Brahms writes an eulogy to Nature

Evanescence. © Charles Thibo

A contemplation? Perhaps. Nature? The evanescence of all things of natural origin perhaps. Birth and death, creation, destruction – an eternal cycle. In 1865 Johannes Brahms composed his Trio for Piano, Violin and Horn in E flat major (Op. 40), and the German writer Max Kahlbeck drew a link between this work and the death of Brahms’s mother. Brahms’ personal papers however do not refer to any such extra-musical influence. Perhaps Brahms enjoyed just the pleasure to write a wonderful piece of music, of intellectual interest and charming to the ear.

The tonal instability, the hovering nature of the first movement express a certain fragility, and I like this idea as it reminds me of the responsibility we have for the preservation of life, be it human, animal or vegetal. Our planet is such a fascinating, complex system of systems, and I quite often I wonder whether we deserve to live in it when I witness how irresponsible we behave, how shortsighted our actions are. Each spring I eagerly wait for the first green tips, the first blossoms, the yearly recreation of life – a true miracle. A miracle under threat. The gentleness and the natural grace of the third movement seems to echoes these ideas; structurally the first and the third movements are linked as are the second and the last movement.

The second movement starts dynamically, a true statement, and the horn defines the overall mood, cleverly accentuated by the piano, while the violin provides the background. Joy, energy, hope, enthusiasm – those are the ideas I associate with the scherzo. The final movement is its structural complement, and the contrapuntal parts are truly nice. What I did not know: The key E flat major apparently is associated with nature. The duality of E flat major and its dark complement E flat minor pervade the four movements.

The horn in the limelight

Brahms had learned to play the horn, the cello and the piano – three very characteristic instruments – as a young boy and belonged to the oldest hornist association of the world, the “Wiener Waldhornverein“. As such he had a special relationship to this instrument and emphasized that he had written the trio for the natural horn with its very specific tuning, though he adapted the score to replace the horn by a cello or a viol.

Apparently Brahms was inspired to write this piece during a morning stroll in the forest of Lichtental, on the outskirt of the German spa of Baden-Baden, at the foot of the Black Forest, where the composer used to stay during the summer. The biographer Heinrich Reimann wrote in a biography published in 1900 that Brahms had a “happy hand” when he used elements from the “old, long forgotten times of chamber music” to create something extraordinary – an eulogy of nature.

The trio has been recorded by Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin) and Stephen Stirling (horn).

© Charles Thibo

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