Written by J. Lawrie Bloom
We open our next Civitas concert with the wonderful Op. 11 Trio, referred to as the “Gassenhauer”, of Ludwig van Beethoven. Haydn had established the string quartet, and the piano trio as accepted ensemble instrumentations. The idea of using a single wind with strings was not uncommon particularly in the Mannheim composers. Mozart pushed the trio idea with his landmark “Kegelstatt” Trio for the more disparate instrumentation of clarinet, viola and piano. Now Beethoven takes it a step further, pairing the clarinet with the much lower pitched cello, and piano. His publishers made him publish with a version for violin, cello and piano, to increase sales.
Beethoven wrote for winds quite early in his career, including the trio, the quintet for piano and winds Op. 16, and the great Septet, Op. 20 completed when he was 30. He may have written this trio for the clarinetist Joseph Beer, though there is no documentation that he ever played it, having complained that it was not virtuosic enough for his prodigious talents.
In certain ways it is one of Beethoven’s most “conventional” pieces, though of course he surprises us nonetheless. In the first movement the three instruments start the first theme in octaves in Bb major, but the second theme comes in in D major, not what might be expected in classic sonata form. And the development utilizes this 2nd theme, not the first, also a delightful surprise.
The second movement opens with a gorgeous cello solo, some say one of the most beautiful he ever wrote. Repeated by the clarinet, the instruments then engage in a musical conversation of great simplicity and beauty.
It is the third movement from which the piece gained it’s subtitle, the “Gassenhauer”. The play 33 Variations focuses on the Diabelli Variations that Beethoven wrote in response to a request from Diabelli, who sent to many well known composers a theme of his writing, asking each to write one variation, to be published in one volume. When Beethoven keeps putting Diabelli off, and finally offers a set of 33 variations, the modern day musicologist wonders was Beethoven making fun of Diabelli, writing so much on what is a somewhat silly theme? Ultimately she concludes that Beethoven just saw more in the theme than anyone else had seen.
Likewise in the Op. 11 trio Beethoven takes as his theme a “gessenhauer”, street song, taken from Josef Weigl’s opera The Corsair, very popular in Vienna at the time. From this simple, almost silly theme, the words of which begin “before I work, I must have something to eat”, Beethoven weaves a wonderful set of variations of great charm and delight.