The Piano Trios
About the Program
Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87
Brahms began the second of his three Piano Trios in the summer of 1880 and finished it in the summer of 1882, years of marked change in his life. For one thing, as he became financially successful and internationally eminent as a composer (a position solidified with his first two symphonies in 1876 and 1877), he grew more into the role of composer and out of the role of piano virtuoso. He performed less, and colleagues noted that his piano technique was deteriorating, probably because of lack of practice. He noticed it himself, and in 1882 his longtime friend Clara Schumann wrote in her diary that “Brahms plays more and more abominably. It is now nothing but bump, bang, and scrabble.”
He also seemed to embrace middle age and its external trappings, perhaps deciding that, after a quarter of a century, being a boyishly handsome rake was more trouble than it was worth. One wag noted that before he grew his famous beard in 1878, he looked like Clara Schumann’s son, and after he grew it he looked like her father.
Brahms was pleased with his maturation as a composer and seems to have been especially pleased with the C-major Trio and uncharacteristically eager to say so, writing to his publisher, “You have not yet had such a beautiful trio from me and very likely have not published its equal in the last ten years.” He had developed a leaner, more concise style in which material is worked out with greater economy, often using the “accompaniment” material from the very beginning of a movement as featured thematic material further on: he could lay his cards on the table at the beginning and still pull them out of a hat later.
Much of the C-major Trio’s character is revealed in the opening bars of its first movement, in which the violin and cello, without the piano, state the broad, sweeping theme together in octaves. The piano, when it enters, almost immediately begins playing a figure that accents every other beat of the triple meter, which means that while the violin and cello are playing in three, the piano is playing in two. Both events are indications of what is to come. Throughout the Trio, the two string instruments tend to form one unit, playing similar material in octaves, thirds, or sixths, while the piano accompanies, counters, or goes its own way. Indeed, all four movements begin with the violin and cello playing together in octaves, as if to signal their unity. And the Trio, like much of Brahms’ music, is filled both with cross-accents that make it seem that the basic meter has changed, or even halted (in fact, it almost never does either), and with cross-rhythms of two against three. The first movement is also noted for its profusion of themes, the first two of which remain largely the property of the violin and cello.
The second movement is a theme and five variations, or more accurately two themes and variations, since the syncopated accompaniment figure that the piano plays under the violin and cello’s theme is also treated as a theme to be developed and changed, most noticeably in the fourth variation. The gypsy/Hungarian flavor of the theme is, of course, no accident: Brahms’ interest in Hungarian music dated from his youth, when he collected Hungarian folk songs, and came to the attention of the musical world while touring with a Hungarian violinist in 1853.
The third movement is a brisk, jittery scherzo in C minor that sounds a bit like Mendelssohn in a dark mood. The tension is released when it blooms into a broad, soaring middle section of sublime lyricism. (Oddly, this is the one part of Opus 87 that Clara Schumann criticized when Brahms sent a copy for her opinion, writing back that it was “not quite important enough and seems rather manufactured.” She may have been fooled by the simplicity of it on the page; in any event, Brahms did not change it.)
The finale’s boisterous good cheer masks a composition that is subtle, clever, and impossible to pigeonhole into a standard form. It is laid out in a kind of sonata form, but the major themes reappear regularly, as in a rondo, and those reappearances tend to be of the complete but altered theme, as in a theme and variations. At the exact middle of the movement is an extended treatment of a short, jaunty descending motif, which is none other than the accompaniment to the first theme, laid on the table but pulled out of a hat. – Howard Posner
Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101
The Piano Trio in C minor is a mature work of Brahms, revealing his awareness of the craft of composition and an attention to detail bordering on the compulsive. This work clearly demonstrates his sense of rhythmic sophistication, a rich and varied harmonic vocabulary, and a songwriter’s melodic nature. Brahms also had a way of reusing and evolving his compositional materials that so delighted and astounded other composers that it was eventually given the title “developing variations” by Arnold Schoenberg. Another trait which distinguishes Brahms is his unswerving allegiance to traditional forms: the sonata form, the rondo, the chaconne, the theme and variations.
The C-minor Trio demonstrates the quintessential Brahms in action. The first movement is as evolved a sonata-form movement as can be found in his catalog, terse and to-the-point in its scope, yet sophisticated in its details. The composer is unrelentingly compulsive, seemingly deriving the entire Trio from the opening three-note figure in the lower register of the piano. The first theme, built from this three-note group, is traded and shared by the ensemble. The second theme, though contrasting greatly with the first in style, is clearly derived from the same opening three-note motto. As in many of Brahms’ mature works, much is made of the exposition, the recapitulation, and the coda, while the development section is quite short. This makes sense considering that Brahms is “developing” from the first notes of the work. The movement closes with the return of the opening themes, now developed and matured.
