Beethoven Piano Trio in D, op. 70 no. 1, ‘Ghost’

performed by Trio Wanderer, or below by Barenboim, Du Pre and Zukerman

(cover image by Norbert Levajsics)

Moving right along in Beethoven’s catalogue, we come to the op. 70 piano trios, of which there are two. These works come just a bit after the op. 59 quartets we finished discussing yesterday (they were published in 1808 but written as early as 1806). Both trios were dedicated to one Countess Marie von Erdödy, at whose Heiligenstadt estate Beethoven stayed in 1808, at which location (but apparently “the year prior,” says Wikipedia) that he also wrote the fifth symphony. As a thank you, he dedicated both works of op. 70 to the countess.

These two piano trios are sometimes (often?) referred to as piano trios 5 and 6, respectively, but elsewhere they are not numbered at all, or given different numbers. His op. 1 was three piano trios, and the next one (what would sometimes be considered no. 4) is op. 11, written originally for piano, clarinet, and cello, but sometimes (often?) the clarinet is replaced by a violin (making it a ‘normal’ piano trio), and less often the cello is replaced by a bassoon. Sometimes this is considered the fourth piano trio, sometimes not, which obviously affects the numbering of the much later (by more than a decade) work we are discussing today. (As a side note, Beethoven’s op. 44, a set of variations for piano, violin and cello, was written much earlier than its catalogue number would suggest, and is hardly ever, as far as I recall, numbered as a piano trio.)

The first of the two trios is the only one that gets a nickname, and… even that is a bit tricky, I think. Of this moniker, Blair Johnston says:

Because of its strangely scored and undeniably eerie-sounding slow movement it was dubbed the “Ghost” Trio. The name has stuck with the work ever since. The ghostly music may have had its roots in sketches for a Macbeth opera that Beethoven was contemplating at the time.

Some others, however, refute that, stating that the name comes from one of Beethoven’s students, Carl Czerny, who apparently “wrote in 1842 that the slow movement reminded him (Czerny) of the ghost scene at the opening of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The work is in three movements, not four, and this seems almost like an antiquated form at this point, especially after the increasing grandness of the four-movement string quartets. The three movements are as follows, with a playing time of a little under a half hour:

  1. Allegro vivace e con brio, D major, 3/4
  2. Largo assai ed espressivo, D minor, 2/4 
  3. Presto, D major, 4/4

The reason I feel the ‘ghost’ nickname is troublesome is that the quartet overall is actually quite sunny and cheerful. There’s not a single thing, to my ear, that would give any impression in the outer movements of anything approaching an eery atmosphere. So then… is it a representation of the piece, or just a mnemonic device? I think the latter: “the one with that middle movement,” rather than “creepy chamber music.”

And honestly, the very first bars of this piece seem so at odds with that title, as the music bursts forth with life and color. It’s difficult to sustain that level of fervor without exhausting your audience (and performers, I guess), so the music throttles back ever so slightly for a still-energetic first subject, then gives a breezier, gentler second subject. It’s clear when we get the exposition repeat because that beginning (no introduction here!) is so unmistakable. I feel like I overuse a certain set of words, but this music is really truly inspired, spirited, but not mawkish or over-dramatic. This isn’t Tchaikovsky, and really… at times it seems even out of character for Beethoven. The minor mode is all but absent in this first movement, without any of that combustion of a familiar theme into a burning firestorm of D minor or anything. The contrast here is still beautiful and plentiful, but of a far more optimistic sound, never plunging into abject darkness and only in a few places casting some shadows.

The movement is easy to follow in one sense, with that identifiable burst of sound beginning the first subject, so we know where the exposition repeat and recapitulation are. Once that’s over, though, we are at the ‘ghost’ second movement.

Y’know, perhaps this is the early 19th century equivalent of, say, Shostakovich or Schnittke today. It’s certainly not the same soul-crushing desperation of either of those Russians, but it certainly is poignant, melancholy and funereal. It is by a small margin the longest movement of the work (in Trio Wanderer’s recording, which makes me think the difference could be greater in a different reading).

The opening to the finale is very different from that of the first movement. Rather than exploding like a cork out of a champagne bottle, this blossoms, beginning a little more softly, and warms into a playful, at times boisterous, at times delicate, sonata-form finale. There’s humor and wit, and one remembers that the composer was on vacation, or at least a stay away from home, and it seems to have been a joyous one. Johnston mentions the humor we should find when

the piano takes off with a rapid-fire little right-hand cadenza that moves to a completely ridiculous key and the strings have no choice but to help the piano find its way back by spinning out a chromatically ascending sequence in octaves that does manage to arrive at the proper key but, unfortunately, manages to get the downbeats all out of sync!

That’s more characteristic of the Beethoven we know and love!

We’ll see shortly that the second work in this op. 70, the (sometimes labeled 6th) piano trio, is also perhaps possessive of a warmth and ebullience that tells us what a happy time (or at least refreshing getaway from a rough time) this was for the composer as he aged and began to deal with the reality of his worsening deafness.

But that is for another weekend. We have something terribly exciting coming up this week, so please do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading!

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