The Horn Trio, composed in 1865, was originally written for the Waldhorn (the “natural” horn, without valves). Several extra-musical elements were also involved in its creation: the death of Brahms’ mother, Christiane, to whom the composer was extremely close, in February of that year, and the fact that as a child Brahms had learned to play the natural horn. The somber, nostalgic timbre of the archaic instrument was, at the time, also associated with nature, in which Brahms often found inspiration.
In an article in the journal The Horn Call, David G. Elliott notes: “From 1862 to 1872 Brahms spent his summer months with Clara Schumann and her friends in the Black Forest. In this beautiful setting he received inspiration for the composition of the Trio.” Elliott also writes that a close friend of Brahms recalled that the composer “once showed him the place ‘on the wooded heights among the fir trees’ where the theme of the first movement came to him”.
The combination of the three instruments, horn, violin, and piano, was an innovation at the time but has since inspired a number of works for the same ensemble, including Hommage à Brahms by György Ligeti, composed in 1982.
Today the Trio is generally performed with the valve horn, which was invented in the early 19th century, and was actually in use in Germany and Austria when Brahms was composing the work. But the new system was not yet generally accepted and was felt by some to compromise the “true” horn sound.
Brahms himself was reluctant to accept the new horn, and, aside from the fact he had been taught the Waldhorn by his father, he wanted to integrate several of the natural horn’s characteristics into his Trio. These included the choice of keys and especially the issue of balance.
Structurally, one of the mildly controversial issues with the Trio was the fact that the first movement is not in sonata form, as was common practice for the period. Brahms also varies the expected overall arc of the first movement by having the haunting, song-like main theme recur rondo-like between two rhapsodic interludes. After an agitated section the movement fades to a tranquil conclusion.
The second movement is a lively scherzo with an unexpectedly lyrical interlude before a da capo repeat of the opening section. Subtle rhythmic shifts between triple and duple time are also heard. The third movement, Adagio mesto (sorrowful adagio), is the most overt reference to Brahms’ loss and the emotional core of the entire work. Near its conclusion is a dream-like variation of a folk-song believed to have been taught to Brahms by his mother, and the movement ends with a final expression of muted but deeply felt grief.
The Trio as a whole concludes with a sense of resolution and an ebullient 6/8 rondo with horn calls and glittering piano passages. Only brief hints of the serious nature and harmonies of the previous movement are heard and the Trio ends with a triumphant E-flat-major chord.