Magazine article Strings

Three's Hardly a Crowd

Magazine article Strings

Three's Hardly a Crowd

Article excerpt

Patient study of Beethoven's string trios reveals a treasure trove of musical gems

LISTENERS TEND TO REGARD THE STRING TRIO as a poor relation of the string quartet; composers are deterred by its inherent problems of voicing and sonority; players are daunted by the obstacles it presents in performance. Indeed, if there is anything more difficult than a string quartet, it is a string trio. Its unforgiving sparseness and transparency expose every flaw. Without the cushioning fourth voice, a homogeneous sound is harder to achieve. The parts are more independent and soloistic, yet their interplay is closer.

Despite all these hurdles, a close, patient study of the string trio literature reveals a treasure trove of musical gems, and mastering it offers unique rewards, among them the discovery that the early compositions harbor many seeds of the future: one frequently encounters thematic material echoed in later works.

Beethoven's five string trios are among his earliest chamber-music works. Opus 3 was written in Bonn around 1792. The rest were written in Vienna: the Serenade, Op. 8, in 1796-97, the three trios Op. 9 a year later. At that time, the only notable string trio in circulation was Mozart's great Divertimento K. 563 of 1788, one of the literature's supreme masterpieces. Haydn and Boccherini had written a handful of trios, but the latter's were often scored for two violins and cello rather than violin, viola, and cello.

Beethoven's trios illustrate the medium's challenges for both composers and performers. As Beethoven's skill in writing for it grew, so did the demands the music makes on the players. The parts become increasingly equal and engage in more complex dialogue. The harmonic language becomes more adventurous. The texture is enriched by more frequent use of double-stops.


The Trio Op. 3, a youthfully exuberant exploration of a new field, is clearly modeled on Mozart's Divertimento, proving that even the most innovative composers stand on the shoulders of others. Both are in E[musical flat] major and structured in six movements: a sonata-form first movement, two minuets, two slow movements, and a sonata-rondo finale. (The same confluence occurs in the two composers' Piano and Wind Quintets, Mozart's K. 452 written in 1784, and Beethoven's Op. 16 written 12 years later.) The Trio Op. 3 is distinguished by its robustness, elegance, and charm, its rhythmic punch (the first movement is full of syncopation) and inspired melodies. The Adagio is deeply expressive. The Andante, with its metronomic spiccato theme and its problems of rhythm and bow-control, anticipates similar, more sophisticated movements in the quartets Opus 18, No. 4, and Opus 59, No. 1.

If Opus 3 is a divertimento in disguise, Opus 8 in D major is a serenade in both name and form. A spirited march, repeated at the end, is followed by five courtly movements: an ornate Adagio; a charming minuet; a mock-tragic D minor Adagio (with the emphasis on the "mock" lest it become a sentimental sob-story) twice interrupted by a fleet scherzo-section in D major that seems to chuckle ironically. Replacing the usual second menuetto is a syncopated, fast, brilliant "alla Polacca," which includes one of the most-feared stratospheric cello solos in the repertoire. The finale is a theme and variations with a solo for each instrument.


In Opus 9, Beethoven abandons the lighthearted divertimento and serenade formats and adopts the classical four-movement structure with the corner-movements in sonata form.

The first Trio, in G major, is still sunny and carefree. The majestic beginning of its slow introduction soon becomes a quizzical dialogue, ending with a figure introducing the opening motive of the Allegro. Beethoven's growing mastery shows in his contrapuntal working-out of the movement's three contrasting themes. …

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