Beethoven String Trio no. 3 in G, op. 9 no. 1

performed by the Zurich String Trio or below by the Grumiaux Trio

Here we have from Beethoven another set of early works published under the same opus number, the three op. 9 string trios. We’ll be discussing one per article, and won’t get to the last one for the time being.

The works were composed in 1797-98 and published the following year in Vienna, so they’re contemporary with the piano sonatas we discussed earlier in the week. They are dedicated to Count Johann Georg von Browne, a former officer in the Russian army who was born in Riga to George Browne, an Irish soldier who somehow found himself “an officer in the imperial Russian army from 1730, reaching the rank of general.” The Irishman’s son, Johann, Beethoven’s patron, moved to Vienna around 1794, and this was one of the earlier works the composer would dedicate to him. You’ll recall the op. 10 sonatas were dedicated to a Countess von Browne. Same folks.

These are, as seen from the ‘no. 3’ above, not Beethoven’s first official efforts in the trio form. The earlier trios are in fact a divertimento and a serenade, the op. 3 also dedicated to von Browne. I’d rather liken these op. 9 string trios to the op. 1 piano trios, though. But more on that momentarily.

What is a divertimento? It is “a musical genre… most often lighthearted…” Its name comes from the Italian divertire, ‘to amuse.” So it’s not “serious music,” at least not relative to the more ‘serious’ genres.

So what about those piano trios? It’s been said before that they were a good way for the young Beethoven to put his mark on a form that hadn’t already been mastered by Haydn and Mozart, not because they couldn’t, but because it just wasn’t popular. Beethoven wrote far more independently for each of the individual instruments instead of the boring doublings the string parts were often given.

And we find a similar thing here. Before Beethoven felt the time was right to take on his own first collection of string quartets, he wrote the aforementioned string works, a string quintet (which we recently discussed, originally for wind octet), but this set of three trios is maybe his closest, boldest approach to that hallowed form, the string quartet, but these are by no means just practice runs. As we shall see, they’re masterpieces of their own.

Distinctly different from the string trios of The Old Greats (and his own first two), they are not divertimentos, but cast in the serious, traditional four-movement form, a good example of how the layout does in some way dictate the nature or style of a piece.

Beethoven was 28 years old upon he publication of these works, and they were perhaps his greatest achievement up to that time, even if they’ve since been overshadowed by his subsequent work.

The beginning of the work, its opening gesture, is marked adagio, and the first sound we hear is big and warm, showing us what we can expect from this trio. Orrin Howard describes this passage (in these program notes for the L.A. Phil) as:

…a grand, curtain-parting gesture that has the three strings loudly proclaiming unison togetherness, after which an air of quiet theatrical expectancy prevails until the movement proper is reached, and reached with utmost subtlety.

And that it is, isn’t it? The curtain is pulled aside in this introductory passage to reveal the allegro con brio that follows, and just like that we’re in the real meat of the first movement.

If you followed along with the discussion of the op. 10 piano sonatas earlier in the week, you’ll remember that in many places, Sir András Schiff tells us to think of Beethoven’s keyboard writing in terms of the four basic voices of a quartet, clearly and distinctly, interacting with one another, but part of a larger whole, so it’s interesting to me to come now to a work that does have three (not four) distinct voices and enjoy the part writing that’s elegant and tasteful but full of life and expression.

From this G major first subject, we would expect to reach D major as the dominant key, but after this first subject is finished, we continue after the briefest of pauses to D minor, the parallel minor of what the second subject “should” be in, and after learning about some of the composer’s favorite tricks with keys and delays, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it would have likely been so to contemporary audiences. It’s not mournful or somber like the second movement of op. 10/3, but a shadier contrast to the bright, amiable G major first subject.

We repeat the exposition, and one advantage of the D minor surprise is that the second subject is absolutely unmistakable. There’s a freedom about the development here, where those delightful little gestures, like individual petals or stems of flowers have been snipped and rearranged and reorganized so that, at least without looking at the score, we can recognize them, sort of kind of, but only in passing. There’s some funny business in the modulations, and some struggle to get back to G major, and as Schiff assured us in the sonatas, no matter how he decides to do it, he always does manage to find his way back ‘home’, and what about that second theme? What’s it doing now? Isn’t that all so nice?

That first movement, with the adagio introduction and exposition repeat and a coda and all the rest, is by far the longest movement of the work, and we reach the second movement, marked Adagio ma non tanto e cantabile, yet more evidence that Beethoven preferred not using a textbook tempo ordinario for many of his works. It’s in E major, what Howard describes as a “distant key”, with “frequent, dramatically colored shifts to minor, is like a preview of the world of Schubert.” It’s like an afternoon nap where you don’t fall asleep. Clouds float by, obscuring the sun, ushering in a cool breeze every now and then, with perhaps even the threat of rain.

It’s worthy of attention that there’s such a “breadth of expressiveness” such freedom and openness, and yet fullness, afforded in just these three instruments; it lacks nothing. Of course, if Beethoven had felt the trio as a form lacked something, or that he wouldn’t have been able to write convincingly for it, he wouldn’t have done so. Here and there, we get more intimate with the group, like a cello line in one of the more poignant passages. The movement is still largely untroubled, but more melancholy than the minor-key second subject of the previous movement.

It fades away to bring us the light crisp of the scherzo, actually labeled as a scherzo, unlike the triple-meter movement of the quintet. It’s not a wildly energetic scherzo, no fire here, but refreshing, with more subdued, familiar-sounding trios to give this teeniest of movements a bit of balance. As brief as it is, it’s almost more like an intermezzo, especially considering the boldness of the finale.

It’s not the kind of perpetuum mobile we heard in one of the sonatas, no virtuosic, singe-your-eyebrows-off barrage of notes, but it’s fast, and kind of rustic. There’s a theme here where things slow down, and the harmonies and texture remind me of an organ, or more rustic yet, a hurdy-gurdy, like something you’d hear at a fair, before things kick back up again. It is marked presto, so the fleet-footed nature of the movement shouldn’t be a surprise. It seems we’re in some kind of sonata-rondo form…? Howard says, though, that as we reach the end, once “the destination is sighted, there is no detaining the open-throttle race to the finish, ending as exhilarating a journey as young Ludwig ever engineered.”

Aside from being a pleasant, pastoral piece, undeniably charming music, there’s a maturity in Beethoven’s writing. From the op. 10 sonatas, and these trios, it’s readily apparent that Beethoven has lots of tricks up his sleeves, but he has the restraint not to go wild and throw everything at us in one work. He may do funny things like delay a recapitulation, throw us a few curve-ball wrong keys, make his own rules with matters of form or harmony, whatever, but none of this gets in the way of accomplishing his goals. It doesn’t distract.

We saw the three works of op. 10 had different characters, contrasting even with each other in the set, and we’ll see the same in the op. 9 trios, even if we don’t discuss the final one presently. Tomorrow is our last article on Beethoven’s early work before we jump ahead to something a bit later in his output, so please stay tuned, and as always, thanks so much for reading.



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