Friday, February 26, 2016

Ensemble Epomeo: Welcome to the Very Personal World of György Kurtág

György Kurtág
Though it may be the last blog-post about Ensemble Epomeo's concert on Sunday afternoon – 3pm at Temple Ohev Sholom (on Front Street just below Seneca Street in uptown Harrisburg) – it is about the first composer, Hungarian György Kurtág, on a program that also includes the composer he'd studied chamber music with, Leo Weiner, and (and why not?) Beethoven, certainly the most familiar name on any program of classical music but a piece composed by the time he was 23 or 24 shortly after he arrived in Vienna to study with Haydn.

In fact, Leo Weiner's String Trio was also composed when he was 23 and just beginning his career not only as a composer but also as a teacher.

(You can read these other posts here and here.)

György Kurtág (and that should be pronounced close to ZHÖRZH KOOR-tahg), however, celebrated his 90th birthday a week ago, February 19th. He is recognized as one of the leading composers of the 20th Century still composing into the 21st, though, like many such composers, more “heard of” than “heard.”

To him, music is a language with its own syntax and texts. And much of his music springs from words - he has written a great deal of vocal music setting words (if not poems) by Kafka, Samuel Beckett or Anna Akhmatova among others. Even pieces without words imply their origins in words.

The trio will be performing excerpts from “Signs, Games, and Messages” – but Kurtág has been writing piano pieces called “Games” since 1973 and “Signs, Games, and Messages” since 1984, beginning (as far as I can tell) with several for solo clarinet. They exist in various groupings, in various combinations for solo instruments and small ensembles, in various arrangements as well. They are often each given “descriptive titles” but more in the sense of “A Flower for Tabea” for solo viola written for violist Tabea Zimerman rather than describing, perhaps, the physical flower of the title; or a “Tribute to...” someone in particular whose name we may not recognize but in which the audience is not likely to imagine – thinking of Elgar's enigma – a musical portrait. They might be or might only have originated in the composer's mind as an actual portrait but they are none the less personal statements for our lack of familiarity.

The set of pieces written for string trio were written between 1989 and 2005.

The repeated use of the title brings to mind another collection of another, earlier and more famous Hungarian composer, Bela Bartók, who wrote 153 pieces collected into six volumes of Mikrokosmos. These, however, began as teaching pieces when Bartók, an acclaimed piano teacher in Budapest, began giving his youngest son, Peter, piano lessons in 1926. They move progressively in difficulty (hopefully) with the ability of the pianist to master them, small etudes (often with picturesque titles and subjects that might interest a young imagination) geared to not only develop the fingers but open the ears. (Peter talked of going into a lesson to find his father jotting down some ideas which the boy would then sight-read – imagine having your father, a famous composer, writing something especially for you, and you're playing it hot-off-the-press, not only the first person to play it but also hear it? But then, as he thought, doesn't every boy's father do that?)

Though Kurtág's “Games” began as teaching pieces, they quickly outgrew that pedagogical element, except in the sense listening to any piece of music can teach us something – if not about the composer or the time the music was created in, perhaps about ourselves.

György and Marta Kurtág, piano-duet: London Dec. 2013
The first thing I would say to someone about to hear Kurtág for the first time is to allow yourself to enter into Kurtág's sound-world. He writes what might be called miniatures – but not the way Schumann created his “character pieces,” suites of short descriptive movements that make up works like Carnaval or “Scenes from Childhood.” They're more like “fragments,” wisps of sound and, even within their brief time-frames, a bit kaleidoscopic.

Hearing several of these pieces is to hear “collisions” of sounds rather than a progression of little dramatic moments, like Schumann's suites. It is like looking first at one drop of water through a microscope and then, from some other source, another and noticing how, while they're both “drops of water,” they are completely separate worlds.

The second thing I would say would be not to get hung up on the titles or where in the list of titles you might be (is this the third or the fourth piece on this list?). As I said, often, the titles are merely ways of identifying one piece from another (while they may have personal meaning for the composer, it's quite possible a listener could manage quite well if they were “Sign VII,” “Game XVI,” or “Message III.” That, however, I suspect might remove one layer of magic, so I wouldn't recommend it.

