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The young Beethoven moved to Vienna from his native Bonn in 1792. His first few years in the new city were spent studying with Haydn and then with the theorist Johann Albrechtsberger. The genre of the piano trio had by Beethoven’s time already seen great development, mostly by Haydn and Mozart. However, Beethoven would go on to expand the form himself. While the piano dominates in Haydn’s trios, by the time of Beethoven’s Opus 1 the relationships are more equal, thanks to Mozart, who augmented the strings’ parts. Beethoven is responsible for adding a fourth movement, expanding the form from its traditional three movements.
Op. 1, No. 1 was his first published work after his arrival in Vienna. The aristocratic chamber music aficionados of the time were fond of the piano trio as a genre and the decision to make the piano trio his Op. 1 was a conscious one. Op. 1, No. 1 is not your average first work (though, to be fair, Beethoven had been composing for years by the time he published this piece); it is an incredibly ambitious piece of music from a composer who was not even 25 years old.
The first movement is a charming and ornamented affair, beginning with a rising sequence on piano. Immediately, though, Beethoven plays with the harmony, showing his already formidable sophistication. After a complex development section, the recapitulation continues to expand and elaborate the original material. A long coda picks up the energy further.
The second movement, marked Andante cantabile, floats easily along in a rondo based on a lulling melody stated first by piano. The music wanders far from the start of the movement and then, more than midway through, returns to the simplicity of the original melody. The movement ends quietly.
In the Scherzo, the shortest of the movements, the piano accents dissonances on its way up the keyboard. The movement sways and turns through harmonic and rhythmic surprises, then departs to a trio whose lyricism contrasts with the outer sections. The finale begins with a flashing theme on piano; the second theme has a Hungarian flavor, recalling the famous “Gypsy Rondo” of Haydn’s great G-major Trio.
- Jessie Rothwell