Morning Glories Program Notes

Beethoven’s only piano quartet is a reworking of his quintet for piano and winds.  It was one in a series of compositions that made the composer’s name known in Vienna soon after the young musician had moved there from his native Bonn in 1792.  Mozart’s influence is apparent at every turn, yet there are many signs revealing the birth of one of the most individual styles in musical history.

In its original form as a quintet, Beethoven’s piece was modeled on Mozart’s quintet for piano and winds. Not only do the two works share the same key of E-flat major, their second movements are also in the same tonality (B-flat), and they have a number of additional points in common, most notably the slow introductions which were much more frequent in symphonies than in chamber works.  Yet, as British musicologist Nicholas Marston has observed, Beethoven has a tendency ‟to be symphonic in a non-symphonic medium,” and to indulge in a certain ‟over-extravagance” shown by the fact that the first movement is unusually long and contains many more themes than the standard sonata scheme would call for.

The Grave introduction is built around a solemn motif in dotted rhythm.  It strikes a serious tone after which the light and graceful melodies of the Allegro ma non troppo come both as a relief and a contrast.  Only in the development section does the music become more tempestuous, and then only for a while.  The most ‟Beethovenian” feature (that is, the one most strongly anticipating his mature style) is the extended coda, introduced by a piano cadenza.

The second movement (Andante cantabile) has a song-like theme that receives more and more extensive ornamentation each time it returns.  The recurrences of the theme are separated by two more agitated episodes.

The third movement opens with a melody that resembles several of Mozart’s finale themes.  It is cheerful and lighthearted music with only occasional and transient clouds on the horizon.  In the coda, Beethoven breaks up the main theme into small fragments (this procedure would remain one of his favorite methods of motivic development) and plays many delightful games with it.  As in many of his later works, the end is announced by a long piano trill.  © 2023 Peter Laki

Written in 1854, the Piano Trio in B major was radically revised by Brahms 35 years later.  Interestingly, the composer did not withdraw the first version but rather allowed it to co-exist with the recomposition.  However, the work is almost always heard in its 1889 form, which managed to combine the exuberance of the 21-year-old genius (who, in Schumann’s words, had, “like Minerva, sprung fully armed from the head of Jove”) with the consummate artistry of the mature master of fifty-six.

Many of the gorgeous melodies that fill this masterwork had been there from the start.  The recomposition had to do mostly with the development of the themes, and with making the transitions smooth and coherent, more classical in spirit than they were in the early version, which occasionally indulged in some Romantic excesses.  “It will not be as wild as it was before,” Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann while at work on the revision, “but whether it will be better—?”

In fact, one of the most stunning things about this trio is how its opening melody—a quiet theme with a solemn, dignified gait—is gradually and seamlessly transformed into a fiery and impassioned statement.  These two temperaments—and the major and minor modes—alternate throughout the movement.  The final coda section switches to a slower Tranquillo tempo, instead of a faster one as might be expected, only resuming the original speed again for the energetic closing chords.

The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, was left almost entirely intact from the 1854 original.  The utter simplicity of its opening theme has reminded some commentators of Mendelssohn’s scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though the continuation, and especially the major mode middle section (Trio) with its glorious melody in parallel sixths, is pure Brahms.  Particularly ingenious is the way the melody of the middle section grows out of a characteristic motif in the scherzo proper, providing a subtle connection between the two parts of the movement.

In the third movement Adagio (again in B major) the soft chord progressions of the piano are in dialog with the expressive melody of the two string instruments.  Eventually, a more continuous texture develops as the cello begins a new melody with a more sustained piano accompaniment.  The opening material (alternating piano chords and string duet) returns, with the difference that this time the piano adds a sensitive countermelody.  At the end of the movement, all three instruments take over the slow chordal theme that grows ever softer and softer.

The last movement, though in an Allegro tempo, begins with a lyrical cello theme in B minor; it only gathers more momentum with the muscular second theme in D major.  (This theme was new in the 1889 version, replacing another that was too strongly reminiscent of Beethoven and Schumann, and had too many personal associations with Clara.)  Both themes are subsequently repeated before we reach the final section, in which the first theme takes on a much more tempestuous character than before.  Contrary to all expectations, this major mode piano trio ends dramatically in B minor (it is much more frequent to see a minor mode work end in major than vice versa).  Although totally rewritten, the minor mode ending is a remnant of the original version of 1854, true to the restless spirit of the artist as a young man.  © 2023 Peter Laki