Some of the “Games” have a collective subtitle of Diary Entries and Personal Messages (speaking of music having its origins in texts) which might give you a better concept of music as a personal statement and of the intimacy of the music itself.

Fortunately for first-timers (and 30th-timers), our performance will include a narrator – Nicholas Hughes – who will keep us on track adding his own layer of magic so we can keep our minds off the program page trying to figure where the heck we are.

The third thing, which I say to anyone listening to any musical style that is unfamiliar, is not to worry about its unfamiliarity, not to compare it to something you do know, not to focus on things perhaps, on the surface, you may not like, whether it's the “lack of harmonic motion in tonal music,” the “lack of something I can hum,” or “the lack of comfort in a style that makes no sense to me.” It's like saying “How can this make any sense” when you're listening to somebody speak, say, Hungarian, because it's not English or some other language you're familiar with, whether you also speak fluent German or can get by with High-School French.

Kurtág, like any composer, creates his own world. This world comes into being through the consistency and integrity of its details: it is a colorful world, even for a single instrument, that creates a variety of contrasts through the same means a 19th Century composer might, but with a different “surface.” You might feel different moods – calm, agitated, hypnotic, unsettling, comforting – which are not unlike moods we could hear in Schumann's picturesque pieces or Bach's more abstract preludes and fugues (whether that was the composer's intention or not).

There may be moments of “tension” that resolve to something of a resolution – or maybe only of “less tension” or, given the philosophical implications of the world we live in, no resolution at all. You may not be able to tap your foot to Kurtág's music, but you may feel the flow of a universal pulse even if only for a moment before it is interrupted by a pause – silence is a very important part of his sound. You may not notice that this pause is only a pause where that pause is the end of this piece (or does it only mean the piece stops?).

And he enjoys the contrasts of styles and languages: many of his concerts and some recordings of his works interweave his pieces in between those of another composer – one obvious choice was his “Hommage à Robert Schumann” and works by Schumann himself. Below, I include a video of he and his wife, Marta, performing his music for one and two pianists with his transcriptions of Bach for piano duet. The effect can be mesmerizing, reminding us that music is something to experience, not just to hear.

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Looking for videos on You-Tube to include here, there are many things to choose from which may or may not work. For instance, I found Kurtág's music challenging to “get into” when I first heard them because there's always this sense that music has become so much a part of our environment (and I say this having “played” music on the radio for 18 years), we feel we can use it while we do something else. A live performance is better than listening to a recording where we might be tempted to be distracted. And very often one short piece is not likely to give you much more than one short expanse of time filled with sound. The world is so much more than that – as is Kurtág's music.

Given that, here is one of the pieces from “Signs, Games, and Messages” for string trio, performed at a Dutch summer music festival (and from an angle I'm sure not cellist-approved, speaking of distractions). But the sound and mood it creates might give you an idea what to expect:

Not all of Kurtág's music is so delicate – or even for small ensembles. One of his first works to bring his name to a wider public was the orchestra work Stele in 1994. In an interview in The Guardian in 2013, Tom Service writes how it is...

“filled with a strange luminescence: the reverberating chordal repetitions in the final movement sound like the tolling of funeral bells (or perhaps the breathing of alien life forms). The first movement is an adagio, an implacable lament that ends with a homage to Bruckner in a passage for four Wagner tubas. But the second movement has the most scintillating moment of all. In the middle of the music's desperate violence, there is a sudden image of strange stillness, a sound made by six flutes, a tuba, and a piano. Kurtág said he wanted the effect to be like "the scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace where Prince Andrei is wounded at Austerlitz for the first time: all of a sudden, he no longer hears the battle but discovers the blue sky above him. That is what the music conjures up." He continues, lamenting that, "I keep telling this story and no one responds." But they do, György! If you are open to it, the devastating poetry of Stele can sear itself on your soul.”

(Incidentally, if you have time, I recommend reading this entire article which you can find here.)

