Beethoven Piano Trio in E flat, op. 70 no. 2

performed by Trio Wanderer, or below by the Beaux Arts Trio

(cover image by Aaron Burden)

The second piece of Beethoven’s op. 70 piano trios is in E flat, and carries no nickname or subtitle or anything. The work, like its more famous sibling, was composed during the composer’s stay at the estate of Countess Marie von Erdödy, and was published in 1809.

The work, also unlike its more famous sibling, is in four movements rather than three, and a playing time of around 30 minutes. The movements are as follows:

The first movement, forming about a third of the duration of this piece, begins with a ‘poco sostenuto’ introduction that, were you not familiar with the piece, you may easily think was leading to a minor-key first subject, but the allegro that results is warm and welcoming, as well as a few comfortable steps away from being an actual allegro, to me. It’s a bit more laid back, and the second subject is even kind of waltzy. The introduction, as it well should, makes a few cameo appearances between the two subjects of the exposition as well as in the coda.

Really, though, think of the kind of music you’d write if you needed a vacation, and then got one, and enjoyed it immensely, could heave a sigh of relief and slough off the worries and anxieties of day-to-day life. Would the result not sound like this? Don’t get me wrong; the first movement has its dramatic climaxes, a few particularly poignant moments between piano and violin, but overall, for Beethoven, it’s surprisingly vanilla in the best way possible. Even the close of the coda is a kind of frilly, quiet ripple.

The second movement, the first of the two central allegrettos, plays the part of what would normally be a slow movement; this one isn’t, really. The only thing Wikipedia says about the entire op. 70 no. 2 trio is that “The second movement is in double variation form.” That’s good to know.

In this shortest movement of the work, we have themes in both C major and C minor. We hear more of the Beethoven we would expect, some humor and playfulness, to say nothing of his love for C minor. It even tosses in some Hungarian-esque, exotic sounding themes, and ends satisfyingly with the crunch we’d expect to hear from Beethoven. A very interesting five minutes.

Richard Wigmore tells us that “The third movement, noted as a minuet in the composer’s sketches but in the autograph marked simply ‘Allegretto ma non troppo’, is in A flat rather than the expected E flat major.” Interestingly, Wigmore points out a milestone that this marks for the composer, saying:

The trio is thus the earliest instance in Beethoven of a work with movements in three different keys, a pattern he repeated in the ‘Harp’ Quartet of 1809, where the tonal centres are again E flat, A flat and C.

I just feel like that’s a first that would have come much earlier in his career. But here we are.

Wigmore tells us that Beethoven has the movement marked as a minuet in his sketches, but in the autograph score, it’s just ‘Allegretto ma non troppo.’ There’s a supple tenderness to this movement, and it really doesn’t have the characteristic bounce to be a minuet, at least not sustained. Wigmore refers to it as an intermezzo, but it does have a trio-like middle section.

Relative to much of the composer’s more famous pieces, the finale may not be terribly earth-shattering in its level of excitement, but it is by a long shot the most exuberant thing we’ve heard in this quartet. There’s an abundant of rhythmic interest, playfulness, and real energy. Interestingly, the second subject here is not in dominant key, but “the major mediant (in the case of the Trio, G major)” as John Palmer says.

We also get to C major in the recapitulation, so after all fo the composer’s musical meanderings, we still have to get ourselves back around to E-flat, which Beethoven obviously does for us. There’s some much flashier writing in this finale, that helps to enliven what may sound at first ‘glance’ to be a relatively subdued, or ‘mellow,’ work, at least in contrast with much of his other work.

That being said, you could look at it as an interesting sort of outlier in his output, something overall a little softer, more delicate, and that does make sense with the context of Beethoven’s vacation. However, there’s another, very significant way we can look at this piece, too.

You’ll just have to go read Wigmore’s writeup (to which I linked above) about the piece at Hyperion, but there’s mention there and elsewhere of parallels, likenesses, to some of Haydn’s work, like symphonies no. 88 or 103. There are also the unique details of Beethoven’s use of key areas, veering so far away from E flat, like arriving at D in the first movement, or putting so much emphasis on C major before finally getting back around to where he should be. This is obvious really mostly to serious (trained) music people, or very attentive listeners. It’s there if you want to read the score (or have done enough ear training), but on another level, it’s also very satisfying just to know that the individual spirit of the work may well be the result of a much-needed getaway. Who can’t relate to that?

This marks the end of our attention to Beethoven, at least for a little while. As (almost) always, though, this year, what follows Beethoven is more of the Editor’s Choice series I decided to start. We’ll be traversing through a number of forms from quite a few composers, some of whom have already been featured in that series before, but all of whom have already appeared on the blog. Stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for watching.

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