String Trio No. 4 in D Major, Op. 9 No. 2 (1798)
The D Major trio, the second of the three Opus 9 trios, has always been less frequently performed than the others, perhaps because it is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a stylistic throwback. As Steven Ledbetter notes: "All three of the trios, with a four-movement structure that was unusual for the time, can be seen as Beethoven’s attempt to learn about large-scale symphonic structure on the model of Haydn’s latest symphonies without actually exposing himself to a direct comparison with his sometime master. Seen in this light, the D Major trio represents the forerunner of his more lyrical symphonies—such as the Fourth and the Sixth—while the first and third trios in the set anticipate the craggy, two-fisted Beethoven of popular imagination."
While cast in this "throwback" style, the String Trio No. 4 in D Major, Op. 9 No. 2 exhibits extraordinary energy, propulsion, and drama. The tuneful opening material of the Allegretto serves as something of an introduction, followed by the presentation of the main theme, a five-note turn that emerges prominent in the movement. The second theme provides contrast with a lyrical duet for violin and cello, followed by a return of the movement’s opening gesture. The second movement opens with a series of questioning chords. Once answered, the movement proceeds with an enchanting 6/8 melody in the violin, answered by the cello in its highest register, at times sounding almost rapturous. The Menuetto is an elegant, yet lively dance; followed by a modest and charming trio. The main theme of the brilliant closing Rondo, presented each time by the cello in its high register, preserves the tuneful nature of the opening movement.
Beethoven once said, "When sounds stir within me, I always hear the full orchestra; I know what to expect of instrumentalists, who are capable of almost everything, but with vocal compositions I must always be asking myself: can this be sung?" Song was not his native tongue, as it was for his younger contemporary Schubert. On the other hand, more than forty percent of the works that the young genius composed in Bonn, before moving to Vienna in 1792, are vocal, and roughly half of his 600 works call for the human voice. In this genre, he could experiment with the simplicity of folksong and with other vocal styles, and above all with the marrriage of speech rhythms to vocal melody. Song also enabled him to engage with various religious, ethical, erotic, and artistic concerns on a level far more intimate and private than his large-scale public works.
The words of Als die Geliebte sich trennen wollte, WoO 132 of 1806, are an erotic lament on love obsessed with time, with what "remains eternal" and what is forgotten. Rejection in love was, sadly, something the composer knew well by this point, and Beethoven knew how to harmonically intensify the words "bleibt ewig" (remains eternal) and "vergessen" (forgotten).
Composers often revisit a text already set, sometimes to tweak details, sometimes to alter the entire conception of the song, and Beethoven too engages in the exercise. With Sehnsucht, WoO 134, its four versions spanning a period from before March 1808 to circa 1823, Beethoven sets one of the most famous poems in world literature: from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. In the novel, it appears at the end of Book 4, chapter 12, when Wilhelm hears a "free duet" sung by Mignon and the mysterious, melancholy-mad Harper, whose tragic history we only learn after his suicide near the end of the novel. Because this poem was included among the "Mignon" poems in Goethe’s poetic anthologies, it was often set as a solo song, thus the attraction by many composers. Beethoven’s first three versions are all tiny, strophic (two verses), devoid of piano introductions, and musically simple. But even in these deliberately small scale works, Beethoven was experimenting with different meters for Goethe’s rhythmically complex words — duple, triple, compound meters — and minor or Major mode for its mysterious, obscure character. After two versions in minor, we hear a third version in Major mode, its opening mood of calm denial sharpened by the rise to "aller Freude", those joys now lost. Only in the fourth version, no longer strophic, Beethoven saturates Goethe’s severe language about burning bowels ("es brennt Mein Eingeweide") with pounding quivers in the piano and makes even more of the Neapolitan harmonies (chords on the flatted 2nd degree of the scale) that first appear in the second version.
The words of An die Geliebte, WoO 140 are by Josef Ludwig Stoll (1778-1815), a Viennese journalist who also inspired three songs from Schubert’s pen. In this poem a lover pleads to be allowed to drink the tears from her beloved’s cheeks so that his sorrows may become her own.
