The C major Piano Trio, the second of Johannes Brahms’s three efforts in that genre, spanned a period of two years at the outset of the 1880s, when he was at the height of his creative powers and still blessed with bursting creative energy. When he began this trio, he was midway between the completion of his Second Symphony (in 1877) and his Third (in 1883). Within months of completing the Trio’s first movement in March 1880, he composed his two great orchestral overtures, the Academic Festival and the Tragic, and by the time he returned to his Trio to shepherd it to completion two years later, he had also signed off on his massive Piano Concerto No. 2. Brahms (1833-97) was actually occupied with the opening movements of two separate piano trios in the winter of 1880. He often worked on pieces in pairs—in contrasting pairs, in fact—and in this case he produced the Allegro movement in tandem with another in E-flat major. Both works sat as torsos for some time, but at some point Brahms decided to destroy what he had completed of the E-flat major Piano Trio, and not until the summer of 1882, when he was on vacation at Bad Ischl, did he get around to finishing the one in C major.
The C major Piano Trio does seem to share some territory with the Second Piano Concerto and with the Third Symphony (which the contemporaneous conductor Hans Richter dubbed Brahms’s Eroica); certainly the first movement conveys something of an Olympian and often heroic character. But the Trio does not invite much relaxation. The piece sounds not an eighth note longer than it needs to be, and its four fully packed but tightly edited movements fill less than a half-hour. Power is the watchword at the beginning, and the movement’s solid opening unisons (for violin and cello) are quickly joined by rich-textured piano writing. In fact, the piano part is so sumptuous that the strings quite often team up in precisely the sort of octave-writing heard at the outset, the better to offset their partner’s potentially overwhelming force. At the movement’s precise midpoint, the development section arrives with a stroke that could not have been accomplished except by a great master: The music follows an astonishing modulation to D-flat, only a half-step above the overall key center, but very distant in terms of traditional harmonic behavior. The cello, meanwhile, presents a leisurely variant on the upward-surging principal theme, then taken up by the violin, all against rippling figurations in the piano. Here, in an insuperably Brahmsian moment, the composer has renewed the excitement of his piece through simultaneous alterations of the tonal center, the instrumental texture, and the melody itself. Toward the end of the movement, Brahms restates his principal melody again, this time enriching it with what seems a vocal character. The cello’s noble phrases seem practically extracted from a Schubert song.
For the slow movement Brahms moves to the relative minor key of A minor, and he presents a theme-and-five-variations set based on a Magyar flavored melody. The mournful but proud tune makes much use of the rhythmic device known as the “Scotch snap,” the dividing of a beat into a fast-slow figure (here a sixteenth note followed by a dotted eighth note), and Brahms further complicates the rhythmic plan by making extensive use of off-beat syncopations throughout this movement. (At one point, an extension of the melody comes surprisingly close to Mussorgsky’s depiction of the Bydlo, the infinitely weighty Polish ox-cart section in Pictures at an Exhibition.) It is usual for sets of variations to display an increasing velocity overall. Certainly during the Classical era, but also in later music, figuration typically charts a slower-to-faster trajectory overall, even if pulling back at places for a more soulful expanse. Here, however, Brahms relies instead on the character of figuration and textural shifts for variety, rather than on an evolving tempo from paragraph to paragraph. The tempo marking remains Andante con moto throughout, even in the sweet-spirited fourth variation (in the major mode), where the cello, and then violin, are asked to sing forth its melody dolce (sweetly) and the piano, its music falling in syncopated off-beats, is instructed to play dolcissimo sempre (always very sweetly). The variations cover considerable emotional terrain, even to the point of visiting the ethereal domain of the Brahmsian intermezzo.
The Scherzo flutters nervously, requiring the players to provide great agility within a hushed and mysterious atmosphere. One might find affinities between these interior movements and certain works by Bartók, with the Andante con moto evoking any number of Bartók’s modal, folk-inflected melodies and the Scherzo prefiguring his rustling “night music” movements. A listener is scarcely prepared for Brahms’s trio section, which ushers forth via an elegant elision. This trio is again a hyper-Brahms expanse. Although not the most learned music he ever wrote, it is a brilliant demonstration of his ability to make his music ascend in soaring phrases into the empyrean. Brahms had a gift for writing this sort of music and it perfectly captures a sort of noble, triumphant, heart-filling joy that may bring to the eye a tear of ecstatic contentment before we return to the will-o’-the-wisp of the Scherzo proper.
Occasional commentators have objected that the finale of Brahms’s C major Trio is too lightweight compared to what came before. I can’t say that I agree with that assessment, although it is certainly true that Brahms presents his themes here in rapid succession and works out their implications with a minimum of fussiness: it is Brahms veering in the direction of Saint-Saëns. We have already experienced quite a lot of monumentality in this trio, and for this movement Brahms imagines a function different from what came before, much as the recessional at a wedding plays a quite distinct role from the processional that preceded it by not so very long.
—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback.
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