Ludwig van Beethoven: String Trio in E-flat major, Op. 3

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

Vienna was a tantalizing place to the young Beethoven, who had been born and raised in Bonn, a relatively sleepy city far to the northwest. Vienna, meanwhile, was the most cosmopolitan city in Europe—a musical capital where a young composer-virtuoso could make a splash in the wake of Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven tested the waters with a visit in 1787, but was recalled to Bonn upon the death of his mother and had to remain there to shelter his brothers from their abusive, alcoholic father. But by 1792 his family obligations lifted, and he moved to Vienna “in fulfillment of long-frustrated wishes,” as his patron Count Waldstein described it.

The String Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3, was written in 1795, three years into his Viennese career (though sketches or an early draft might date back to Bonn). Beethoven was best known as a pianist, but he also played violin and viola, and this is his first acknowledged work for strings alone (Op. 1 was a set of piano trios and Op. 2 was piano sonatas). The trio is an ambitious piece and full of ideas, building on the established divertimento form while also anticipating aspects of his late style nearly 20 years before he would get there. The disjointed flow of ideas that somehow seem to work together, the extended number of movements, and stretched proportions are all Beethoven hallmarks, but not usually so present in his works from the 1790s. He might have been consciously working his way toward writing a string quartet (which would happen with Op. 18 beginning in 1798).

The Music

The Trio’s six movements unfold in a symmetrical plan: fast movement, slow movement, dance movement (Menuetto), a second slow movement, a second dance movement (Menuetto again), and a fast finale.

The first movement opens dramatically with rich double stops in syncopated rhythm, and then rises questioningly in the violin. A second, quieter theme wiggles a little before breaking into double time. The extended development throws in surprises before the opening returns in recapitulation.

The first Andante suggests a mechanism of some kind, perhaps inspired by Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony from the previous year. The following Menuetto is a strange one—the dance arrives fragmented, lurching with space between the steps. The trio section consistently combines three distinct ideas for the three instruments: melody for the violin, rolling harmonies for the viola, and plump pizzicato for the cello. Then the Menuetto repeats with an extended coda.

The second Andante is very different from the first: smooth and lyrical, with the viola and cello sometimes combining in melody in response to the violin. The second Menuetto is more typical of the dance style, followed by a minor-key trio section harmonized by drones.

The finale starts out in a lighthearted vein, but gets lost and misdirected. Running scales scamper around and collide in counterpoint, and then the movement takes a left turn into a mock fugato—all ideas Beethoven would revisit in his late quartets.

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.