Elsewhere in this article, Service writes about this contrast of sound, the meditation that becomes the experience of such a fragment:

“Despite their brevity, these tiny pieces are not incomplete as experiences. Take, for example, the seven notes of 'Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers… (…embracing sounds)' – whose title takes almost as long to read as the piece does to hear – part of the 8th book of Jatekok [“Games”]. (You hear it from 4'10'' into the Kurtágs' performance [posted below].) Kurtág precedes the piece with a prelude of nine tolling B flats; the seven notes of 'Flowers We Are…' follow. What you hear are the notes of the C major scale turned into a meditation for four hands. There is nothing more familiar than these elements, but nothing stranger than what happens to them throughout this performance. Paradoxically, precisely because of its conciseness, the piece becomes static and timeless; and those notes, far from meaning anything like "C major" or "tonality" are unmoored from conventional function and allowed to resound and shimmer in a much larger musical space. Hearing 'Flowers We Are…' is like opening a trapdoor in your floor and dropping for a moment into the infinity of the cosmos.”

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Though his first published work was a string quartet composed in 1959 when he was 33, he began his official studies in 1946 in Budapest at the school where Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi had taught (by this time, Bartók had left the country and died in the United States), graduating in piano and chamber music, then earning a degree in composition in 1955. While the names of those he studied with may not bring nods of recognition to many Americans – Sandor Veress, Ferenc Farkas – he did study chamber music with Leo Weiner.

More unsettling history engulfed Hungary in the years of the Communist regime following World War II, and after the 1956 Revolution, 18 bloody days that began as a student demonstration resulting in 3,000 deaths, Kurtág went to Paris where he studied with Messiaen and Milhaud. But he was also suffering from depression: he later wrote, “I realized to the point of despair that nothing I had believed to constitute the world was true...” and how his therapy sessions revived him personally and creatively. When he returned to Budapest in 1958, he began his 1st String Quartet which he dedicated to his therapist.

He remained in Budapest until his retirement from teaching piano and chamber music, taking over the classes offered by Weiner until his death in 1960, though since then, aside from being a composer-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic and in Vienna, he has spent more time living abroad, since 2002, living outside Bordeaux, France. And he has written a great deal of music which, despite his own unwillingness to self-promote, has established him as one of the leading composers of his time.

It is impossible not to mention two people Kurtág met while he was in school after the 2nd World War. One was the fellow composer György Ligéti (again, like most Hungarian words, the accents are on the first syllable) who would become perhaps the best known Hungarian composer of the late-20th Century, best known for his extroverted works ranging from his opera, Le grande macabre and orchestral canvases (speaking of color) like Lontano, Atmospheres and the Requiem which gained audience awareness through their use in Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey – or his wildly virtuosic piano etudes. Both Kurtág and Ligéti were born in what is now Romania that was still in the 1920s part of Hungary, but Ligéti would leave Hungary and its Communist government for Vienna in 1956, spending much of his life teaching in Hamburg, (West) Germany. He died in Vienna in 2006 at the age of 83.

The other important person he met in school became his wife, Marta, who has been his collaborator in their piano-duet team ever since and who is his first “spring-board” and critic with every new piece of music he writes. They have been married for 68 years, now, and still perform piano duets.

I would not say “don't listen to the whole thing,” but certainly listen to some of this amazing video as the Kurtágs play selections of his “Games” in and around his arrangements of works by Johann Sebastian Bach. This concert was recorded in Paris in 2012 and is one instance where I would say definitely do watch the performers!

After that, what is left to say?

Dick Strawser

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ensemble Epomeo: Leo Weiner, an Introduction.

I admit there are several reasons I look forward to going to a live performance: sometimes it's because I can savor an old favorite one more time or maybe a piece or a composer I'm not familiar with; sometimes it's a new piece (either a world premiere or something that's “new to me”); at any time, it's just to enjoy hearing music being brought to life right before my ears.

On Ensemble Epomeo's concert this Sunday afternoon at 3:00 at Temple Ohev Sholom are two composers I'm not familiar with, both Hungarians overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries.

György Kurtág celebrated his 90th birthday this past Friday and is generally acclaimed as one of the leading composers in the world today though I have to admit I've had little opportunity to hear his music live. (You can read the post about his "Signs, Games, and Messages" and watch a piano-duet concert given by him and his wife of 68 years, recorded in 2012, here.)

