Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 1, No. 1

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

The sharp opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s E-flat–major piano trio announced to the world that a new, important composer had arrived: it was this piece that he chose to publish as his Op. 1, No. 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 com- positions and sketches. He revised and drew from these to create many of his first works in Vienna, sharing them in private performances or through hand-copied manuscripts given to other musicians. The Piano Trio No. 1 began its life in this way, perhaps originating in sketches from Bonn and then honed under Haydn’s tutelage, before a premiere in 1793 by Beethoven and two string-playing friends at the house of Prince Carl Lichnowsky. Two years later, as his reputation grew, Beethoven published the Trio as part of a set of three. He selected it for the place of first importance as Op. 1, No. 1: a mark of arrival as much as a point of departure.

The beginning is confident and lithe—a jolt in the three instruments, a sprint upward in the piano, three pointed chords, and another sprint. A repetition, and then a more melodic closure of the phrase. These ideas fill the whole Allegro—while the development of small motifs into extended material is a basic technique of Classical style, the concentration of the trio’s ideas and the variety of their elaboration seem especially Beethoven.

The slow movement, Adagio cantabile, is songlike, beginning with the solitary piano. The violin and cello respond, tentatively filling out the piano’s sonority, before joining in the song themselves and then continuing off in a new direction. The piano brings back the song, but a darkness passes over, and finally the song returns a third time dressed with embellishments.

The Scherzo—meaning “joke”—was a form Beethoven began to favor for his third movements instead of the older, more rustic Minuet. This Scherzo is a teasey diversion, cutting away to a more placid trio section. The joke reprises with a coda that slows to a halt, offering a brief contrast before the next movement starts up again at a fast clip.

The piano calls out inquisitively to begin the Finale, in wide ascending intervals that recall the first movement’s upward sprints. Again, Beethoven builds an entire movement from a few concise ideas: the two notes of the piano’s questions, the violin and cello’s response, and a jaunty second theme. Minutes later the first-movement sprint is brought back, unifying the entire trio in a quick flash before a resolute close.

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.