Skip to main content

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.

One early critic encountering Brahms’s Horn Trio was so taken aback by its unusual instrumentation that he declined to accept it as a legitimate piece of chamber music. He found the combination of horn, violin, and piano to be indefensibly unwieldy. Indeed, an imprudent horn player can easily overwhelm the texture, especially when the piece is played on a modern horn, as it usually is today. Brahms (1833–97) must have considered this when he denoted that the piece was for natural horn (or “hand horn,” as he termed it) rather than for the newfangled valve horn. It was a rather quaint decision in 1865; some years had passed since the valve system had been perfected, enabling hornists to alter the length of the instrument’s tubes—and thereby broaden its chromatic possibilities—with the flick of a finger.

But the natural horn exerted a pull-on Brahms, perhaps partly because his father, himself a professional hornist, had given his young son lessons in playing that old-fashioned instrument. Brahms got pretty good at it, and in the late 1850s he played first horn in the orchestra at Detmold. Then, too, the valve horn’s facility came at a price—in this case, a straitening of the instrument’s evocative timbre and in particular a smoothing out of the veiled, muted quality that ensued when a player inserted his hand into the instrument’s bell to alter the pitch. Historically associated with the hunt (as well as postal delivery), the horn had long been employed to depict hunting or, by extension in either direction, pastoral or bellicose scenes. In his Horn Trio, Brahms has the instrument summon up both its lyrical and its dramatic sides, the former principally in the first and third movements, the latter in the other two.

The first movement is rhapsodic, with episodes set off by different metric pulses. The spirit of the mysterious Romantic forest is captured here; one could say that it reflects the character of the wooded landscape around Lichtenthal near Baden-Baden, in the Black Forest, where Brahms worked on this piece. In the second movement the Romantic haze lifts to reveal a boisterous rustic scene, although the contrasting trio section in the middle (in the arcane key of A-flat minor—seven flats!) reveals a brooding character.

The Adagio mesto is one of Brahms’s mostly deeply felt slow movements, with a passionate outburst erupting at one point from its doleful- ness. Near the movement’s end the horn (with the violin providing harmony beneath it; then the roles switch) proposes a hushed premonition of what will soon recur as the up-beat principal theme of the finale. Both are said to refer to a German folk song, “In der Weiden steht ein Haus” (In the Meadow Stands a House). That finale restores the good spirits that had been suggested in the Scherzo and it bustles its way to the end with scarcely a stop for breath.—JAMES M. KELLER