Leo Weiner is a composer I've rarely heard, maybe one or two folk-influenced pieces, and those because I played them on the radio years ago. But listen to the opening of this clip, the third movement of the String Trio the Epomeo will be performing this weekend:

This is a performance by a trio calling itself “Fatum” (no, actually, it seems they call themselves “FATUM,” judging by their You-Tube post).

The first thing that went through my mind while listening to this was “why have I never heard this piece before?!” The opening cradle-song may be simplicity itself, but I'd bet it made you stop and listen.)

While Beethoven needs no introduction, that didn't stop me from blogging about him and his early work, the E-flat String Trio Op. 3, which concludes this concert.

So in these posts, let's focus on the two Hungarian composers you're probably unfamiliar with who're on the first half of the program.

Leo Weiner
When the average concert-goer thinks of 20th Century Hungarian Composers, Bela Bartók and Zoltan Kodaly come to mind and, with any luck, Ernő Dohnányi (though with the more familiar German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnanyi, one might be unaware of his actual ethnicity). But these are major composers from the 1st Half of the 20th Century: less on the average radar would be those of the 2nd Half of the 20th Century, less familiar on American concert programs, names like György Ligéti and György Kurtág.

The first half of Ensemble Epomeo's program begins with music by György Kurtág, regarded as a major living composer today, and a less well-known early 20th Century composer, Leo Weiner, more overlooked than forgotten - at least in this country (one has to be known before one is forgotten, I guess).

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Consider these dates:

Ernő Dohnányi – 1877- Feb. 9th 1960
Bela Bartók – 1881-1945
Zoltan Kodaly – 1882-1967
Leo Weiner – 1885- Sept. 13th 1960

Musically, Weiner never strayed far from the Romantic ideals of the early-19th Century with Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bizet, and occasionally Brahms the greatest influences on his style. He never became the collector of folk music his colleagues Bartók and Dohnányi became, but for a while he employed folk songs within his already established Romantic style.

While his biography fills barely 2/3s of a column of the 1980 Grove Dictionary (compared to the 26 dedicated to Bartók), it goes on to list some 60 works ranging from opera and ballet to symphonic poems, divertimentos and dance suites, a piano concertino and two violin concertos (though these are arrangements of his two violin sonatas), three string quartets, numerous piano pieces (for concert performance and for teaching), as well as this String Trio he composed in 1908.

Born in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the year Brahms completed his 4th Symphony, Weiner was playing the piano at an early age before attending the Budapest High School of Music & Art (usually referred to as the Academy of Music) when he was 16. Here, he studied piano with the German-born teacher, Hans von Kössler (known in Hungarian as Janós Koessler) who also taught Dohnányi, Bartók and Kodaly.

Weiner won several prizes for his compositions while in school, including the Serenade Op. 3 in 1906, one prize the following year allowing him to travel to Vienna, Munich, Berlin and Paris.

Then, in 1908, he became a theory teacher at the Budapest Academy where he'd been a student. And he composed his String Trio, Op. 6. He was 23.

Meanwhile, Zoltan Kodaly had already begun collecting folk songs among the more-remote rural villages of Hungary, starting in 1905 and then, after writing a thesis about structure in folk songs, convinced his friend Bela Bartók to join him in 1907. Both composers began writing their first string quartets in 1908.

Dohnányi had already gone to Berlin to teach at the invitation of violinist Joseph Joachim for whom Brahms had written so many works, but especially his Violin Concerto. He would remain there until 1915.

Hungarian Stamp honoring Leo Weiner
Not many details are mentioned in the few biographical entries I can find on Leo Weiner: he became composition teacher at his school in 1912 and in 1920 became Professor of Chamber Music, becoming one of the most highly regarded performance coaches in the Hungarian capital, gaining international recognition for his students' work. Though he was named “professor emeritus” in 1949, he continued teaching until his death.

Curiously, there is no mention of what went on in Weiner's life during World War II after Hungary, twisting itself into a fascist state, became an ally of Germany and Italy before being occupied by Nazi troops in 1944. Bartók left the country to die in poverty in New York City in 1945; Kodaly sought asylum in a convent for him and his Jewish wife where they lived until liberation in 1945.

But what of a Jewish teacher and composer named Leo Weiner?

For instance, how did Weiner escape the "Hungarianization" laws passed by the fascist regime in the 1920s and '30s which required Hungarian-born citizens to change their Germanic names? A young Jewish student like György Stern changed his last name to Solti (he would go by Georg after he fled Hungary in 1938). 

