia’s article on the string trio says:

Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, although the trio configuration for two violins and cello was not wholly abandoned in classical chamber music (even during the 19th century), the scoring for violin, viola, and cello began to take precedence. Joseph Haydn appears to have been the first composer to use this combination (Tilmouth and Smallman 2001), though he was soon emulated by Luigi Boccherini (Kennedy 1994).

So… again with Haydn. Innovator.

This is obviously the first string trio Beethoven wrote for violin, viola and cello, the first of only five in his career, being opp. 3, 8, and the three trios of opus 9, so they’re all quite early works. By the op. 9 trios, he’d written as many piano sonatas as he had string trios, and zero quartets, also zero violin sonatas. He did apparently write a trio for two violins and cello, but it has a Hess number (#29), leading me to think it was posthumous or incomplete or lost, but not really being interested enough to care at the moment.

This op. 3 trio is a big work, and also our first trio of the String Quartet Series. You might liken it to a quartet with each of the players on more level ground, but it’s in a whopping six movements, something more like a divertimento, or as one the op. 8 trio would be labeled, a serenade. John Palmer at AllMusic says of this idea:

By Mozart‘s time, the term “serenade” was not necessarily associated with a piece played in the evening and directed toward a lover. Serenades were still, however, pieces written for particular occasions and often performed outdoors. In Vienna it became common to compose such works for very small ensembles. Beethoven’s Trio in E flat major, Op. 3, follows the pattern of Mozart’s great serenades in that two fast movements enclose at least one slow movement mixed with minuets. The forces, however, are reduced and the structure of the work is also much smaller in scale.

So yeah, it’s in six movements, clocking in at almost three quarters of an hour. Palmer says he believes the first movement, in sonata form, to be the most interesting of the entire work, but I’m not so sure I agree. It would be a nice idea if it were, though, as it takes up almost a third of the entire work’s performance time.

There’s something about string quartets (and trios) that makes them a challenge to write for with such exposed parts, no instrumentation fluff to work with, and not much variation in timbre. I’m not sure, then, that I would (but would like to think I could) be able to hear some of the detail in the piece if my first listen hadn’t been with the score in my lap. The lines that appear as melodies or countermelodies swap around the ensemble at times, like a game of musical chairs, but that’s all only after the material is established with the exposition repeated. The first theme is marked by syncopation and the use of dotted-eighth/sixteenth figures, with triplets introduced between the two themes. The second theme, obviously in B flat, makes use of more fluid 8th notes. The development section is much more than a continuation of ideas or an afterthought or whatever, but a more substantial exploration of the content. There’s a small coda to the movement that sounds like it’s going to end quietly, but it doesn’t. In this first movement, we have light and shadow, playfulness and delicacy, plenty to enjoy, and it’s extremely nice, but there’s something about it that didn’t sweep me off my feet uncontrollably like much of the composer’s other (even early) work.

The andante is also in sonata form, begins and builds from such simple, straightforward little building blocks, a little four-note rhythm that works its way through the ensemble in different ways, and personally, for its delicacy and charm, I find this movement to take my breath away more than the first. It’s got a richly delicate, moving quality that I kind of get lost in. The second theme (I think) features a melody that is highly-ornamented with trills and grace notes and the like. The whole movement sounds very Viennese to me. There are places where the pretty cool, deliberate pace feels to speed up, but it’s the value of the notes that’s gotten shorter, not the tempo speeding up.

I feel better about this work after the second movement, which ends in pizzicato, is the first minuet and trio of our divertimento. It’s very short relative to the other movements (as is the second minuet movement). The minuet strikes me as interesting because it feels… fragmented somehow, sparse, not quite like everything falls ‘into step’ as it were for what a minuet would be, but intentionally, obviously. I chalk it up to Beethovenian humor. The trio, on the other hand is much more lyrical, and substantial. It has forward motion and an ebullient nature to it, given more personality by pizzicato cello and eighth note figures in viola below the violin. There’s also a (short) coda to this movement, which is interesting for such a short movement.

Palmer says nothing else about the eight-minute adagio in A-flat major except that it “features imaginative interplay between the instruments as the cello and violin take turns performing accompanimental material.” The three-part nature of the trio seems to work well for this, like the fact that a three legged table (or anything) can always have all its legs on a level plane, while a four-legged table cannot. What does that have to do with music? I dunno, but the three-part writing 2-against-1 nature of the trio seems to lend this movement some of its magic. The cello gets some more chance to be vocal here, in places, and this movement feels like a perfect accompaniment to the second movement if this were a normal four-movement structure and not a divertimento.

Following that is the second minuet, which “contains an agitated Trio in C minor, both halves of which are built around the same motive.” This movement is almost exactly as long as the first minuet, at least in my recording, but is more lively and traditional, I’d say. The Cm trio is one of the most straightforwardly dark passages of the work, but by no means menacing. It’s a welcome contrast to the generally good-natured minuet that bookends it, and to the entire work.

The finale feels… somehow familiar, like it’s come out of one of the op. 18 quartets, or just more classical-ish. Palmer uses the word “blazing” to describe this movement, and maybe the Zurich trio is taking it at a too-broad pace, but I wouldn’t use that word. Perhaps bouncy, cheerful, bright, humorous, but not even really ‘lively’. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not how I’d describe it. In fact, my listening notes scrawled on sheet of paper in a small notebook say “not especially breathtaking or energetic, but masterful, lively.” Okay, so I did say lively, and in some of the darker passages in more distant keys do get pretty whipped up, but still not blazing. Those notes, mind you, were at first listen. And as I was describing to a friend the other day about Beethoven’s work… there’s this thing about it that doesn’t smack you in the face (or me at least) with gushy lyricism or charm like, say, a Chopin etude (obviously; different eras, I know) but it’s this pull, this thing, that begins to grow on you and persuade to come back and get another taste, and with each one, you hear and feel more, and I feel like this movement is a good example of that, because at further listenings, there’s a certain appreciation of, not necessarily overt, slathered-on beauty, but of a subtlety, an exquisite kind of perfection of expression, form, balance, detail, that is far more enduring than a surface-level “ain’t that purdy!” effect.

So those are my not-so-insightful thoughts on Beethoven’s first string trio. I should also say I’m never done with these works I write about. Well, almost never. I often go back after some time, either because something prompts it or because I thumb through my iTunes library and am reminded of something I haven’t listened to in a while, and almost always hear something new, or think of something else I could say about it or add to the article, but… oh well. Maybe in a rewrite, or in round two, or a new ‘throwback’ series. But before that, there’s tons more to get to for the first time. Stay tuned.

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