Beethoven Piano Trio in B flat, op. 11

performed by Eric LeSage, Paul Meyer, and Claudio Bohórquez, or below by José Franch-Ballester, Ani Aznavoorian and Warren Jones

(cover image by Michael D. Beckwith)

Today’s work is the one that ruined it all for Beethoven’s piano trios.

Just kidding.

A few years ago, we discussed Beethoven’s three piano trios that make up his op. 1. I’m certainly not breaking any new ground by saying that this form was chosen because it enabled the composer to have independence with his pieces, make an impression, but without infringing upon the greatness of Haydn and Mozart in the genres of the string quartet or symphony.

He wrote three of them, and then he wrote this one. I wasn’t sure whether to call it a piano trio or not, because it was actually originally written for clarinet, cello and piano, along with a part for violin instead of clarinet that differs only slightly from the original part for the woodwind. This deviation from the standard piano trio roster means that some people don’t consider it worthy of the ‘piano trio’ label, and leave the ‘piano trio no. 4’ title for Beethoven’s next piano trio, which didn’t come until op. 70 in 1809, so you’ll see varying numbers for this work and the subsequent trios. (Be aware also that the op. 44 variations are also for piano trio, but is almost never, at least that I’ve noticed, included as a numbered piano trio.)

This work, no matter what you decide it should be called, was written in 1797 and dedicated to the composer’s patroness, one Countess Wilhelmine von Thun, of whom Wikipedia says, quoting Volkmar Braunbehrens, “She is remembered as the sponsor of a musically and intellectually outstanding salon and for her patronage of music, notably that of Mozart and Beethoven.”

Interestingly, since the instruments of the time lacked the more advanced key systems we have today, the key of B flat was likely chosen to facilitate the clarinet’s ease of performing the faster passages in the work.

Also relevant for the time was the popularity and “novelty” of woodwind instruments, I think especially in chamber pieces, but I could be wrong. In fact, there is also an option, although I think very rare, to have bassoon play rather than cello.

This work has another nickname, though, the ‘Gassenhauer trio,’ because the third movement features a melody that was popular at the time. Wiki tells us that this tune…

… could be heard in many of Vienna’s lanes (“Gasse” in German). A “Gassenhauer” usually denotes a (normally simple) tune that many people (in the Gassen) have taken up and sing or whistle for themselves, the tune as such having become rather independent from its compositional origins.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda, writing for the Kennedy Center, says:

The Clarinet Trio was intended to please the drawing-room sensibilities of the Viennese public, and to help ensure its success Beethoven based the last movement on a well-known tune (Pria ch’io l’impegno – “Before beginning this awesome task, I need a snack“) from Joseph Weigl’s popular comic opera L’Amor Marinaro…

Interestingly, that article refers to the work as ‘Piano Trio no. 4′ but in the article, at least that once, Dr. Rodda calls it a clarinet trio, which seems like a very suitable title. We all know that a piano trio isn’ three pianos; why should we think a clarinet trio is three clarinets?

The piece is in three movements, and lasts about 20 minutes:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio
  3. Tema con variazioni (Pria ch’io l’impegno: Allegretto)

The first movement, in sonata form, makes up almost half of the playing time of the work. It begins with a warm unison gesture, and anytime you have a sonata form movement that has a memorable, identifiable beginning like this, it helps you pick out the exposition repeat, if any, and the beginning of the recapitulation.

After exploring (okay, maybe trudging through) many of Mozart’s works for the past few weeks, you may be able to hear some similarity in the writing here; it’s clearly not Mozart, but there’s a Classical-era ebullience and lightness about it. This is, after all, ‘drawing-room music.’ Interestingly, though, the transition between the two themes, from B flat to the second theme in F, takes us through D and G minor, in a very brief, quiet, almost somber passage, like passing quietly through a room in which a baby sleeps.

We get this twice because the exposition is repeated, but it’s left out entirely for the recapitulation. If you’ve listened to the piano sonatas of this period, you might hear little glimpses of the same writing in this work, but the piano gets its time to shine later.

The second movement is, to return to the sleeping baby idea, like a lullaby, beginning with cello, then clarinet, and finally piano. This movement, too, is in sonata form, but the development is very brief. What makes this movement special to me, besides just being a beautiful, serene little corner of this piece, is that all three players seem more or less on equal ground; it’s not complex or ornate, but the dialogue seems to put everyone on the same plane, for a warm, round approach to this shortest movement.

The finale is the movement for which the piece gets its name. It is a set of variations on that theme from that opera, which was very popular at the time. Beethoven knew what he was doing. The nine variations are as follows:

  1. piano solo- Beethoven shows off not only his deftness at variations, but his skill at writing for (and probably at some time or other playing) the piano.
  2. Cello, clarinet
  3. A reunion of sorts, with all three members in kind of a game of tag, with up- and downward moving figures
  4. The first of two minor-key variations, which balances out some of the jovial character of the other variations but does seem a bit abrupt in the sudden change of mood.
  5. Piano puts a stop to the melancholy, and the rest of the trio joins.
  6. John Palmer says the theme is “most clearly perceptible” in this variation.
  7. Our second minor-key variation, led by cello.
  8. Palmer says that here, “Only the broad outline of the theme remains.”
  9. The final variation presents the theme again before finishing up by giving us a coda.

… and this all happens within the span of about six minutes, so it’s not really a heavy piece by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Beethoven told his pupil Carl Czerny on a number of occasions he was going to replace this finale, let the variations stand on their own and give the work a new ending, but he never did, so this is what we have, which is perfectly fine.

It’s a lighter approach than even the op. 1 trios, where we see his favorite key of Cm in the third and final of the set. This clarinet trio clearly has a different purpose, and it was achieved, not to mention the adaptability of having multiple different versions of the trio, with clarinet or violin; cello or bassoon.

We’ve only got one more Beethoven piece this year, and then it’s Brahms all the way down… or out, to the end of the year, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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