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The San Francisco Symphony welcomes renowned musicians from across the globe to the Davies Symphony Hall stage in a series that presents top-tier ensembles and artists in recital.
The all-star chamber ensemble of violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter (in residence with the SF Symphony this season) and Ye-Eun Choi, violist Vladimir Babeshko, and cellist Daniel Müller-Schott brings impeccable musicality and virtuosity to a program that celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Composed in 1798, Beethoven’s charming early string trio draws alluring sonorities and captivating textures from the instruments. Closing the program is his Harp string quartet: With its combination of vitality, heart, and inventiveness, this chamber piece has been called Beethoven’s most perfect quartet.
String Trio in C minor, Opus 9, no.3
String Quartet in E-flat major, Opus 74, Harp
String Trio in E-flat major, Opus 3
BEETHOVEN: Trio in C minor for Strings, Opus 9, no.3
Quartet in E-flat major for Strings, Opus 74, Harp
Trio in E-flat major for Strings, Opus 3
As a genre, the classic string trio of violin, viola, and cello takes up rather little space in the universe of chamber music. By and large, composers seem to have viewed the combination as a sort of string quartet manqué, and have accordingly neglected its transparent texture in order to lavish their attention on the opportunities for complete four-part writing afforded by the standard string quartet of two violins, viola, and cello. Boccherini wrote a dozen trios for such an ensemble, to be sure, and Mozart left the greatest of the genre’s masterpieces in his E flat-major Divertimento (K.563). Schubert extended the repertory by two works (one incomplete), after which string trios were scarce among big-name composers until the twentieth century, when Reger, Dohnányi, Martinů, Hindemith, Roussel, Webern, and Schoenberg were among those who added to the literature.
The contribution of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) to the string-trio repertory is the largest apart from Boccherini’s, though his five pieces all date from the opening years of his career: his Opus 3 (a six-movement divertimento-style piece) was written sometime before 1794, his Opus 8 (again in six movements, this time actually titled Serenade) in about 1796–7, and his set of Three Trios (Opus 9) in 1797–8.
Begun in 1796 and published in Vienna in 1798, the Opus 9 Trios carry a dedication to Count Johann Georg von Browne, a diplomat and an officer in the Russian army (his non-Slavic name signals his Irish extraction) who was one of the composer’s important early patrons. Each trio in the set comprises four movements. It seems apparent that they have more in common with Beethoven’s six string quartets (Opus 18) that would soon follow than with the two divertimento-serenade trios that preceded them. Once Beethoven embarked on his earliest string quartets (in about 1798) he never returned to string trios again. That is not to suggest that the Opus 9 trios are necessarily lesser works than the Opus 18 quartets. Considering the String Trio in C minor (Opus 9, no.3) next to the C minor Quartet (Opus 18, no.4), some commentators have found the Trio to be the more polished.
To Beethoven, the key of C minor was potent with connotations of tempestuous energy and violent struggle. The unison beginning of the first movement of Opus 9, no.3, enhanced by the unsettling effect of an augmented interval in the very first thematic motif, plants the seeds of turbulence from the outset. Beethoven peppers the movement with accented chords, bold dynamic strokes, and generally taut working-out of material. The musicologist Robert Simpson astutely observed, “This trio does not anticipate the scope of the late quartets, but it explores the nature of its material, and in as dramatic a way, as much as was possible to supreme genius in its earlier phases.”
The second movement, too, reveals Beethoven at the pinnacle of his then-available powers, which were already astonishing. Adagio con espressione, Beethoven marks it, and he covers quite a range of expression here, though against an overriding backdrop of serene dignity. He also demonstrates his technical facility at turning texture itself to an expressive end, making frequent use of double stops (two notes bowed simultaneously) to expand the density well beyond the three lines implied by the ensemble’s make-up.
Such a nervous thing the ensuing Scherzo is! The word scherzo means “joke,” and I suppose one could find humor in this movement’s rhythmic displacements. In the end these come across more as intellectual in-jokes than laugh-out-loud jests, and the contrasting trio section does little to dispel the overall unease of this tense movement. The edgy quality continues through much of the Finale, which is worked out along the pattern of a sonata form. The return of the principal material arrives by way of a subtly dramatic passage in which viola and cello puff out stubborn dissonances in quiet repeated notes that finally yield to the violin’s recollection of the principal theme. At the end, Beethoven embarks on what sounds like a transition to an entirely new section, but this turns out to be a feint. It’s merely a brief coda. But, in its way, it is something entirely new, since the music swings curiously into the major mode, bringing this jittery, very minor-mode piece to a whispering close in unexpected C major.
When, in 1792, the twenty-one-year-old Beethoven left his native Bonn to seek his fortune as a pianist and a composer in the heady cultural capital of Vienna, he was entering a world dominated by the spirit of the late lamented Mozart and the still-living, universally revered Haydn. Given the interest those two composers had shown in the medium of the string quartet, it was all but inevitable that Beethoven should have followed in their footsteps.
It is common, convenient, and logical to divide Beethoven’s production into early, middle, and late periods. By and large, the cut-off points reflect signal moments in the composer’s career, and the works he composed in each of these periods (or at least the works we choose to view as most characteristic of their chronology) do exhibit certain traits that bind them together: the stretching of Classical boundaries in the First Period (through about 1802); the dramatic exploration of new structural possibilities in the Second Period, with increasing technical security leading to decreased turbulence (1802–12); and the complex, visionary quality of the Third Period (1813–27), when Beethoven, cut off by deafness from the hearing world, was wrapped up in his uniquely advanced compositional technique and emotional expression. His sixteen string quartets fit more-or-less neatly into such a plan. The six Opus 18 quartets are obviously early works; the three Razumovsky Quartets (Opus 59) and the Quartets in E-flat major (Opus 74) and F minor (Opus 95) are firmly middle-period; and the quartets clustered in his final years—Opuses 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135, plus the Grosse Fuge—are the zenith of his late style. No listener at the premieres of Beethoven’s six Opus 18 quartets—the composer included, surely—could have conceived the distance he would travel by the time he arrived at the end of his quartet cycle.