Following the Nazi take-over of Hungary in March, 1944, Ernő Dohnányi left Hungary for already-occupied Austria that November, and from there eventually emigrated to the United States where he taught piano at the Florida State University at Tallahassee until his death in 1960, seven months before Leo Weiner died in Budapest.

During the years of waiting for his emigration papers at the end of World War II, Dohnányi was investigated several times regarding his political role in war-time Hungary, each time cleared of any political crimes. He received documentary support from several Jewish colleagues and students who described his activities on behalf of the resistance during the Holocaust.

In fact, Leo Weiner wrote at least two testimonials pointing out the majority of Dohnányi’s students had been Jewish and that Dohnányi had consistently programmed Weiner’s own compositions, even during the Nazi regime.

Among Weiner's "chamber music" students were cellist Janos Starker and conductors Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, each of whom also studied piano with Bartók (Solti also studied composition with Dohnányi). And, by the way, also György Kurtág.

So, against that backdrop, here is his String Trio in G Minor, Op. 6, just one of his, as one biographical entry on-line puts it, “very charming and conservative works.”

This performance of the first movement is by the Deák Trio with siblings Marta, Anna and György Deák, recorded at a 2010 summer concert (complete with obbligato birdsong) in Pecs, Hungary, following their winning the Leo Weiner National Chamber Music Competition earlier that year. Unfortunately, I can't seem to fix the video formatting issues and I'm concerned the sound may be too metallic for most people's ears, though I suppose it could be issues with my computer's speakers.

I like their performance, basically, but for video and audio reasons I prefer this next ensemble, calling themselves “Fatum,” and recorded live for Spanish TV in Madrid. They've only posted the 2nd & 3rd movements on You-Tube (and I'd posted the 3rd Movement at the top of this post).


I'd already posted their performance of the Andantino, that "cradle-song" 3rd Movement, at the top of the post.

Which leaves the last movement - but since I couldn't find a reasonable performance or recording or video on-line, you'll have to see what Ensemble Epomeo does with it Sunday afternoon.

(Frankly, you had me at the lullaby that opens the 3rd Movement...)

It looks like Mr. Kurtag will be getting his own post. Stay tuned!

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ensemble Epomeo: Beethoven at the Beginning

Mount Epomeo
On the isle of Ischia near the harbor of Naples, Italy, is a mountain that overlooks the location of a summer music festival where in 2008 three string players formed a trio. This mountain is called Mount Epomeo.

Now you know.

The string trio named for this mountain will be stopping by the slightly less picturesque shores of the Susquehanna River to play for Market Square Concerts on Sunday afternoon at 3pm at Temple Ohev Sholom, just below Seneca and Front Streets.

(And while we may be basking in the balmy mid-50s at the time, the weather regardless is a far cry from our last scheduled concert which, by the way, due to thirty inches of snow, had been rescheduled to April 6th at 7:30 at Market Square Church. My pre-concert talk will begin at 6:45.)

Ensemble Epomeo
On this weekend's program, Ensemble Epomeo will play an early work by Ludwig van Beethoven, his String Trio in E-flat, Op. 3; a rarely-heard work by the less well-known Hungarian composer, Leo Weiner; and the concert will open with selections from “Signs, Games and Messages” by another Hungarian composer, György Kurtág who just turned 90 this past Friday, where the trio will be joined by Nicholas Hughes as narrator.

The concert will open with a “Young Artists Performances” by cellist Eliana Yang, 16, first-prize winner of 2015's Vivace Competition in Philadelphia, playing the Prelude to Bach's 3rd Suite for Solo Cello.

(You can read separate posts about Leo Weiner here; and György Kurtág, here.)

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So let's begin with Beethoven.

This is, in a sense, “Beethoven at the Beginning,” or very near it. We tend to think of this monolithic superhero, Beethoven the Titan, the creator of some of the greatest statements about art and humanity – the “Choral” Symphony, the “Eroica,” the Late Quartets – the giant who overcame deafness to leave the world some of the greatest music ever written (even without a public relations agent, Beethoven would be a tough act to follow).

