Walking into Beethoven’s Musical Maze

Ray of Light. © Charles Thibo

Curious? Any idea what’s behind that door? Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio in G Major (op. 9 no. 1) sparks my curiosity every time I listen to it. It starts in a sparkling, fresh way into the first movement and begs you to listen on. What’s next? How is the composer going to develop this idea? Is going to develop it at all? Beethoven is leading you into an exhilarating musical maze, and before you realize it, you have listened to the piece through its four movements. And hopefully you have deeply enjoyed the experience.

The trio is the first of a series of three that Beethoven composed soon after he had arrived in Vienna, in 1797–98. They were first performed by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh with two colleagues from his string quartet. At the time, Joseph Haydn was the champion of chamber music i.e. of string quartets, and the shadow of such an important figure was looming large. It kept Beethoven from seeking success in this genre in his early career as a composer, nevertheless he tried his hand at the genre.

As the conductor Gustavo Dudamel remarked in concert notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Beethoven was eager to consolidate his reputation in early 1798. “He had already made a splash in several of the city’s leading aristocratic salons as a virtuoso pianist, playing his own music and improvising.” Three concerts at the Burgtheater in March 1795 had introduced him to a wider audience. Building on his successes in Vienna, Beethoven began to tour during this period, visiting Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Bratislava and Pest in 1796.

Beethoven considered these trios his best compositions at the time of their publication in the year of 1799. They are considered as the start of quest that would lead Beethoven to become one of the best known composers of string quartets. The composer wrote no further trios after the first quartets (op. 18) had been published in 1801. In a piece he wrote for “The Guardian” in 2012, Stephen Pritchard notes that “[t]hese three Opus 9 trios present a fascinating picture of the young Ludwig, bursting with ideas and an impatient desire to take a musical form born as the baroque trio sonata and breathe bold new Beethovian life into it.”

Curious about this early work? I recommend the recording by the incomparable Trio Zimmermann.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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