Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, April 3, 1897
Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8
Composed in 1854, revised in 1889; 33 minutes
Johannes Brahms’s well-known penchant for revising, or even destroying, compositions with which he was unsatisfied has been widely recognized. Even for Brahms, however, the 35-year interval between this Trio’s composition and its later revision is unusual. What happened?
In September 1853 the 20-year-old Brahms had sought out Robert and Clara Schumann, the famous composer and his equally famous concert pianist wife, and the three formed an instant, intimate bond of friendship. Robert Schumann immediately wrote in his journal, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, a lavishly complimentary essay announcing to the world that Johannes Brahms, composer extraordinaire, had appeared. Shortly thereafter, though, Schumann jumped into the Rhine River in an abortive suicide attempt. He entered an asylum, near Bonn, and would die two and a half years later.
The distraught Brahms, hearing of Schumann’s condition, rushed back to Dusseldorf to lend support to Clara, then in the fifth month of her tenth pregnancy. By then, Brahms was deep into the composition of his first substantial chamber work, the Piano Trio in B major, and it received its first tryout at the Schumann home, with Brahms asking Clara herself to play the piano as an attempt at consolation during her grief. Clara herself professed some reservations about the piece, but nevertheless, upon her recommendation, her publisher, Breitkopf & Hartel, issued the work in 1854, and it received its first public performance in October 1855, in Danzig. Still, perhaps in part due to the tumultuous circumstances surrounding its initial run-through, Brahms was never fully satisfied with the work.
Thirty-five years later the Trio and its flaws were still on Brahms’s mind, and in 1889, while he was on one of his well-known working vacations, he took out the score and began to revise. “With what childlike amusement I spend the lovely summer days you will never guess,” he wrote to Clara. “I have rewritten my B-major Trio.” And to another friend he wrote that he had not provided it “with a wig, but just combed and arranged its hair a little.”
Brahms’s revisions were, in fact, so extensive that it caused some dismay from the many people who had loved the original. For his part, Brahms seemed satisfied with the new version of the Trio, but he was also content to let the original version remain in circulation, though it is rarely heard today. Brahms himself was at the piano when the new Op. 8 was premiered in Budapest on January 10, 1890, with violinist Jeno Hubay and cellist David Popper.
The two versions of the B-major Trio have been widely analyzed and compared—analyses that are easily available to those wanting further insights into the music. The sonata-form first movement of the revision is built upon a principle theme in B major and a secondary theme in G sharp minor, both introduced by the piano. After a huge climax, the strings reiterate the main theme, which introduces a brief recapitulation before the conclusion. Brahms left the second movement, Scherzo, relatively untouched in his revision. Its changing moods include light-heartedness, exuberance, warmth and drama, with a repetition of the Scherzo and a short coda to complete the movement.
The third movement, an Adagio in three-part form, contains familiar Brahmsian features: rich timbre in the strings over the piano’s full sound, moving dialogue between the piano and the strings, and a passionate cello theme. The cello introduces the Finale as well, with a second theme emerging energetically from the piano. The movement closes with a coda in which the first subject predominates.
© 2014, Sandra Hyslop
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