But while there's Beethoven of the Epic Romantic Era, there's also Beethoven, the Final Stage of the Classical Era, the student of Haydn (and one who almost studied with Mozart), writing his first quartets and symphonies to break away from the 18th Century.

And even before that, there is Beethoven exploring his world and absorbing everything his predecessors had achieved before, eventually, creating his own voice.

Here is the Ensemble Epomeo playing the opening of the 1st Movement from Beethoven's Op. 3 String Trio (disregard the initial graphic):

This is not Beethoven storming the heavens. It's not even Beethoven showing how he will in future be storming the heavens, as he did with his Op. 1 Trios and the Op. 2 Sonatas. This is Beethoven looking back, even if "back" is the recent past, the past of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who had died on December 4th, 1791.

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Beethoven arrived in Vienna a few days before his 22nd birthday, mid-December 1792, with plans to study with Haydn whom he'd met when the Grand Old Man traveled through Bonn on his way to and from London.

Now, young Beethoven made the 550-mile trip from Bonn to Vienna again, having traveled there once already (perhaps he actually did meet Mozart, that was the plan; but Mozart died before Beethoven could return to study with him), traveling over some of the worst roads in Europe at a time when French troops roamed the Rhine Valley – in the months after Beethoven left his hometown, Napoleon's army gained control of much of that region.

When Beethoven stopped at the customs house inside the gates of Vienna on that damp December day so the police could check his papers, he discovered his name (which in Bonn had been pronounced “Biet-hoffen”) would be pronounced “Be-toof-en” in Vienna. He had with him a bundle of manuscripts, high hopes and very little else.

He had been given a six-month leave-of-absence. In fact, he will remain in Vienna the rest of his life. But at the time, who knew?

Primarily, he would become a pianist-who-composed and he soon earned a reputation for being an improviser to be reckoned with. A man named Czerny (whose son would later study with the adult Beethoven) met Abbé Joseph Gelinek, one of the best known pianists of the day, on his way to play a “piano duel” (in the days before reality TV) at the Imperial court, playing against some young foreigner (“I'll fix him,” he told the elder Czerny). The next day, Czerny Sr. once again saw Abbé Gelinek who admitted defeat at the hands of a young man “who must be in league with the devil! I've never even heard Mozart improvise so admirably.” He described him as “a small, ugly, swarthy young man with a willful disposition. His name is Beethoven.”

Studies with Haydn did not go well. In fact, things were considerably cool between them. When Haydn left for his second trip to London, Beethoven studied with a couple other teachers (one of whom admitted to finding mistakes in the young man's exercises that Haydn had missed).

Haydn, of course, was the Greatest Living Composer and his string quartets and symphonies were the models against which any young composer's works would be judged. This is one reason Beethoven waited until 1800 to publish both his first string quartets and his first symphony, the year he would turn 30 – a late age for someone to be making their first marks on the public, considering Mozart had died at 35.

But Beethoven kept himself “on plan.” Though Haydn was his teacher, he was also his chief rival, so the young man wanted to avoid the numerous “student works” that would fail by comparison (Beethoven would have a similar effect on Johannes Brahms over fifty years later). His first published works were not the first works he composed – he calculated the impact his three Piano Trios Op. 1 would make on Vienna's music-loving public in 1795 and it's interesting to read, among the list of subscribers purchasing his new scores (the printed first editions were sold by subscriptions to patrons) would be some of the major names supporting Beethoven's career for the next three decades including Prince Lichnowsky, Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky, even Haydn's employer, Prince Esterházy.

His next salvo the following year was a set of three piano sonatas Op. 2 (dedicated to Haydn out of regard for his standing in Vienna, but, Haydn noted, not dedicated to “his teacher” Haydn). These also were calculated for maximum impact. With these two sets of works, Beethoven announced his arrival, the appearance of a serious contender as a great composer of the future.

So what was Beethoven ready to challenge the listening public with in his next opus?

Looking ahead to the works Beethoven would compose in the next five years, it was as if he made a concerted effort (no pun intended) to build a portfolio: four piano trios; ten piano sonatas; “accompanied sonatas,” two with cello, three with violin; even an operatic scene with “Ah! Perfido!” written while studying with Antonio Salieri in 1795-96 but not published until 1805; and two Mozartean piano concertos (the B-flat probably written before he left Bonn but re-worked and published after the more brilliant, newer C Major).

