Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8

Program note written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 1 is a youthful work. Or at least so it began: he completed it in January 1854, just months after he was introduced to Robert and Clara Schumann, who were deeply impressed and took him into their musical circle. But the trio we hear today was substantially revised in 1889, 35 years later, at the pinnacle of his career. So really it is a work by two Brahmses, separated by three-and-a-half decades of experience.

The Trio No. 1 is also unusual in that it received its first public performances in America—first in New York and then in Boston—where it was heard by an audience for whom Brahms was a young and foreign unknown. These concerts were led by William Mason, an American pianist who studied with Franz Liszt while visiting in Europe. He came from a musical family, even the musical family in America of the day: he was the brother of Henry Mason, who founded the Mason & Hamlin piano company, and son of Lowell Mason, a composer of well-known hymns and an important advocate for music education. For the New York premiere of the Trio, Mason was joined by the violinist Theodore Thomas and cellist Carl Bergmann, both of whom went on to conduct the New York Philharmonic in its early years.

In Boston, a critic for Dwight’s Journal of Music reviewed the Trio, which had been performed the night after Christmas, 1855:

It has some strange and powerful effects, some ingenious combinations, remarkable for a mere boy.… It seemed very enterprising, very adventurous, very self-confident, full of bold grasping after ideas, but we were never satisfied that the ideas really were ideas.… We felt as if we had been pointed and pulled first this way and then that way, where something great was to be seen, until we actually saw nothing. Brahms is still “future” to our humble comprehension.

Apart from a misunderstanding that Brahms was just 15 years old (he was actually 22), the review is quite astute. Though Brahms’s friends, including Clara Schumann, grew fond of the trio, it sat with Brahms uneasily. Decades later, when his publisher Simrock acquired the trio from another company, the venerable composer decided to revise it for reissue. He wrote to Fritz Simrock:

With regard to the refurbished trio, I want to add expressly that while it’s true that the old version is bad, I do not claim that the new version is good! What you do now with the old one, whether you melt it down or print it anew, is quite seriously all the same to me.

This was an unusual instruction from Brahms, who so often destroyed his drafts and even entire works he found unsatisfactory. It leaves us with two versions of the trio, though most often musicians choose the revision. It addresses some of the messiness of the original: the musical ideas are concentrated and refined, the movements more organized, and the entire piece is shorter.

The Music

The Allegro con brio has the piano introduce the cello in an extended, arching phrase. The violin joins, then a grand arrival leads to a more resolute laying out of the theme. Textures grow active and then a second theme. The ending nears with a distinctive sinking passage, settling into a hushed coda. The last bars again build to a forceful close.

The Scherzo takes a dry opening and then douses it in liquid pianisism. A new tempo, Meno allegro, introduces a slower melody cut from the same cloth as Brahms’s famous lullaby. The Scherzo returns with a quiet, rather open-ended close.

An earthly prayer in the piano launches the Adagio, answered by distant strings. Gradually the instruments converge and then the color grows saturated—a cello solo, more complex textures, a pulsing bass—until the movement finds its point of greatest depth. The prayer returns, very quiet and transformed.

The Allegro finale starts with a fantastical cello solo (the cello was one of Brahms’s childhood instruments, likely a reason for its prominence in this and other works). Here, Brahms’s youthful grasping still lingers: exuberance struggles to project through nervous tension that never shakes away.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.