Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3

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

This is one of the three piano trios that announced to the world that a new, important composer had arrived: Ludwig van Beethoven chose to publish it as the capstone of his Op. 1, in 1795. Of course, this did not come as a bolt from the blue. Beethoven was already known as a young pianist and composer who had moved to Vienna from Bonn, the sleepy city of his birth. He settled in the Austrian capital in 1792, the year after Mozart’s sudden death, and perhaps with some disappointment went to study with Haydn instead. As his patron Count Waldstein put it, “you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

The 22-year-old Beethoven already had aristocratic support, the public’s attention, and a pile of childhood compositions and sketches. He revised and drew from these to create many of his first works in Vienna, sharing them in private performances and through hand-copied manuscripts. Three years later, the release of his Op. 1 was a mark of arrival as much as a point of departure.

The C-minor Piano Trio was the controversial piece in the set—Haydn criticized it after a performance at the house of Prince Lichnowsky, and Beethoven thought his teacher was jealous of it. Certainly it is the least Haydnesque of the early trios, leaning into the minor-key broodiness and bold contrasts that are most conspicuously Beethoven. Apart from Haydn’s opinion, the piece was a hit, and one imagines listeners recognized Beethoven as not just a young master of the moment, but as an artist who would change the future.

The very first phrase is remarkably open-ended, followed by a response. The movement unfolds through intense musical inquiry, where even passages of sweetness and surety swing back around into doubt.

The Andante is a set of five variations and coda, the theme marked cantabile (singing) and set warmly in the key of E-flat major. The variation form always fascinated Beethoven, and here he creates a succession of encapsulated worlds, all based on the same material.

After the Minuet, a ponderous dance that fragments in its more lyrical trio section, comes the finale: its explosive opening offers a counterpoint to the first movement’s uncertainty, then rushes ahead with a tenacious theme that keeps resurfacing. But if you thought this was a straightforward progression from first-movement questions to last-movement answers, what to make of the whispered ending?

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.