His chamber music, mostly composed for the amateur market (the “do-it-yourself” entertainment industry of the day), ranged incrementally from five string trios (without piano) to a quintet for piano and winds, modeled after one of his favorite works by Mozart, to the Septet for string and winds of 1799 which wasn't published until 1802.

Beethoven in 1800 or 1801
By 1800 he had composed six string quartets and a symphony, no longer the journeyman composer in Haydn's shadow but now competing on an equal level. And how timely, too, because it was generally conceived that Haydn, now in his late-60s, was no longer likely to compose more string quartets and symphonies, focused as he was on his great choral works at the close of his career (in fact, he wrote nothing in the last six years of his life).

Before 1800, Beethoven also produced a String Quintet, Op. 4, but that was a reworking of an earlier wind octet (itself not published until 1830 somehow as Op. 103), dinner music written in Bonn – and a piano duet sonata (the “four-hands” variety so popular among household music-making), his Op. 6. These could be works “published primarily to make money” as well as “to please the public” rather than to “impress the public and secure a reputation.”

If you look at the list in chronological order (not published order), the first composition Beethoven published without a piano part was this Op. 3 String Trio published in 1796. There was the Serenade in D, Op. 8 for String Trio of 1797 and the set of three string trios, Op. 9, completed and published in 1798, the year he began writing the Op. 18 String Quartets which were completed and published in the auspicious-looking year of 1800.

Once he started publishing string quartets, then, Beethoven never again wrote another string trio.

This has given rise to the view that the trios are studies in how to write for strings, the medium being less challenging than a quartet (not just the addition of a fourth player). But perhaps it's also a medium free of the historical baggage of the great (and daunting) quartets by Mozart and Haydn - and after 1800, that didn't matter any more.

In most biographies of Beethoven, the string trios are passed over as an “up-beat” to the significant works of his early Op. 18 Quartets. And even there, the very first of these, the Op. 3, is usually seen as an even smaller up-beat to the Op. 9 set.

This may be music intended for a stylish dinner party rather than a concert – instead of the usual three or four movements of a concert sonata-form piece like the Piano Trios and the Piano Sonatas, this is a divertimento in the “old style” with six movements including two minuets.

This may not be new ground that Beethoven is breaking – or even exploring – but it is Beethoven gaining experience in mastering the style of the composer he would have preferred studying with: Mozart.

Who could doubt Beethoven didn't have in mind the great Divertimento in E-flat, K.563 by Mozart, a string trio, which had been written only in 1788, four years before Beethoven arrived in Vienna, a year after Mozart died. Beethoven wouldn't have been "competing" with Mozart as he would've been with Haydn: would the Vienna public have appreciated a new work in the style (if not the quality) of Mozart? 

With no manuscript copy that shows any specific dates on it, it is generally believed Beethoven's trio was begun while he was still in Bonn (while he's primarily known as a pianist, he also played the violin well enough to be in the Court Orchestra in Bonn) and that it was probably completed before 1794.

There are tons of early works Beethoven composed which he never sent to his publisher – these are those “WoO” pieces as in “work without opus” number – which included numerous piano pieces and “miscellaneous piece for courtly entertainment” that, in order to protect his future career, never saw the light of Viennese day.

But this piece, this E-flat String Trio, Beethoven must have thought differently of – it might seem to be a “study,” one of those “go-and-do-likewise” kind of assignments – but on the whole it brings to mind the statement Count Waldstein, one of Beethoven's Bonn patrons, told him following news of Mozart's death and before he'd left for Vienna:

“May you receive the spirit of Mozart through the hands of Haydn.”

Perhaps, if he realized he wasn't getting this “spirit” from his teacher the way he'd hoped, he decided to do it on his own, by studying Mozart's own works and learning directly from them.

Here, the Grumiaux Trio plays the complete String Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3, by Ludwig van Beethoven (with score, for those who like to follow along):

While Beethoven may be a familiar name to most concert-goers, even an experienced music-lover (at least in Harrisburg) may be more curious about the other composers on the program.

Stay tuned.

- Dick Strawser