Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Trio in C Major, Op. 87 for Two Violins and Viola (1794)

Notes for: July 11, 2006

The opus number is misleading. After Beethoven achieved some degree of popular success in Vienna as a pianist and composer, he revived a number of early works for publication under a later opus number. While the trio was published in 1806, it was actually written in 1794 or 1795 while Beethoven was still taking lessons to develop his compositional skills.

Beethoven began writing wind music while he was still in Bonn. Arriving in Vienna in 1792, he found the city in a rage for wind music. The Viennese public never tired of convivial music for wind ensembles, and the emperor himself had his own wind ensemble, the Imperial Harmonie. Prague had become a training center for wind instrumentalists, and several were attracted to Vienna to perform at the court or in public concerts.

In December, 1793, Beethoven heard such a concert by three brothers from Prague – Johann, Franz and Philipp Teimer – who played music by a fourth Prague musician, Johann Wendt. The event was so successful that Beethoven was inspired to produce over the next eight years 12 chamber pieces for wind ensembles or involving wind players, the most famous of which was his Septet. Op. 20. Then, in 1802, he lost interest.

This trio was one of two pieces, modeled after a terzetto by Wendt, that Beethoven composed for the unusual combination of two oboes and English horn. (The other was a set of variations on the duet “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.) When the trio was published in 1806, it was also issued in two arrangements – for two violins and viola and as a sonata for piano and violin. These arrangements were made with the composer’s permission to exploit the lively market for chamber music for strings.

This evening we hear the version for two violins and viola. There are four movements. The first is in sonata form, with two themes, one skipping and one flowing, followed by an elaborate development. The second movement, an adagio, is songful, in phrases suggesting an opera aria. The third movement is entitled “Minuet,” but the main section is in the fast rhythm and animated style of the scherzo form that was to become a Beethoven hallmark. The trio concludes with a rondo, whose repeated refrain alternates with three contrasting episodes.

Copyright © 2006 by Willard J. Hertz