Brahms Piano Trio no. 1 in B major, Op. 8

performed by Tamás Vásáry, Thomas Brandis and Ottomar Borwitzky, or below by Suk, Starker, and Katchen

(cover image by Juja Han)

Play this work while you’re reading, if you can, at least the first movement.

Brahms was a prodigy for sure. For most people, his musical story begins with his knocking on the door of the Schumann home, presenting an introduction letter from Joseph Joachim along with a handful of his early compositions, but there’s more to it than that. He came from quite a musical family, actually. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms pursued a career in music against the will of his family, and eventually married a seamstress nearly two decades his senior. They had three children, of which Johannes was the second, and at least one other child, the youngest, Fritz, also became a musician, eventually moving as far away as Caracas to get out from under his elder brother’s shadow.

Today’s work dates originally from 1854, shortly after his introduction to the Schumanns, and around the time of Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt that landed him in a sanatorium in Bonn. It was likely completed, or at least started before then, and I see no indication online (not that I’ve looked terribly hard) that the nature of the work has any relation to that event that changed the lives of both Brahms and the Schumann family.

As Wikipedia says of the work:

Among the piano trios known to have been written by Brahms it is the only one that ends in a minor key. The design of the work is monotonal, two movements are in the key of B major, two in B minor.[5] It is also among the few multi-movement works to begin in a major key and end in the tonic minor (another example being Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony).

Notably, the work has two published versions, the first being around ten minutes longer in performance time, or more accurately, 458 bars longer than the revised version, which was produced in 1889. It’s different enough, apparently, that some sources say it could be considered a separate work entirely, as was the case with Prokofiev’s fourth concerto. Unlike my treatment of that work, however, we are (at least for now) speaking solely of the revised edition, which is by far the most common in performance. Notably, both versions still ended in B minor.

The work is in four movements, with the (new version’s) markings as follows:

  1. Allegro con brio – Tranquillo – In tempo ma sempre sostenuto (289 bars)
  2. Scherzo: Allegro molto – Meno allegro – Tempo primo (460 bars)
  3. Adagio (99 bars)
  4. Finale: Allegro (322 bars)

The first movement is in sonata form, with an absolutely beautiful exposition that not only presents two contrasting themes but a long, broad kind of unbroken line of beauty. There are long stretches of the first subject where all three instruments play almost entirely in unison, and yet the sound is so full and expressive. The cello really takes the lead here, with piano as foundation, and violin only sort of accenting and embellishing what’s presented, but that’s no criticism. It’s in writing like this that once can see Brahms’ genius phrasing of a melody, really sculpting of a line, across bars, even with a few meter changes, into 3/2 here and there as the more lively triplet figures are introduced, giving the movement a bit more intensity.

Wait for something like the 5-plet figure toward the end of the exposition. The phrasing and shaping of melodies across instruments and the ebb and flow of it all is so much more than just beautiful music, to me. I’m not really a sucker for ‘beauty’ in the traditional sense, but this brings me to my figurative knees. It’s stunning, and we haven’t even gotten to the development yet.

The development itself seems to quiet down, with a few pizzicato phrases, until it explodes with forte markings everywhere. Despite my having been so enamored with the exposition, repeated of course, the development is where things actually start happening, and this is a stellar example of how the exposition is really just that, a setup for things to come in the development. It itself is of course beautiful, but it is the foundation upon which exciting, interesting, breathtaking things happen. The ingredients of a dish may be delicious on their own if they’re of high quality, but they’re nothing compared to what they’re like when they’re actually prepared and presented in a beautiful dish, and that’s what we get here, just exquisite presentation in very talented hands, the sound of genius. It’s just… perfection.

The second movement, the scherzo, isn’t menacing or brooding, but it moves to B minor and is almost manic in its contrasts between subtle bounce and explosive outburst, with intricately interlocking gestures among the three instruments in its brisk triple meter. The trio, though, moves back to the broad warmth of the first movement, but this time in triple meter. In fact, in this guise, almost a literal revisit of part of the opening movement, it feels more like a children’s lullaby or folk tune, balancing out a bit of the nervous energy of the scherzo and affording the work a greater sense of unity now. The scherzo returns, with a coda, to round out this movement. Wikipedia mentions that the movement ends in a Picardy third in B major, which sets up for the third movement, but at the very least, without the music theory jargon, we could say it ends surprisingly softly and warmly for what it presented to us.

In contrast with the previous two movements, the third is almost static, the fewest bars of any of the movements, but longer than any save the first movement. It’s meditative, peaceful. The central part of this ternary-form movement introduces a plaintive G sharp minor melody from the cello, which, while still not fiery or lively, is passionate and heartfelt, in contrast with the stillness of the opening, sounding even quite tragic at times.

The finale is surprisingly subtle in some ways. It doesn’t begin with a flashy, handsome statement of power and outbursts, but is nervous in a way, with “agitated” dotted rhythms and chromaticism, “ambiguous tonality.” But that doesn’t last. The work stirs itself up to a fury, even revisiting the first movement’s material, before encompassing a wide breadth of material from the subtle, quiet beginnings, into a powerful, stormy conclusion, leaving one in awe that this is only an opus 8 (although obviously revised decades later), and only a piano trio, certainly leaving the contemporary listener to see what this man would be capable of upon tackling larger forms.

They would indeed have to wait, though. While the original version of this work came very early in his career, the revised version came four years after the composer’s fourth and final symphony, which premiered in 1885. That being said, I don’t quite feel it appropriate to make assumptions or comments on the composer’s precocity when the work is ultimately a product of the mature composer’s revisions, especially considering the finale was likely the most revised of the four movements.

In any case, it’s a work that has subtle charms, not flashy. At first or fifth listen, it’s charming, moving, beautiful, but it’s a work that continues to offer up more secrets upon further listenings, rather than becoming blandly familiar and flat. Despite the revisions and refinements that were clearly made to it, I think it still encompasses a certain youthfulness and passion that the young composer had. While we didn’t discuss it, and while it’s not often performed, it’s nice that we still have the score of the early version, even if finding recordings of it may prove difficult. I wouldn’t know, though; I haven’t tried.

So you know now who we’re discussing next week, with violin and cello sonatas coming up from Brahms. Our treatment of him on the blog has been much like Beethoven’s, addressing the big works like symphonies and concertos while not giving as much attention to the wealth of solo and chamber music there is to enjoy, so I’m working on remedying that. Slowly but surely, so do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.


One thought on “Brahms Piano Trio no. 1 in B major, Op. 8

  1. I don’t know if Brahms was a prodigy, many of his contemporary started to write great works when they were twenty. In any case, I’ve heard the original version some weeks ago, and I find it more charming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s