By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
Part 3/3: Beethoven – Trio in B Flat Major, OP. 97 « Archiduke » (1811)
Our impression of Beethoven’s music is that it is too connected to the personality of its creator for anyone to imitate it, as might have been the case with other composers throughout history. Ultimately, after Beethoven, no one could write music as before. One might even say that his work slices through the history of music like the storming of the Bastille sliced through political history!
Having said this, you may be surprised to learn that Beethoven’s work has never enjoyed an unqualified appreciation. We note, for instance, the almost permanent existence – although in varying forms – of opposition to Beethoven among the professional musicians of his time. This opposition does not relate to his genius, which no one questioned, but rather his motives. What we blame him for, it seems, is having made his music a means to an end other than sheer musical beauty: a depiction of life itself, its endless stream of joys, sorrows and struggles.
When, for example, his violinist Schuppanzigh complained that one of his works was particularly difficult to render, Beethoven replied: « Do you believe that when the muse comes to me I think of your wretched little fiddle?! « . He wrote the music that had to be written, regardless of the pressures of his musicians and rarely paying heed to the advice of his patrons.
In this way, he can be regarded as the first modern composer.
In the words of Schubert:
« He knows everything, but we can not understand everything yet, and much water will flow through the Danube before all that this man has created is generally understood”.
Let us not forget that Beethoven’s last string quartets – commonly considered his most difficult works, for both the public and the performers – were not played in France until almost generation after his death.
Ludwig van Beethoven used his energy and enthusiasm in almost all the genres of classical music, from epic symphonies to opera and chamber music in its various forms. His Trio in B flat dates from his middle period, which gave birth to his most heroic and grandiose compositions, including his fifth and sixth symphonies. In the world of Beethovenian chamber music, the masterworks of this middle period (1803-1814) counterbalance the essentially lyrical and thoughtful music he composed both before and after, and the most noble and spacious of them all remains the Trio opus 97, known as the « Archduke ».
The Archduke in question was none other than Rudolph, the younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, a talented pianist who studied both piano and composition with Beethoven. Beethoven rewarded the generosity and devotion of his patron Rudolph by dedicating a series of works to him – a list that surely makes him one of the most richly decorated patrons of the arts in history.
The calm and spacious atmosphere of the opening of the Trio Opus 97 is made all the more poetic thanks to its glorious opening theme, whose extended harmonic development seems to increase both its emotional intensity and the tenderness of its expression. Beethoven adopts a large-scale structure for this movement: the theme is stated twice, adorned with a rich piano texture the first time, then varied and expanded across the whole ensemble in the second. Beethoven here creates a richness and depth of sound that are the characteristic features of this work. In the section dedicated to the development of ideas first presented in the exposition of the movement, we are invited to follow a peaceful dialogue between the violin and the cello, or between piano and strings.
To such a generous and lyrical movement, Beethoven was particularly fond of juxtaposing a playful Scherzo, laconic, sometimes bordering on the frenetic, as is the case here. After the bare initial string texture comes a relaxed and jovial Ländler. A radical change of mood follows: the cello announces a chromatic counterpoint (fugato) in mysterious attitude, followed immediately by a whirling waltz section, and then comes the customary return of the first Scherzo material to conclude the movement.
For the Andante cantabile, Beethoven brings us to D major, a luminous tonality in comparison to the previous one. This is one of the few slow movements following the Theme and Variations model that Beethoven composed during this period. We hear a series of meditations on a theme in the style of a hymn, whose sublime simplicity foreshadows the final transcendental piano sonatas. Typically for Beethoven, who likes to jerk the listener from a contemplation of the eternal to the robust world of action, we go directly into the dancing theme of the final rondo without a break. We are suddenly plunged into the vibrancy of Viennese café music.
Indeed, this closing Allegro has an irresistible sense of gallantry about it, perhaps unmatched by any other trio in the repertoire.