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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) made some formative attempts in the medium of the piano trio even before he moved from his native Bonn to Vienna in November 1792 and he continued exploring the genre through 1811, when he arrived at the summit with his Archduke Trio. The Three Trios, Opus 1 date, at latest, from his first years in Vienna, but we are not certain just when. The E-flat major Trio was placed first in the set when it was printed (after careful revision by the composer) in 1795, by the Viennese firm of Artaria, and distributed to an extensive subscriber list laden with names of Viennese and Czech aristocrats. That positioning seems to jibe with the work’s chronology; musicological consensus is that it was very likely the first of the three to be composed, and some scholars believe it may have been written, at least in part, even before Beethoven moved to Vienna.

Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries reported that the composer participated in the first performance of the three Opus 1 Trios, in early 1794 (perhaps it was at the end of 1793), at the Viennese home of Prince Karl Lichnowsky, the set’s dedicatee. A Who’s Who of Vienna’s musical cognoscenti was in attendance, including Franz Joseph Haydn, who was Beethoven’s teacher for a short while. Ries related: “Most of the artists and music-lovers were invited, especially Haydn, for whose opinion all were eager. The trios were played and at once commanded extraordinary attention. Haydn also said many pretty things about them, but advised Beethoven not to publish the third, in C minor. This astonished Beethoven, inasmuch as he considered the third the best.. . . Consequently, Haydn’s remark left a bad impression on Beethoven and led him to think that Haydn was envious, jealous, and ill-disposed towards him.” An anonymous manuscript, probably penned in the early nineteenth century, reports that the three trios “justly excited admiration, though they were performed in only a few circles. Wherever this was done, however, connoisseurs and music lovers bestowed upon them undivided applause, which grew with the succeeding works as the hearers not only accustomed themselves to the striking and original qualities of the master but grasped his spirit and strove for the high privilege of understanding him.”

To be sure, Haydn’s assessment was well informed by personal experience. As one of the era’s most accomplished composers of piano trios, he was intimately acquainted with the fine points of writing effectively for this combination of instruments. His spirit hovers over this piece—as does that of the recently departed Mozart—and yet we occasionally spy indications of a distinctive new voice at work. Not so much in the first movement: that’s a solidly plotted sonata-allegro structure (that is, laid out with some take on the exposition-development- recapitulation structure) with nicely contrasted themes and a harmonic working-out that is in line with the norms of Viennese Classicism, although a moment or two in the development (listen for the piano’s extended trill) announce that something quite original is afoot.

The spacious opening theme of the second movement points ahead toward the lyrical moments in some of Beethoven’s early piano sonatas; and we may also find surprising the way this slow movement builds to a striking climax in C major, a third above the overriding key of A-flat— thirds relationships being very much an interest of late Haydn and of Beethoven in general. Most Beethovenian of all is the Scherzo. Already at this early moment in his career Beethoven is testing the waters for a way to get around the traditional third-movement minuet beloved to the Classicists, and here he does so with a vigorous movement that displays touches of brave chromatic modulation. The literal translation of “scherzo” is “joke,” to be sure, and the slightly off-kilter theme and the overall bumptiousness of this third movement live up to the name.

Beethoven is still more jovial in his finale, which, beginning with its opening leaps of a tenth, is filled with the sort of geniality and wit that understandably found an appreciative audience in Haydn. What’s more, the piece has staying power. When a new edition of Beethoven’s Opus 1 Trios was published in 1825, the distinguished Berlin critic Adolf Bernhard Marx wrote in a review: “That these excellent products of the past period reached a second edition after such frequent repeated distribution by the first publisher attests to the well-deserved continuing general interest in them, which will also certainly reward their discerning and industrious publishers.”—JAMES M. KELLER