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About this Piece

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 [1835] musician who became a tremendous force on the American musical scene, ending life [1905] 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.

— Orrin Howard