Though the music of Beethoven’s youthful Bonn years does not bear comparison with the heaven-storming masterpieces of his later decades (he was 22 when he went to Vienna), it does show true talent for composition, a thorough understanding of the contemporary stylistic idioms, and occasional flashes of the brilliance to come. Compared to Mozart, Beethoven developed slowly, but his skills as a pianist—especially his skill at improvisation—thoroughly impressed the musical establishment of what was to become his new home. He was able to study for a brief time with Haydn and those few months were enough to leave an indelible "Classical" mark on the rest of his compositional career. Beethoven’s strong "Romantic" individuality was equally evident throughout his entire lifetime. The manifestation of these conflicting internal stylistic tendencies is what has led many people to think of Beethoven as the most disruptive figure in music history.
Piano Trio No. 10 in E flat Major, 14 Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 44
The Variations for Piano, Violin and Cello in E flat Major appears to have been written in 1792, shortly before Beethoven moved to Vienna. The piece acquired its artificially high (and potentially lucrative) opus number — 44 — when Franz Hoffmeister published the score in Leipzig in 1804. The theme, original with Beethoven, is skeletal. Based on a theme from Carl von Dittersdorf’s opera Das rote Käppchen (The Little Red Cap), it simply outlines the harmonic changes without providing a distinct melody. The finale of the “Eroica Symphony” also in variation form, begins in a similar manner. Beethoven worked fourteen conventional variations and a coda upon this lean material, allowing all three instruments leading moments and eliciting some deeper emotions with two minor-key episodes. It’s an example of Beethoven spinning gold, or at least silver, from humble materials.
Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 (1796)
Historical accounts of Beethoven’s performances reveal to us that he enjoyed surprising and even scaring his listeners. The opening "Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo" does just that. A jarring G minor chord is quickly hushed and a ghostly scale descends in the piano. The motifs and themes of this Adagio are more fully developed than those of the F Major sonata’s introduction (heard at our last Beethoven chamber concert), creating a movement of much greater substance. Unbelievably long silences near the end hold the listener under a spell, which is broken quietly by the brooding "Allegro molto più tosto presto." The movement becomes gripped by silences and fragmented gestures before pausing briefly on an incomplete harmony, which provides the gateway to the following Allegro, a thoroughly worked sonata-form essay that heightens the turbulent sentiments of the previous pages. A compact arch-motive sung by the cello serves as the main theme; the subsidiary subject, a rising phrase entrusted to the piano while the cello intones a single sustained note, is presented in a brighter tonality. Another theme is added before the close of the exposition, and it is this idea that furnishes the material for much of the development section. The full recapitulation of the earlier themes is capped by a developmental coda which adds considerable expressive import to the end of the movement, a formal counterweight to the long opening Adagio, which is seen in retrospect to have been a greatly extended introduction to the Allegro. The dashing rondo-form finale, based on a theme of Papageno-ish jocularity, is a smashing virtuoso exercise for both participants.
- Notes adapted from Richard Rodda
Man strebt die Flamme zu verhehlen, WoO 120 (1792-1802) was first printed in 1888 as part of the complete edition of Beethoven’s works. The text, by an unknown author, notes that, although we may try to hide them, our feelings of love and passion are betrayed by the look in our eyes. Beethoven’s strophic setting, in F Major, is in two parts. The verses remain firmly in F Major while the refrain moves boldly and swiftly away from F Major, using a clever deceptive cadence (from A Major to B flat Major) to actually return to the tonic. This intense musical gesture occurs at the point the text mentions "wie sehr man ach die Liebe fühlt" (ah, how strongly one feels love).
Que le temps me dure, Hess 130 (1793) is a painfully beautiful and expansive setting of one of the sweetest chansons. One of only a few settings of a French text by Beethoven, the simplicity of the melody and directness of the prosody in this strophic song reveals the vulnerability of love.
The poet of Lebensglück, Op. 88, (1803) is unknown. The old axiom that "shared joy is doubled, shared sorrow dispelled" is brought to melodious life at the beginning and then flowers into a celebration of love, its joy made evident in the triplet figures in the piano–greater motion to tell of love’s vitality–and the trills of delight at song’s end.
Often found under the title Plaisir d’aimer, Romance, WoO 128 seems to have remained unknown until 1901. The unknown poet describes the power a lover can have over one’s soul. The narrator, however, realizes that in protecting himself against this power, he will "lose his peace without finding happiness." Opening with the unaccompanied voice, Romance features a lyrical, arching melody supported by a simple, pulsing accompaniment in the piano, appropriate for setting words addressing a "tender soul." Beethoven closes the last line on the dominant, possibly indicating the narrator’s potential fate of never finding happiness. The piano has the last word.
When Beethoven set Gottfried August Bürger’s (1748-1794) Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe, WoO 188 (1794), he adopted operatic airs and flourishes for the first poem, complete with dramatic recitative. The first words, "Wüßt’ ich", of "Gegenliebe" become the musical bridge between the two Bürger poems, and the melody anticipates both the Choral Fantasy and the Ninth Symphony’s "Ode to Joy."
String Trio No. 5 in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3 (1797)
Among Beethoven’s works from his early period are several trios for strings, a virtually unknown combination. Only Mozart had written anything notable for the blend of violin, viola, and cello. Most other composers preferred the standard string quartet, in which the additional violin allowed for more varied distribution of melodies and less emphasis upon the lowers extremes of the range. "Yet Beethoven," as Betsy Schwarm writes, "with the assuredness of youth, turned his back upon this practical preference, perhaps hoping to set himself apart from Haydn, who had virtually invented the quartet. It was with these early trios that he first declared his musical independence."
In Op. 9, No. 3, both the first and last movements follow the procedures of sonata form, whose possibilities and permutations greatly intrigued Beethoven in two ways: the musical interest of intricate and closely related keys, and the dramatic interest of conflict-to-resolution that those relationships imply. Beethoven definitely seems to have responded to different keys in different ways. His most famous C minor works are the Symphony No. 5 and Piano Concerto No. 3, both emphasizing drama and sudden contrasts. No less striking on a smaller scale is one of his first published works which we performed last season on our Beethoven series, the Piano Trio in C minor Op. 1, No. 3. It’s rather significant that Haydn, his mentor in Vienna, objected only to this piece among the early piano trios, perhaps feeling that it crossed some kind of barrier he himself was not willing or able to approach.
The first two trios of Op. 9 are in Major keys, but No. 3 seems to take a different route: more expressive, more rhetorical, more abrupt in the way it asserts its ideas. A characteristic gesture throughout is the sforzando: a sudden loud accent that serves to move the music in a new direction or announce a new idea. The "Allegro con spirito" is dominated by a descending four-note motive: C/B/A-Flat/G, the top half of the C minor scale. In the lyrical "Adagio con espressione," the only movement of the trio wherein a Major key is allowed to dominate, a gentle tune is presented in close harmony intensified by double-stops. The mellow harmonic richness of the Adagio is sharply contrasted by the flashy vitality of the Scherzo, which brings us back to C minor with a very lively theme featuring all three instruments in up-and-down leaps. The Trio section is more placid. Another sforzando brings back the opening theme, but a quiet ending brings surprise. The finale is characterized an energetic yet fragmented theme and by oscillation between minor and major mode. The development section delivers the lower voices to the foreground. After a truncated recapitulation, the coda, based on the opening theme but in the triumphant glory of C Major, winds down to a surprisingly quiet end.
- Ryan Turner (2011)