Ludwig van Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat Major for clarinet, cello, and piano dates to 1798, when he was a young freelancer, still making his name in Vienna. The piece is in a light, cheerful vein and shows a composer eager to please: woodwind chamber music was something of a trend in Vienna at the time, and the trio’s last movement is a set of variations on a popular tune. Beethoven borrowed the melody from L’amor marinaro, a comic opera by the composer Joseph Weigl (1766–1846). The song, “Pria ch’io l’impegno” (Before I go to work, I must have something to eat), was a runaway hit, becoming a Viennese “Gassenhauer,” or alley song, whistled and sung by workers and buskers in the streets. Beethoven’s Op. 11, therefore, is sometimes known as the “Gassenhauertrio.”
In addition to the popular-song finale, the trio includes a chipper Allegro and a beautiful, simple slow movement. Beethoven published the piece with an alternative violin part to increase sales, and it is sometimes performed with bassoon instead of cello.
The trio also figures in a story from 1800, two years after its premiere, when it was performed by Beethoven at a private concert attended by another composer named Daniel Steibelt. Some of Beethoven’s friends thought Steibelt, who was known for his gaudy showmanship, was a professional threat to Beethoven. At a concert the following week, Steibelt played his own variations on the “Gassenhauer” theme, an ill-considered attempt at one-upmanship. This provoked Beethoven (after some prodding from the audience) to borrow the cello part to a piece by Steibelt, turn it upside down, and then improvise spectacularly on the ridiculously inverted theme. Steibelt, it is said, walked out, and refused to ever be in the same room with Beethoven again.