Listening to Beethoven #56 – String Trio in E flat major Op.3

Count Johann Georg von Browne, Beethoven’s patron early on in Vienna. Artist unknown

String Trio in E flat major Op.3 for violin, viola and cello (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Countess of Browne, wife of Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 42′

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante
3. Menuetto: Allegretto
4. Adagio
5. Menuetto: Moderato
6. Finale: Allegro

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first substantial piece for strings alone was not a string quartet. This seems to have been a deliberate plan on his part – just as it was to begin his published output with three piano trios. By doing this he was utilising forms not already comprehensively updated by Haydn and Mozart, giving himself some room for innovation and relieving some of the pressure he undoubtedly experienced on moving to Vienna.

The first of five works for string trio has its roots in Bonn, and appears to have been commissioned for a string quartet, but other than that very little is known or written about its origins. The completion date is also uncertain but has been narrowed down to 1795 – with the certain publication date of 1797 in Vienna. It was dedicated to the Countess of Browne, wife of his patron Count Johann Georg von Browne.

Although Mozart barely used the string trio, his one major work, the Divertimento in E flat major K563, an acknowledged masterpiece, is the stimulus for this piece. Aside from residing in the same key of E flat major, Beethoven’s work also has six movements, with dance forms used, ‘of the serenade type’, as Daniel Heartz notes – not to mention a slow movement in the key of A flat major, again following Mozart’s lead. Beethoven’s innovation is to push the trio’s capabilities even further, with full bodied writing often taking the piece beyond three and even four parts with the use of double stopping (the players using more than one string simultaneously).

Thoughts

Beethoven’s first piece for stringed instruments shows signs of his ever-expanding thinking when it comes to writing major pieces. His structures are getting ever bigger, with the six movements of this piece lasting over 40 minutes.

The parallels to Mozart’s Divertimento, outlined above, are used as a base for Beethoven’s own wholly original writing. The first movement, marked ‘con brio’, tears out of the blocks quickly, its urgency maintained through energetic treatment of its main theme. The second movement is marked Andante but could be interpreted as a slow dance in triple time, the cello setting out the roots of the dance steps while violin and viola shadow each other in their melodies. The third movement is a winsome Minuet built on a minimal theme, Beethoven showing how a very simple two-note motif can power an entire, light hearted dance.

The fourth movement, the slow movement, is charming and quite minimal, not as ‘heavenly’ as Mozart’s but nonetheless suspending thought and providing a sublime eight minutes of music. Just occasionally a hint of a shadow passes over the music towards the end, but Beethoven reaches a serene close. There is a glint in the eye of the fifth movement, another Minuet, before the last movement sets off confidently.

Beethoven’s use of silence is starting to become noticeable here, and the theme feels like it has a couple of notes missing – but this is all part of the personality and slight humour. The virtuosity is more obvious in the string writing, before we reach a sprightly conclusion.

There may be three instruments but with double stopping and close harmonies Beethoven makes the music sound as though there are at least four, projecting well beyond expectations.

This is a wonderful piece for night-time listening, with tunes aplenty, good humoured exchanges and affecting moments of tenderness. In short, it is chamber music using its first principles.

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)

You can listen to the versions from L’Archibudelli, the Grumiaux Trio and the Mutter-Giuranna-Rostropovich trio on this playlist:

There are many fine recordings of the Beethoven String Trios. Some are made by starry trios, such as the group of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bruno Giuranna and Mstislav Rostropovich. Perhaps inevitably these groups play like soloists rather than established group, and these three soloists go for a more luxurious approach.

The recommendations are more group-based, including period instrument group L’Archibudelli, who have an attractive, slightly grainy sound. The Grumiaux Trio have a very roomy recorded sound but the sweetest of tones from lead violinist Arthur Grumiaux, with plenty of warmth and charm on display. The Leopold String Trio on Hyperion give a finely balanced account, but the Trio Zimmermann on BIS are recommended by a nose for their brilliant, highly musical playing.

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 1795 Haydn Symphony no.103 in E flat major ‘Drumroll’

Next up Opferlied WoO 126