Johannes Brahms: Trio for Piano, Violin, and Horn in E-flat Major, Op. 40 (Horn Trio)

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, performance by St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, July 14, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Brahms’s Horn Trio is at once nostalgic and strangely modern, masking a rough earthiness with a Romantic warmth while also shedding conventions of form and instrumentation.

The combination of horn and violin would seem to pose problems of blend and balance, but Brahms recognized that they could be complementary, and the result is as natural as it is unique. The piece is a monument: not an entry in a genre, not a number among many in a catalog. Its only peer is György Ligeti’s Horn Trio of 1982, a fitting modern tribute to Brahms, which similarly rises above the conventional landscape.

The Brahms Trio rejects the traditional first-movement sonata form—with its two themes, intricate development, and recapitulation—in favor of a streamlined theme set against two contrasting sections. In the beginning, the violin and horn float on the piano’s murky darkness, rocking together uneasily. At times, the piano emerges through ominous ripples, clearing the depths, prompting the stifled pleas of horn and violin which punctuate the movement. The theme returns twice, finally steadied in the last measures.

The Scherzo explodes with real joy, only tempered by a dreamy middle. The Adagio opens with a dimly lit chorale, then grows dramatically, finding bright clarity near the end before a cathartic release and retreat into dusk.

The finale is a jumble of ideas, tied together by a brisk pace and rustic horn calls. It releases the tension of the earlier movements, without questioning their seriousness. Some endings reveal that everything was actually all right all along: fears were misplaced, doubts were only the result of misunderstandings. Other endings, like this one, are true resolutions.

Brahms wrote the Horn Trio in the late summer months of 1865, having left Vienna for a working vacation in Baden, near the Black Forest. There he rented an apartment with mountain views and began to imagine the Horn Trio while walking in the woods. His mother, Christiane, had died the previous February in Hamburg, and he had missed his last chance to see her by two days. He seems to have put his goodbyes into music, first in the German Requiem, and then in the Trio.

The piece’s instrumentation harkens back to his youth: the horn was his father’s instrument and Brahms played it a bit himself as a young man. He especially wanted the Trio to be performed on natural horn—the German Waldhorn—even though it was an increasingly antiquated instrument, largely replaced by new models with valves. He said the older horn would better balance with the violin, but he might simply have wanted to hear the piece on the instrument of his childhood.

Of all the instruments, the horn mediates the least between its player and the world of acoustical physics. As players put lips to cold metal, they are acutely aware of the harmonic series, they are constrained by its mathematics. But the horn is also visceral and warm-blooded, with ancestral roots in the hunt. Brahms’s Trio magnifies this merging of the abstract and the elemental. It abandons elaborate rhetoric for a more linear, logical procession of ideas. At the same time, it calls out from a place of unexamined instinct, stirred by familial love and loss.