A Quick Guide to Beethoven's Piano Trio in E flat major, Op.1 No. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven - Piano Trio in E Flat, Op.1 No.1
The three piano trios which constitute Beethoven’s Opus 1 launched his public career in 1795. However, it may well be that the origins of the music were earlier. In any event, the dedication of the set to the composer’s staunch advocate, Prince Lichnowsky, and the presence of Haydn at one of the early private performances, combined to make this a work of highly special significance.
The piano trio as a form sprang from the instrumental sonata. It took time for even Mozart and Haydn to achieve just equilibrium between the piano, violin and cello. The most immediate impression created by the Beethoven initiative lay in his insight into the role of the cello. Never before had it achieved such prominence. Here was instrumental democracy in an aristocratic age.
What still strikes home today is the extraordinary self-confidence with which the young Beethoven tackled a form many of his successors avoided because of its textural difficulties. The composer’s problem is to avoid domination by the piano.
Throughout his life, the key of E flat was to inspire a great deal of Beethoven’s finest work. One of the qualities which he found in this key was a high degree of spaciousness. This, combined with a note of confident assertion, makes his E flat music outstandingly exhilarating. These traits can be detected as early as Op.1 No.1.
The first movement, ‘Allegro’ is a lucid essay in sonata form with well contrasted themes and fine balancing of sections. The tone is positive and there are already signs of Beethoven’s most individual characteristics. These include the use of mini developments within the exposition and recapitulation to ensure an increasingly dramatic effect with no use of repetition merely for its own sake.
The second movement, Adagio cantabile, is a quietly eloquent song without words. The parts intertwine most tenderly, and there is some notable exploration of cello possibilities. The cello is being moved forward by Beethoven to a position of full equality. As the mutual interplay of song-like strands advances, Beethoven explores modulation with an ease which was to become second nature to his handling of large forms. This lyrical exploration is in A flat, one of Beethoven’s favourite keys to compose slow movements in.
For the next movement, Beethoven returns to the home key. Significantly, he makes a new gesture to the scherzo and trio. Gone is the need to genuflect in courtly accommodation, allowing wit and personality to take charge of the music. The tone is urbane but the accentuation is individual, and there is a flavour of salt in some of the exchanges.
In the finale, Presto, a note of exhilaration is unmistakeable. The clarity of the part-writing is remarkable, and the equality of friendship between the participants is sustained unflaggingly.