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In early 1798, when Beethoven composed his three String Trios, Op. 9, he was still in the process of consolidating his reputation in Vienna. He had already made a splash in several of the city’s leading aristocratic salons as a virtuoso pianist, playing his own music and improvising. Three concerts at the Burgtheater (March 29-31, 1795) introduced him to a wider audience; at the first of these, he played his B-flat-major Piano Concerto. Building on his successes in Vienna, Beethoven began to tour during this period, visiting Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Pressburg, and Pest (before its unification with Buda) in 1796.

It was hard, though, for the young composer to escape the shadow of Mozart and Haydn. Although he had died in 1791, Mozart was more popular than ever in the 1790s. (Beethoven’s Burgtheater performance on March 30, 1795, had been of Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto between the acts of that composer’s opera La clemenza di Tito.) Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 563, for string trio (violin, viola, and cello) was published in 1792 and doubtless provided a model for Beethoven’s trios. Haydn – with whom Beethoven had studied for at least a year after arriving in Vienna in November 1792 – was still very much alive. Many commentators have pointed to Haydn’s achievements in his symphonies and string quartets as inhibiting and delaying Beethoven’s forays into those genres, certainly a viable explanation for the younger composer’s focus on the piano sonata and other types of chamber music, such as the string trio, during the 1790s.

The second trio from the Op. 9 set is in four movements, a layout it shares with Haydn’s quartets and symphonies. The violin dominates the trio, and the part may have been intended for Ignaz Schuppanzigh, a gifted player who collaborated frequently with Beethoven. The opening Allegretto is marked by a strongly lyrical impulse in the writing for the violinist, but the incessant accompaniment lends the movement a restless atmosphere. The second movement, with its flowing 6/8 rhythm and its minor mode, has the feeling of an arcane dance. A lively minuet reminds the listener that Beethoven would soon abandon this courtly dance in favor of the more vigorous scherzo. In the rondo finale, Beethoven assigns the main theme to the cello, but the violin claims it by the end.

John Mangum is Artistic Administrator for the New York Philharmonic, having previously served in that position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.