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A survey of Brahms' orchestral works readily reveals the special fondness the composer had for the horn, an instrument he played as a youth. For example, the Serenade No. 1, the First and Second Symphonies, the B-flat Piano Concerto, all have prominent horn episodes that linger in the memory. Yet in spite of his horn sympathies, Brahms engaged the instrument in only one chamber music work - the present Trio, which he wrote in 1865. One can only speculate that, having produced this uniquely wonderful piece, the composer felt that he had said all he had to say about the horn in a chamber context. Indeed, musically and instrumentally the Trio makes such a special statement, establishes such a magical aura, that anything further by Brahms on the horn subject might easily have been anti-climactic.
It is noteworthy that Brahms made a point of calling his publisher's attention to the fact that he had written for the "simple," that is, valveless horn, rather than for the technically more sophisticated valve-horn, which at the time was already in general use. By this choice, Brahms was opting for a horn part of nobility rather than virtuosity; the work's incomparably beautiful results confirm the wisdom of the decision. The specific horn for which he was writing seems also to have dictated an unusual structural approach in the first movement, for instead of the expected sonata form, there is an Andante comprised of two contrasting themes, neither one developed. The recurring first theme, filled with nostalgia and dry-eyed sentiment, is countered by an agitated, impetuous second subject, it too repeated. The second movement, titled a Scherzo, is far more urgent than playful, and, in its middle section, touching in its broad, elegiac expressiveness.
It is as if this latter minor-key lyricism is meant to prepare for the heart of the Trio - a wrenchingly moving Adagio that must be counted one of the composer's great slow movements. The depth of feeling here is intensified by the horn's melancholy, yet the music would be no less affecting were a viola or cello (either of which is specified in the score as a substitute for the brass instrument) to take the horn's place. The finale, however, is horn music all the way, being a glorified hunting piece, with all the vigor and ebullience that is the heritage of that historical style. But, inimitably, Brahms adds a an element of mystery and romantic imagery to the spirited proceedings, making of the movement a multi-faceted rather than a one-dimensional experience.
- Orrin Howard served as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years. He continues to contribute to the program book.