Beethoven String Trio in Cm, op. 9 no. 3

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

(cover image by Ivan Jevtic)

As I mentioned in an article earlier this week, we will be seeing lots of Beethoven this year. We’ll be seeing a dozen pieces from LvB in just the first three months of 2018, and still more after that.

But this is the first Beethoven appearance of the year. We’re finally finishing up the opus 9 string trios, which we began last year. It was a little awkward not to be able to fit this third one in with the others, but here it is now. We will eventually get to Beethoven’s erratics, the works with opus numbers as high as like 71, which are actually from quite early in his career, but for now, this is early enough.

Like his other two trios of the op. 9 set, this work was published in Vienna in 1799, and dedicated to Count Johann Georg von Browne. Wikipedia comments that while the G major trio is perhaps “the most vigorous,” today’s work in Cm, a key that would become closely associated with Beethoven, has the “most energy.” There are “dynamic effects, sharp contrasts in rhythm, harmonic confrontations…” and these “provide momentum and the tone of anxiety.”

(As an aside, I didn’t include a ‘piano trio no.’ thing in this title. It seems it’s most often referred to as no. 4 [as in the video above], but I’ve also seen it as no. 5 [after op. 3, op. 8, and the first two of op. 9]) so be aware of that, but the Cm or op. 3 no. 3 designations should make it plenty clear enough.)

It’s always a little tricky discussing works composed in such close chronological proximity. I think it’s tempting to look at, say, the piano sonata no. 5 (op. 10 no. 1) and think of it in context as being an ‘earlier’ work than, for example, the seventh (op. 10 no. 3), at least for me. But it’s likely more accurate to view them as different results of a similar approach, or style, or period, or thought pattern. Even then, critics will have wildly varying opinions of a work.

If you’d like to see this, you have only to contrast Robert Cummings’ review at AllMusic with the one found here at the LA Philharmonic’s website. I use both of these resources quite often and I won’t call one or the other of them wrong, but it’s a very interesting example of how something could sound to one informed ear as morose or somber, and to another as something entirely different. How do you hear it? Let’s find out.

The work plays for about 25 minutes and is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro con spirito
  2. Adagio con espressione
  3. Scherzo. Allegro molto e vivace
  4. Finale. Presto

I wrote some articles last year about the op. 10 piano sonatas, which are fantastic works, but we can see that here, in the opus number that precedes it, that Beethoven has already, at least to some degree, gotten very good at handling themes and motifs that makes his work so satisfying.

The first movement has a simple, sort of unassuming four-note downward figure in contrast with the static, repeated note of the second subject, and with ideas that simple, we have enough material to sustain this first movement. To my ear, overall, there’s not the kind of explosive, dramatic energy of later, fiery Beethoven, but a sort of restlessness. Listen to the opening crescendo in that downward four-note line, a kind of low growl rather than an explosion. That sets the tone for this work. The first movement presses forward, but we get something very different in the second.

The second movement relaxes way down. It is by no means what I would call melancholy (is Beethoven ever melancholy in the same way that, say, Chopin is?), but maybe nostalgic. There’s a true sense of uninhibited, pure beauty. At this tempo, even the 32nd-note runs don’t seem fast, but we reach a satisfying and still warm rather than incendiary climax before cooling back down. It’s in warm oranges and browns rather than grays, the colors of the setting sun.

The third movement is a very short scherzo, half the length of the next-shortest movement, and returns the piece to the kind of nervous energy of the first movement, but much more satisfying and spirited in a crunchy triple meter. There’s a very carefree, brief central trio, the epitome of refinement, such a juxtaposition with the scherzo itself, but so perfect together. To think this is a young composition, at least relative to almost everything else he wrote.

The finale is a rondo, and we again have the same deeply satisfying contrast, but perhaps maybe not as much as with the scherzo. This to me sounds like proto-Romantic Beethoven; the instruction and tradition of Haydn are clearly audible, but from our current vantage point, we can also hear the Beethoven we know and love. There’s charm, tension, tact, energy, some shadows cast here and there, and that ever-present ‘spirituality’ that pervades his music. The movement ends without fanfare or fire.

It’s the kind of beauty, to me, that doesn’t come out and grab you by the collar and draw tears or goosebumps; it doesn’t immediately slap you in the face or blind you with its otherworldly beauty, but if you give it a little room to breathe, take a few listens and appreciate the shape and depth and feel of the music, you’ll realize that just about everything from Beethoven is exquisitely, sumptuously beautiful in sometimes the subtlest of ways.

And I think that’s a great idea to stick in the back of your mind before we get to next week’s posts, which are also early-ish Beethoven. There’s plenty of him this year, kind of the inspiration behind that Editor’s Choice series I introduced earlier in the week, so if you’re not a fan of Beethoven, get your act together, because he’s the greatest. Thanks very much for listening, and I hope you stay tuned for all sorts of exciting stuff this year.


One thought on “Beethoven String Trio in Cm, op. 9 no. 3

  1. Lots of Beethoven? Life could be worse. I recently re-listened to the String Trio in E flat major (Op. 3) performed by the Zimmermann Trio and it’s still a revelation. I am looking forward to the Beethoven post even though I do not manage to read all your posts. May I suggest – just between you and me – that you consider condensing your text? I find interesting stuff in your post, but sometimes I find them a little too long.

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