Beethoven, Piano Trio No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 11, "Gassenhauer"

April 20, 2017

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

Piano Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 11 “Gassenhauer”, 1797-1798

Ludwig van Beethoven In October of 1797, a 26-year-old Beethoven was steadily gaining a reputation around Vienna as a fierce pianist with a gift for improvisation strengthened by successful performances of his first two piano concerti. Just three years earlier, he had published his very first opus, a set of three bold piano trios that had already expanded the genre in scope, virtuosity and expression particularly as four-movement works after the string quartet or symphony rather than the three-movement trios of Mozart or Haydn. 1797 also witnessed the debut of Joseph Weigl’s comic opera L’Amor Marinaro (The Corsair) featuring a popular tune Pria ch’io l’impegno (Before beginning this awesome task, I need a snack) that would eventually inspire numerous variation sets by composers such as Hummel and Paganini. But Beethoven would be first. Apparently started in 1797 and published the following year, Beethoven’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 11 offered a rather “genteel” work in three movements featuring a theme and variations finale on the jaunty tune frequently heard by night revelers about town, hence, the trio’s occasional nickname, “Gassenhauer” (Street song).

In 1797, the clarinet as a featured chamber soloist was still a relative rarity. Mozart essentially inaugurated the tradition with his own peerless trio and quintet little more than a decade earlier inspired by his clarinetist friend Anton Stadler. We owe Beethoven’s trio to the Austrian clarinetist Franz Josef Bähr (1770-1819), an otherwise obscure musician (sometimes confused with Joseph Beer) who performed with Beethoven, impressed with his tone, and may have requested the variations on the popular tune. Perhaps guided by Mozart’s Kegelstatt trio or the notion of a trio “lighter” than his daring Op. 1, Beethoven composed a three-movement work eventually published for clarinet or violin, the alternative part being quite practical for the amateur market where the violin was apt to predominate. As such, Op. 11 is also sometimes known as Beethoven’s fourth piano trio and is often performed by the more conventional ensemble.

The trio is a wonderful work finely balanced across all three instruments in a true chamber texture, though, not surprisingly, the piano, Beethoven’s own instrument, may well enjoy the most virtuosity. The first movement is a sparkling and vivacious sonata form sporting catchy tunes, bold key changes, and an adventurous development leading to a recap with elaborations and some interesting adjustments in scoring for a fresh, final take. The middle slow movement may well be the most surprising for its serene composure and uncomplicated lyricism exchanged lovingly between cello and clarinet in a ternary aria format, again, with artful elaborations in the da capo repeat. The finale concludes with the famous theme and variations and here Beethoven shows a familiar face by subjecting an easy, popular tune to nine variations of rather astonishing range and ingenuity including what might be considered a few “false” endings leading to yet more departures. Throughout his career, Beethoven would pen scores of variation sets culminating in some of the most epic and unsurpassed testaments of the genre revealing that Beethoven was an inexhaustible wellspring of profound invention. Apparently while composing the finale, Beethoven was unaware that Weigl was the original composer of the tune and became rather irritated upon discovering the fact. Thereafter, Beethoven intended to separate the variations from the trio as a standalone piece and compose an alternate finale, though he never followed through.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.