Piano Trio, Op. 11
Ludwig van Beethoven
When did Beethoven become Beethoven? The young upstart from Bonn composed the Opus 11 Trio in 1797, some three years after starting the B-flat Piano Concerto (numbered as two although it preceded the concerto known as No. 1), and that B-flat Concerto seems very much to follow in the gracious footsteps of the Mozart piano concertos. Those years between the two concertos accounted for some considerable maturing; there was some good house cleaning of the main threads connecting him to the still-looming giants Haydn and Mozart. Think, for instance, of the last movement of the B-flat Concerto — a charmer if there ever was one — and the mischievous and extroverted finale of the C-major Concerto: meet young Beethoven!
Yet, did Ludwig really want to turn his back on the glories of these incomparable predecessors? It must be said that he was deeply disappointed in Haydn during the brief period he spent as student of the great master. But still, young Beethoven knew he was heir to greatness, and the best he could do was try to be his own man within the context of what history had handed him.
The wonderful mystery of creativity, always operative, certainly came into play when Beethoven began making music. The swirls of sound lodged deep in a composer’s consciousness can never be completely “unheard” by him or her. Beethoven was a grown person when he decided, “I’m going to write a trio, for piano, violin (or clarinet, according to the score), and cello. And it’s going to be thoroughly original, with no hint of the countless pieces I’ve heard.” Did he do it? With pounds of analytical freedom, we can take the first three notes of the Trio, played in unison by the three players, as an affirmative assertion: “Yes I did!” Oh, come now, Ludwig, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.
No, Beethoven’s originality didn’t come out of the blue, complete and untinged by existing music. As writer on the classical style Charles Rosen wisely says, “Beethoven’s music is filled with memories and predictions.” A work such as the present Trio confirms that observation. Still, there seems no question that even this early piece wears an LvB label. For example, the first movement has a muscularity that pretty much rules out Haydn or Mozart as author. And the frequency of the sudden louds and just as sudden softs we know to be a life-long stylistic element of Beethoven.
Perhaps it’s the Adagio second movement that most reveals the Trio’s Beethovenian signature. Not containing any undue emotionalism over which to shed a tear, the music here contains the kind of reserved, dry-eyed songfulness that helped to bridge Classicism and Romanticism. Just as the jolly theme-and-variations finale, based on a tune from an opera by Joseph Weigel, defined the 18th century’s love of unalloyed fun/pleasure.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.