Andenken, WoO 136, is the setting of a "best- seller" of a poem, "Ich denke dein," by Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831), recognized for his ability to point out the inner connection between images of nature so that they become "pictures of the soul," as observed by Schiller. In Andenken, the persona sees the beloved imprinted everywhere on the landscape. The way in which the vocal line falls to a lingering half cadence at the end of each verse creates tension across the pattern of strophic repetitions; that the song’s most emphatic peak is the revelation of a "distant beloved" seems only to be expected from this composer. There is no piano postlude, only the echo of the final fervent words, “nur dein” (only of you) in the silence beyond the song’s conclusion.
Der Wachtelschlag, WoO 129, belongs to the antique tradition of bird calls in music, in this instance, a bird whose calls invoke God ("Fear God ...Love God...Praise God...Trust in God... Implore God," it sings). The American musicologist and lieder specialist , Susan Youens, writes: "It is a fascinating exercise to compare Beethoven’s setting with Schubert’s better-known setting, first printed in 1822, then revised as Op. 68 in 1827: both men inevitably devised the same dotted rhythmic figure for the quail’s calls, 'Fürchte Gott! Liebe Gott! Danke Gott! Lobe Gott!,' but almost everything else is different. Schubert’s artful Lied im Volkston is the voice of Nature, of the merry quail, while Beethoven takes the poem far more seriously and from the perspective of the human being who listens to these worshipful injunctions. Ranging farther afield tonally than his younger contemporary, Beethoven’s storms are more tempestuous (the low bass rumble of thunder is a particularly wonderful detail), his acclamations of God’s praise grander, and his pleas for God’s aid more plangent."
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12 (1798)
The Grove Dictionary of Music effectively divides its discussion of sonata into "Baroque," "Classical," and "The Sonata after Beethoven." Even though nine of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas date between 1797 and 1803, the early years of his maturity, he still managed to leave the genre conclusively changed. Beethoven’s sonatas are even more difficult and complex than Mozart’s. They span an ample range of characters, techniques, and styles. After Beethoven, composition of violin sonatas continued but never in the old style, albeit in smaller quantities, and always striving towards deeper qualities.
Beethoven wrote three sonatas for piano and violin in A Major. The best-known is the "Kreutzer" Sonata, composed in 1802, which is so massive that it functions more like a contest for the two instruments. In great contrast, the sonata heard today, the Sonata in A Major, Op.12, No.2, written earlier in 1798, is light and delicate with the dynamic between the two instruments that of a connected partnership. The three Sonatas Op. 12 were dedicated to Antonio Salieri, one of the most influential and powerful musical personalities of the time and one of Beethoven’s teachers. They are all still under the obvious influence of Haydn and have a continual feeling of lighter, more elegant touch. Beethoven’s trademarks of subito piano and stormy forte or fortissimo passages do not yet have the "shocking" impact that they have in the later sonatas. The first movement, Allegro vivace, begins lightheartedly with direct and simple harmonies. The two instruments take turns in stating the themes in a conversational manner. The key of a minor, rather than A Major, begins the lyrical middle movement. The sonority of the first Andante theme is unique in that when the violin enters, after the initial melody stated by the piano, it does so an octave higher than the piano. This is rather unusual since the piano and violin more often play the theme in the same register in works of the same or similar genre. The second subject is richer and warmer, with a vocal-like quality. Written in Rondo form, the recognizable and pleasant theme returns repeatedly throughout the final movement with little variation.
Piano Trio No. 9 in Eb Major, WoO 38 (1791)
The delightfully charming Piano Trio in E flat Major, WoO (Without Opus) 38, belongs to the first period of Beethoven’s career, before he left Bonn for Vienna in 1792. The piano opens the work with a cheerful principal subject, developed by the violin, leading to a secondary theme, material duly developed before the expected recapitulation but followed by an unexpected coda. The Scherzo that follows is the first example of such a title and form in Beethoven’s music and retains much of the character of the customary minuet, with a trio marked by a running piano part. The work ends with a Rondo of delightful originality, providing a pleasing conclusion.
- Ryan Turner (2011)