Trios from the dawn of Romanticism
Von Kuster Hall, Faculty of Music
Part of the 12:30 Fridays concert series
Trio in Bb Op. 11
Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio in Eb Op. 36
In 1798, the 28 (he would have claimed 26) year old Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was well established in the musical life of Vienna, having moved there from his native Bonn five years earlier, as a virtuoso pianist (renowned in particular for his improvising exhibitions and duels, a popular spectator sport of the time) and a composer with a growing reputation. Of the music written in this period he later claimed “At that time I had no idea how to compose.” He may not yet have found his mature voice (he was modest enough to continue lessons in composition with Antonio Salieri until 1802, for example), but most listeners would recognise in Beethoven’s early music the same genius as in his later works, albeit in a lighter form. His writing for wind instruments in particular is dominated more by a buoyant and genial spirit than by angst, by melody rather than by motivic development.
The Trio Op. 11 was written and first performed early in 1798. It was dedicated to one of Beethoven’s most ardent admirers, Countess Thun (the mother of Prince Lichnowsky, a patron of Beethoven's and his first landlord in Vienna), and apparently was composed partly at the instigation of the clarinettist Josef Bähr, one of Beethoven’s favourite collaborators at this time.
(Bähr is usually, but erroneously, confused with the much better-known Joseph Beer, who by a remarkable coincidence also worked briefly in Vienna in the 1790s. Of Bähr a commentator wrote: “…this artist possesses, in addition to extraordinary facility and assurance, an extremely charming and agreeable tone, and he is able, especially in piano passages, to make it so melting, tender and touchingly delicate that there will surely be few comparable masters of his instrument”. A more succinct testimonial from a musical colleague was that "Bähr blows like a god.")
The first movement displays the quirkiness and instant about-faces that led to Beethoven’s music being labelled “unnatural” (one reviewer in 1799 wrote “It is undeniable that Herr Beethoven goes his own way; but what a bizarre and painful way it is!”); two centuries later it doesn’t seem so odd. The third movement is a set of variations on a popular tune of the time, the aria Pria ch’io l’impegno ("Before I begin work") from the then-smash hit opera L’amor marinaro by the now largely forgotten Joseph Weigl; the same theme was used as a basis for improvised variations by numerous pianists, and by Paganini in a showpiece for violin and orchestra. Beethoven reportedly regretted following vulgar fashion in this way, and planned - but apparently never found the time - to replace this movement with something more original.
The reluctant law studies of Anton Eberl (1765-1807) were mercifully cut short when his family ran out of the necessary money, forcing him to fall back on music in order to make a living (such is the irony of life!). The son of an Austrian civil servant, Eberl was born and raised in Vienna, and made his career there apart from a period spent performing and teaching in St. Petersburg. He was befriended and encouraged by Mozart - it's not clear whether he was actually Mozart's student - whose music became a model for Eberl's compositions, and remained close friends with his family after Mozart's death. Starting in the late 1780s, publishers began issuing a number of Eberl's piano works under Mozart's name, and this practice continued throughout his life, despite his strenous efforts (and Constanze Mozart's) to correct the record. Even as late as 1944, Eberl's Symphony in C was advertised, at its modern era premiere performance, as an "unknown Mozart symphony". Eberl and his music were held in high regard in his lifetime, in many eyes as the equal of Beethoven (in a concert in 1805, Eberl's Symphony Op. 33 received better reviews than Beehoven's Eroica, for example). His sudden, early death from blood poisoning was mourned as the loss of a significant artist.
Despite the early influence of Mozart, Eberl's later writing moved sustantially towards a more Romantic idiom, sometimes even foreshadowing Chopin and Liszt. The Grand Trio Op. 36 for fortepiano, clarinet and cello, written in 1806, generally remains in a more conservative framework, but glimpses of incipient Romanticism occur throughout. Following the model of Beethoven's Trio Op. 11, it fulfils its billing as being grander and more ambitious, making considerably higher demands on the performers and their instruments.
Beethoven’s career witnessed the evolution of the piano from the Classical fortepiano to instruments recognisably on the path towards modern pianos. The fortepiano of Mozart’s time, as exemplified by makers such as Johann Andreas Stein of Augsburg and Anton Walter of Vienna, had a small range of five octaves (FF to f’’’), and knee levers instead of pedals to raise the dampers and to apply muting. A lightweight wooden frame with consequent low string tension, leather covered hammers, and light, simple, direct action combined to produce an incisive, percussive sound with little volume or sustaining power, and a touch that encouraged subtle articulation. In this concert we are using a modern reproduction by Rodney Regier of a fortepiano on the pattern of Anton Walter, ca. 1795. This is the type of instrument on which Beethoven’s earliest works would have been performed; and while by the time the Eberl Trio was composed such a piano was no longer on the "cutting edge", and some passages exceed the range of the Classical instrument, it was normal practice to use older keyboards for performance of new music when necessary. Paralleling the development of the piano was a fundamental change in the way it was played, with the earlier, mostly separated, harpsichord-influenced approach being replaced by a dominantly legato style around 1800 (in a conversation with his pupil Czerny, Beethoven asserted that Mozart “used a technique entirely unsuited to the piano”).
The clarinet of the Classical period was made of boxwood, with a basic complement of five simple brass keys with flat, rectangular leather pads. Subsequently, the increasing technical demands of solo music around 1800 led to more keys being added to "state of the art" clarinets, up to a maximum of 12 or so. The mouthpiece was made of wood, and it and the reed were considerably smaller than their modern counterparts. A much lighter, more subtle playing approach was employed compared with the present day, to provide the flexibility to deal with uneven response and some very difficult notes (notably C# and Eb in the low register, which were wisely avoided whenever possible by composers, and low B natural, which unfortunately was not!) on the basic instrument. As with the piano and string instruments, playing style emphasised articulation rather than slurring. The clarinet employed here for the Beethoven is an original by Bilton of London (marked in the name of the dealer Cramer), dating from ca. 1800-1820, and typical of simple English clarinets of the time. For the Eberl, a reproduction (built S. Fox) of a clarinet with 12 keys by Heinrich Grenser of Dresden is used, since certain passages in the Grand Trio are clearly intended to exploit the additional keywork.
The fundamental design of the bodies
of stringed instruments had reached its current state by the late 17th
century; subsequent development took place in the areas of the neck and
fingerboard, the strings and the bow. The Classical period and the
early 19th century were a time of transition, during which instruments
were fitted with longer and more angled necks, longer and more tapered
fingerboards, more arched bridges, and heavier soundposts and bass bars.
At the same time, the short, highly arched Baroque bow gave way first to
a “transitional” bow and then to the modern style, Tourte pattern bow,
with its longer, stronger, concave stick and wider, tighter, more readily
adjusted bowhair. The holding position of the bow changed correspondingly.
All of this led to an evolution in the idioms of bowing, articulation and
musical expression, the emphasis switching from delicate articulation to
smooth legato, along with more power and projection. Strings until
into the 20th century remained a combination (with many regional differences)
of plain gut, twisted gut, and often for the larger strings gut core with
silver or copper winding. In this performance a cello of the
Baroque model is used, with gut strings and a Classical bow.