Vienna was in turmoil when Beethoven composed his String Quartet in E-flat major, Opus 74 during the summer and/or early autumn of 1809. Austria was growing exhausted from a series of on-and-off wars with France that had marked the past eighteen years. That spring the French renewed their bombardment with particular ferocity. On May 4 the imperial family fled Vienna, and at the end of July Beethoven wrote to the Leipzig publisher Breitkopf & Härtel: “Let me tell you that since May 4th I have produced very little coherent work, at most a fragment here and there. The whole course of events has in my case affected both body and soul.” Nonetheless, he soon embarked on this quartet and apparently completed it quickly. We should not automatically assume that Beethoven’s compositions are a form of autobiography; and, indeed, one would not point to this quartet as an example of Beethovenian tumult, notwithstanding some punchiness here and there.
The first movement—and not just its quiet introduction (tantalizingly interrupted by a couple of one-chord outbursts)—projects an overwhelmingly gracious mien. On the surface this piece seems to look back toward Classical models rather than ahead to Beethoven’s late style, although an analysis of its construction reveals that the composer in no way lacks forward-thinking originality even while projecting a spirit of mellow intimacy. The nickname Harp (not Beethoven’s idea) derives from an abundance of plucked figures in this opening movement. The ensuing Adagio, in contrast, does foreshadow the late quartets, its transcendent, even sentimental melody belying deeper intimations of anxiety. It is plotted as a slow rondo in which the refrain is considerably varied at each return. The final measures are a coda that, in the manner of Mozart, manage to summarize and even transcend the essential quality of what has come before.
The scherzo (Presto, with two go-rounds of the still quicker trio section) may remind us of ideas in the composer’s Fifth Symphony, premiered just the preceding December—certainly the symphony’s famous opening “fate motif” but also the trio, which evokes the corresponding section of the symphony. It is an odd expanse, its texture thinned down to very little as the cello and the first violin engage in a boisterous game of tag, with the other two instruments eventually joining in. Like the symphony’s scherzo, this movement is set overall in C minor (shifting to C major for the trio) and connects to the finale without a break. Here the concluding Allegretto consists of an unassuming theme with six variations. Extreme contrast is the order of the day here—between the widely spaced staccato arpeggios and contrary motion of the first variation and the gentle viola murmurings of the second, between the running sixteenth notes (with syncopated punctuations) of the third and restrained elegance of the fourth (played “always soft and sweet,” according to the score), between the violin’s virtuosic yodeling of the fifth and the quiet but simmering energy of the sixth. After Beethoven has worked through the theme’s possibilities the quartet escalates into a rambunctious, even hilarious conclusion.
With the String Trio in E-flat major, Opus 3 we return to the early phase of Beethoven’s career—indeed, to his first foray into the genre of the string trio. Its six movements run nearly forty minutes in performance, though it can be less depending on the performers’ decisions about whether or not to take repeats. The structure mirrors that of a Classical divertimento, which by that time was growing old-fashioned. For all intents and purposes, this trio’s layout is identical to that of Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio (in the same key, no less), which had preceded it in 1788—and which the Viennese firm of Artaria published in 1792, four years before it published this trio of Beethoven’s. It seems likely that Beethoven embarked on this string trio following exposure to Mozart’s masterpiece. One would not suggest that Beethoven achieves here the sublimity of his presumed Mozartian model, but it is an expert composition nonetheless. As Arthur Cohn points out in The Literature of Chamber Music: “Here, Beethoven already understands the premise—even the law—that a string trio should not attempt quartet sonorities. It must remain a true three-voice concept….” That mastery of string-trio texture, however, did not prevent Artaria from publishing an adaptation of this piece for cello and piano, in 1807, an arrangement almost certainly not made by Beethoven.
The opening Allegro con brio is a firmly crafted movement that includes the clever surprise of a false return to the opening material. The second movement (Andante) is a not-very-slow section propelled by a repeated-note motif that surfaces frequently; some of the exchanges between instruments point ahead to Beethoven’s Opus 18 string quartets.
At this point we move into the central unit of the divertimento form, two minuets framing a slow movement. The first minuet (Allegretto) sports a memorable falling interval in its principal theme and a touch of unanticipated syncopation at the cadences. In the movement’s trio portion the violin sings a lyrical theme over the cello’s plucked bass line and the murmuring middle texture of the viola. When the minuet section returns for its obligatory run-through without repeats, Beethoven surprises us by developing his material even in a coda attached at the end. The ensuing Adagio marks the center of gravity of this piece, with Beethoven working his way through an interesting harmonic trajectory. This pensive expanse yields to the good-humored second minuet (Moderato). In its minor-key trio section the violin ascends to the stratosphere—unusually so for Beethoven’s early music—over a drone-like accompaniment. Beethoven seems proud of the extreme effect he is making, and he emphasizes the point by also having the violinist touch down five times on the instrument’s lowest note, the G below middle C. The piece ends with an energetic, witty finale (Allegro) that turns blustery in a C minor episode before returning to good spirits for the conclusion.
—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.