Saturday, January 3, 2015

Beethoven - Piano Trio In D Major Opus 70, No. 1 'Ghost'

The form of the piano trio, usually for the combination of violin-cello-piano (but also any two instruments with piano) became popular in the home during the 18th century. In the 37-year span of 1760-1797 Joseph Haydn wrote 45 piano trios. The early ones were dominated by the keyboard with the other instruments more or less accompanying.  With his later piano trios Haydn began to balance out the three instruments until they were in almost equal partnership. Mozart wrote 6 piano trios and did even more than Haydn in balancing out the contribution of the three instruments.

Both older composers influenced Beethoven, who worked the form to perfection with his 12 trios. The most well-known of the piano trios for violin-cello-piano is the Piano Trio In B-flat Major Opus 97 'Archduke'  written in 1811.  Three years previous to that work he wrote the two piano trios of Opus 70.  The first trio of that opus is in D Major, and is close in popularity to the 'Archduke' .  This trio also has the nickname Ghost, taken from the atmosphere of the 2nd movement. The Ghost trio was Beethoven's return to the form after he wrote his first trios ten years before.  Unlike most of his other piano trios, this one is in only three movements:

I. Allegro vivace e con brio - The first movement begins with a declaration of equality between all three instruments as they all play the same motive over a 4-octave span:
This motive acts as an introduction, but it recurs in different guises through the first movement. After the introduction, a theme is heard in the cello. This theme is related to the introductory material and goes through a short development before another theme is heard first in the strings, and then the piano. The exposition is repeated. The development begins with the introductory material and dissects it into smaller pieces that goes through imitative statements between the instruments. The recapitulation reworks the introductory material to a different key before the first theme is heard. This theme is also reworked and expanded. The second theme is given a slightly different treatment until a short coda brings back the first theme once more until a fragment of the introduction closes this short sonata form movement.

II. Largo assai ed espressivo -  Written in D minor, this movement is the longest of the trio. The movement begins with a stark dialogue between strings and piano:
With foreign harmonies and unstable tonality, the movement is one of the most strange Beethoven ever wrote. There is evidence that at the writing of this trio Beethoven was also thinking about writing an opera based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, with the music of this movement based on sketches of music for the Witches' Scene.  With deep tremolos in the piano like a creeping spectre and sharply accented chords like the howling of a damned spirit, it is no wonder the nickname of Ghost has lasted for so many years. After one last howl, the music tries to settle into a more calm major key mood, but the end comes quickly with short and dry notes in the piano and pizzicato in the strings on the key note of D.

III. Presto -  The finale resembles the opening movement as both are rather short in length and begin with a short motive that returns:
But the final movement is in a much needed more humorous mood to balance out the 2nd movement. All tension is broken as the finale makes its way to the end.

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