Beethoven Serenade in D major, op. 8

for violin, viola and cello, performed by the Zurich String Trio, or below by the Grumiaux Trio

So it’s 2017 and all…

We’ve yet to complete even our traversal of the op. 18 string quartets, and that will slowly but surely be remedied, but I do want to cover some more of his earlier work. We did the op. 3 trio (already) last year, and now here we are with another single-digit opus number. It’s along the lines of that first very early string trio in that it’s not composed or structured like a quartet would be. This is very much a serenade, and you’ll see why.

The actual number of movements listed for this piece varies; Wikipedia lists it as six, while my album from the Zurich String Trio lists seven. The score, as I recall breaks it down into fewer than that, leading just to the next section of the work rather than a whole new movement. In any case, the work is from just before the turn of the century, published in 1797.

The most obvious non-quartet element about the work is three players, not four, obviously, but I’m talking from a structural standpoint. A string quartet, historically, was structured very similarly to a symphony, in three or four movements, with a fast-slow-fast layout or central slow and minuet or scherzo movements. This is clearly not one of those, but something else that seems… different… is Beethoven’s use of the trio. The op. 18 quartets (the first of which here) are stunning works that show an apparent natural mastery to the form, a kind of unexplainable magic. But I don’t find that nearly as present in this work, or rather, it’s much more subtle.

The piece begins (and ends) with a march, setting things off in a lively-ish way. It serves, more than anything, I think, as a sort of introduction. It’s very brief relative to everything else that comes later, but it sets a rustic, friendly, intimate tone, perfectly suitable for the ‘serenade’ label, and while I dare say that the work is clearly a violin short of sounding as full and rich as a string quartet, this trio sounds plenty full-bodied.

Secondly is the (first) adagio, a relaxing, sit-back-and-enjoy piece, something comforting. Maybe this is what many people would think of as a serenade: delightful, ornamented, lyrical, even almost operatic slow music that calms the soul, and that’s what this is. Enjoy. It’s a delight that this movement is one of the longest of the entire work; it’s music to cozy up to.

Next is our minuet and trio, the crunch from the opening breaking up the placid atmosphere from the adagio. It’s folksy and buoyant, brief and to the point, but effective in calling back a bit of the opening march’s carefree atmosphere, but it too is quite brief.

The next adagio may be the most striking movement of the whole work, showing what I hear to be quite some maturity, if not a little jocular. If not mature, then at least temporarily pensive. The violin and viola engage in a rather melancholy, heartfelt conversation above the cello. The music is distant, slightly pained, and very different from anything we’ve heard so far, but it isn’t long before there’s a scherzo that shows up out of nowhere… totally breaking up the mood. This seems like some kind of Beethovenian joke, and as quickly as it began, it ends, bringing us back to the almost funereal-sounding violin/viola duet, now sounding even more lyrical. Before this movement ends, our scherzo makes a brief return, ending the movement with a solemn, funereal passage.

I find the subsequent Allegretto alla Polacca to be one of the most charming things in the whole piece. Hyperion says it’s “one of the few real polonaises to survive from the period between those of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (another specialist) and Chopin.” This is where the unmistakable charm of the quartets seems to shine through, in a delicate, expressive, rustic atmosphere, with a certain rhythmic meter but equal freedom and freshness.

The last movement before the return of our march to bookend the entire work is a theme and variations, andante quasi allegretto. It’s the longest movement of the piece, and so it’s a good thing Beethoven’s handling of theme-and-variations is trustworthy. Hyperion says it’s “perhaps for the only time in the string trios showing influence from the music, or even teaching, of Haydn.”

Dare I have some criticism for a Beethoven work? Well, not really this one. The man’s string quartets set a really high bar, even the early ones, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy doing things chronologically. Would I feel differently about this piece had I not already started to enjoy the string quartets (really just the op. 18 works, so far)? I don’t know, but it seems that that extra violin makes a big difference in the overall ‘conversation among friends’, the dialogue within the ensemble. It clearly has its place in Beethoven’s output, as one of the earliest works from the young man (actually not as young as you might think), but we are getting through his earliest opus numbers. So far, of the first ten, we only have opp. 4, 5, 9 and 10. That’s four opus numbers, yes, but many of the early works are sets of pieces, not individual pieces. Opus no. 4 is a reworking of a wind octet for string quintet, op. 5 is two cello sonatas, op. 9 is three string trios, and op. 10 is three more piano sonatas. That looks like some exciting stuff we could cover… and it is in the works.

In any case, the return of the march at the end of this piece brings a satisfying conclusion to the work, even if we only heard it in passing, relatively speaking. It wraps the whole package up, puts a bow on it and thanks us for listening. Granted, I think there are some repeats in here that are generally ignored that would balloon this work out beyond its current 28-29 minute playing time, but you get the idea, right? There’s a forthcoming introduction article that explains what we’ll be doing this month, and since you now already know who is first to be featured, you might have some guesses as to what is to follow, so stay tuned for that.

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