Man reading at lamplight, by Georg Friedrich Kersting (1814)
String Trio in C minor Op.9/3 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)
Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
1. Allegro con spirito
2. Adagio con espressione
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
4. Finale: Presto
All of Beethoven’s mature writing for string trio can be seen in this wonderful set of live performances from the Wigmore Hall, given by Daniel Sepec (violin), Tabea Zimmermann (viola) and Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello).
Background and Critical Reception
Whenever publishing a trio of works, Beethoven looks to include one in a minor key. The Op.1 piano trios, the Op.2 piano sonatas, the Op.10 piano sonatas and now the Op.9 string trios – each includes a work in the minor, in this case another outing in C minor. It is, as you might expect, a very different piece to the other two, but reception is decidedly mixed.
Stephen Daw, writing for the Leopold String Trio recordings on Hyperion, is surprisingly dismissive, declaring ‘there is little of the drama of either Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies, or even the opening of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte about this music, and much of its character seems to spring from its short-phrased gruffiness – a characteristic far more essential to this work, and later almost unique to Beethoven’s music’.
Daniel Heartz notes that the music can still sound positive when in the minor, and shows how the density of Beethoven’s writing for strings could easily fool the ear into thinking four instruments are playing. ‘Like the end of the Piano Trio in C minor Op.1/3’, he writes, ‘the final moments are in hushed C major, a pianissimo with the violin climbing up to the heavens (Jacob’s Ladder?)’. This would be Beethoven’s last contribution to the string trio – his aim was squarely at the string quartet.
Whereas the first two works in this trilogy are sunny, optimistic works, the third has a different air from the outset. There is a pensive anxiety to the tune and the way it is developed, and as Daniel Heartz notes the lack of a rest for either instrument means the sound is congested. The edginess runs throughout the first movement, its arguments tense and unrelenting.
The second movement relents, introducing some light to the shade by moving to the major key. There is still an element of tension in the pauses between the phrases, but its reflections are generally more positive. The development challenges this – the ‘gruff’ exterior spoken of above – before the relative serenity returns.
The third movement is equal parts minuet and scherzo. It would be pretty quick to dance to but its springy rhythms generate a good deal of momentum. Again the mood is nervy, and there is no let up in the trio sections, despite a move towards sunnier climbs. The fourth movement continues in this air, with the violin’s unnerving twists and turns an ever-present doubt. Beethoven has searching questions here, but just when it seems they will not be answered he finds peace in a rather beautiful resolution, the major key arriving just in time – as it does at the end of the Piano Trio no.1, in the same key.
There is a restless air about this piece, suggesting Beethoven is on a quest and has not found answers to the darker thoughts currently circulating. Perhaps we will get more clues to his thinking when the string trios of Op.9 become the string quartets of Op.18.
Recordings used and Spotify links
L’Archibudelli (Vera Beths (violin), Juergen Kussmaul (viola), Anner Bylsma (cello)
The Grumiaux Trio (Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Georges Janzer (viola), Eva Czako (cello) (Philips)
Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bruno Giuranna and Mstislav Rostropovich (Deutsche Grammophon)
Leopold String Trio Isabelle Van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Kate Gould (cello) (Hyperion)
Trio Zimmermann (Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Christian Poltéra (cello) (BIS)
Anybody looking for a version of the Op.9 trios has a wealth of treasures from which to choose. The C minor trio brings out the dramatists in the superpower trio of Mutter, Giuranna and Rostropovich, while Arthur Grumiaux’s tone in the second movement is magical, the trio interwoven beautifully throughout the piece. The Leopold, Zimmermann and L’Archibudelli versions are all excellent, the latter benefiting from the leaner sound of instruments of the period.
You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!
Also written in 1798 Haydn The Creation
Next up Sonata for piano and violin in D major Op.12/1