The beginning of the second movement makes reference to the first-movement motto; more importantly, Brahms takes a rhythmic motive from the first movement (a dotted, long-short-long motive) and makes it primary material for the Presto non assai. It is a peculiar little movement, hypnotic as it continually reflects its motivic and rhythmic ideas, until we are almost shocked to discover that time has passed.
In the Andante grazioso, Brahms continues to build with his motto; this movement is built from three three-note groups — three long notes followed by two shorter-note groups. A lilting, lullaby-like theme slowly unfolds, first in the violin with the cello accompanying. The melody is repeated, this time pizzicato by the cello, and then taken up by the piano. A contrasting, faster second section again makes musical reference to the opening movement.
The Finale is a rhythmically intense sonata form. It begins with another version of the motto, now with a note repeated, making a four-note group, and including references to the dotted rhythms of the previous movements.
Altogether compact and concise (barely half the length of Brahms’ first Piano Trio), Op. 101 nevertheless reveals the composer’s mastery of the chamber art in all its aspects: the astonishing variety of ways in which a simple motto can be developed, the rich textural and instrumental possibilities of the trio, and, finally, the myriad “conversational” possibilities of a small ensemble. – Dave Kopplin
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Brahms’ first reaction to the unrestrained acclaim of such a renowned and loved musician as Schumann must have been something akin to euphoria. Reality, however, soon settled in on the young composer and he explained his concerns in a letter to Schumann: “The open praise that you bestowed upon me has probably excited expectations of the public to such a degree that I do not know how I can come anywhere near fulfilling them. Above all, it induces me to use extreme caution in selecting pieces for publication. I contemplate issuing none of my trios and assigning the C-major and F-sharp-minor Sonatas as Opp. 1 and 2. Of course,” he concluded, “you understand that I strive with all my might to cause you as little embarrassment as possible.”
If the young eagle, as Schumann dubbed him, flew with apprehension, he still soared expansively and with youthful exuberance. The B-major Trio is a large-scale piece which, in its original version of 1853, was about a third longer than the much later revision. Remarkably, Brahms waited some 36 years before placing the Trio on his writing table to make alterations that would render it “not as dreary as before.” Imagine the psychological complexities inherent in the exercise of a mature master setting out to reduce the excesses and smooth out the rough edges of his youth. Yet, whatever vexations he experienced, he persisted and created, or re-created, a masterwork.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Brahms at 56 intended to do to change what Brahms at 21 had written, but the first thing he did not do was tamper with the gorgeous lyric melody that the piano alone sings in its mellow alto register to begin the Trio. Here Brahms the classicist indulged in his proclivity for song, the very antithesis of the motivic terseness that is intrinsic to classical development. But this melody was too grand to edit out or to alter, so it was allowed to remain intact, thank heaven, and a new, rhythmically vital second theme was created to replace the original, which was also an extended melody that had provided no contrast at all to the main theme. The stage was thus set for a movement combining the warm lyricism and the muscularity which reveal Brahms at his most characteristic.
Here, as in all the movements, the scoring is heaven-sent for the three players, for each is provided with the most grateful, satisfying occupation. (The fact that the violin does not join the piano and cello until the 20th measure of the first movement only heightens suspense; from that point on, the high string enjoys equal glory in the always-rich texture.)
Brahms must have smiled with pleasure at the Scherzo second movement, for he changed it not at all. The main idea has splendid vitality and thrust, and the polyphonic treatment of the material displays a mastery that could hardly be improved upon. As expected, the sustained, mellow nature of the second section provides eloquent contrast to the virtuosic vigor of the initial theme.
There was also little that Brahms was moved to change in the Adagio third movement, which is a place of mystical expressiveness, a quality the composer had in abundance even as a youth. The ineffably beautiful song for cello that enters midway and the heart-stopping answer to it from the piano, however, are mature additions that resonate deeply. The result is soulful poetry.
The unpredictability of youth marks the fourth movement, for here we have a minor-key finale to a major-key work. The main theme has a bit of the Hungarian to it, exposing a predilection for the Magyar that enticed a very young Brahms and that he took no pains to resist throughout his life. The major-key second theme was a new invention, but the thrust of the movement comes in the glorification of the first idea, which ends the Trio with Brahms’ typically emphatic dynamism.
It may be of more than passing interest that the Trio – in its original version – was first performed, not in Germany, but in New York, on November 27, 1855. The performers were violinist Theodore Thomas (the German-born  musician who became a tremendous force on the American musical scene, ending life  as conductor of the Chicago Symphony); cellist Carl Bergman (1821-1876), associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic; and pianist William Mason (1829-1908), son of celebrated American composer Lowell Mason. It was an unusual distinction for America to be able to claim the premiere of a major work by a European composer, even such a youthful one as Brahms. — Orrin Howard