Brahms Horn Trio

Katherine McLin, violin
Stephanie Blaha, horn
Andrew Campbell, piano


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1837): Sonata for Horn and Piano in F Major, Op. 17

The music that begins and concludes this afternoon’s program was inspired by the natural horn, the simpler ancestor of the more modern valved horn heard today. As its name suggests, the natural horn—the instrument known to Beethoven—had no valves. In short, such a horn could play a series of notes in whatever key the tubing was cut, plus various partials or harmonics, either by manipulating the lips or via hand-stopping, (adjusting the hand inside the bell to alter airflow). Obviously, manipulating the instrument beyond its “natural” tendencies required particular dexterity and around 1800 one such virtuoso, an Italian who went by the name of Giovanni Punto, came through Vienna. Here he met Beethoven who subsequently offered to accompany the hornist on a program that April, for which Beethoven also promised to compose a new work for the occasion. Beethoven’s Op. 17 Sonata was the result, although when the new work was announced for the program, it had yet to be written. This approach was certainly unusual for the composer, who more typically wrestled mightily with each new work of significance. The Horn Sonata, on the other hand, appears to have been dispatched rather quickly, and indeed it’s possible that at the concert Beethoven played from a rough sketch, having entrusted the finer details of the work to memory (or perhaps he was still working them out in the concert!).

Given that the work was composed in such a short time, one can hardly expect it to be among the composer’s best, but it is nonetheless a charming work, and one that certainly allowed for ample display of Punto’s virtuoso potential for hand stopping. The sonata opens with a heroic horn call, answered by a rather understated, though charming, piano melody—a give and take that sets the stage for much of what follows. In other words, the horn certainly seizes the spotlight from the start but Beethoven also uses the horn in accompanimental fashion in order to allow his own impressive piano playing to come center stage now and then. The second movement is a brief affair, acting as slow introduction to the rondo finale, whose opening idea features a series of leaps and an almost flippant series of mordents that will make it easily recognizable with each repetition. Standing in sharp contrast are the intervening lyrical episodes, lovely melodies illustrating that Beethoven could spin out lovely tunes with the best of them when so inspired. Still, this movement, like the opening Allegro, remained relatively light, playful entertainment, a quality we might regard as a welcome contrast to the weightier and more turbulent scores so often associated with Beethoven’s world.


Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 82

At least on this side of “the pond”, we hear relatively little music by the great English romantic, Edward Elgar. Of course, we are all overly familiar with his “Pomp and Circumstance” and concert goers have likely been treated to orchestral works such as his “Enigma Variations” or the Cello Concerto. But for the most part, the staggering number of pieces Elgar composed go largely unperformed and when we hear a masterwork such as the Violin Sonata in E minor, we have to wonder why? Composed in 1918, the Violin Sonata is a romantic gem, filled with heartbreaking melodies, magical sounds, and robust writing for both instruments. Though governed by the overall key of E minor, Elgar often strays from this tonality, as is the case with his impassioned opening that features an agitated theme in A minor (the key that will actually dominate the movement). This gives way to more relaxed, heartfelt material shared between the duo before this atmosphere is taken over by a series of string crossings, and which are answered in turn by short phrases in the piano. These three ideas will run their course in this rather “customary” sonata form movement save one surprise—Elgar closes the movement in the unexpected tonality of E major!

Following the “bold and vigorous”—Elgar’s words—first movement, things take a decidedly unique and personal turn. The Romance (Andante) opens with a whimsical exchange between the partners, one perhaps suggestive of the Pierrot-esque slow movement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata from several years earlier. But then Elgar introduces his secondary material in B-flat, a heartbreakingly romantic theme that moves us into another world entirely. Elgar himself admitted that it was a “fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for the violin [which] they say is as good or better than anything I have done in the expressive way…” This A-B-A movement then returns to the magical world of the opening, the heartbreak for the moment having evaporated.

Although cast in E major, the finale opens in a somber manner, marked Allegro non troppo, somewhat reminiscent of the sonata’s serious opening, though somewhat in reverse: this movement opens with broad lines that then give way to an agitated second theme. The movement’s overall atmosphere is one of fluidity—themes and ideas are presented in a variety of tempos, including the unexpected return of the Romance toward its end. Elgar had offered the dedication of the work to a family friend who sadly died before being able to respond to his offer, much less hear the work. As a tribute, Elgar brought back the “golden sounds” of the Romance near the end, before capping the coda with a final burst of romantic enthusiasm, a rousing conclusion to a work performed all too infrequently.


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, Op. 40

In 1865, Johannes Brahms remained something of an unknown. The 32-year-old would-be-composer from Hamburg had yet to write his first symphony, the genre upon which careers for would-be composers in German-speaking lands were built (Brahms’ concern of being capable of producing a symphonic work comparable to Beethoven’s weighed heavily), and though he had made inroads as a pianist, he had also been faced with a string of professional setbacks. Two years earlier he had moved to Vienna, where he had been appointed conductor of the city’s singing society, but Brahms certainly saw this as a step towards bigger things, and indeed would leave this post a year later, despite a lack of prospects. It was also at the start of 1865 that Brahms’ mother died.

Johanna Henrike Christiane Nissen had been a forty-one-year-old spinster when Johann Jakob, Brahms’ father, had become smitten with her in Hamburg, years earlier. Small, sickly, “plain of face,” in the words of Ian Swafford, and a gimpy leg too boot, it would seem Christiane had little going for her. Yet, her sparkling blue eyes (Brahms would inherit these eyes) must have spoken to Johann Jakob, and though seventeen years her junior, he took her as his wife. The marriage unfortunately didn’t last—Jakob would leave her much later—but Brahms always maintained a close affinity to his mother, who in turn often expressed her confidence in her son’s abilities. Now, in the summer of 1865, her death inspired his music making.

That May Brahms took lodging in his beloved Lichtental, near Baden-Baden, a picturesque village that had become his summer home away from home. He rented two rooms in a hillside house, from which he could see the nearby mountains, and quickly established his routine: waking at dawn, he made strong coffee and took a long walk, returned to his rooms for four hours of composing, and then spent the rest of the day leisurely, eating and spending time with friends. Among Brahms’ musical projects that summer was a trio that he envisioned from the start would include the Waldhorn. Brahms’ father had taught him to play the natural horn as a boy and it had been a favorite of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The Waldhorn, or forest or hunting horn, had its limitations, of course, since it couldn’t really stray from its home key, but it possessed inherent noble qualities (it was the horn of the Gods, after all) that resonated deeply with Brahms as well.

Brahms’ latest chamber offering reflected his deep feelings about his mother’s recent passing, and though no out and out requiem—that was another project begun earlier that year and which would occupy him for much of what remained of it—the E-flat Trio is certainly imbued with melancholy and sadness, particularly evident in the solemn adagio, which carries the unusual Brahmsian marking “mesto”, or sad. Whether or not these feelings had anything thing to do with the fact that Brahms wouldn’t compose another chamber work for eight years afterwards, they were certainly a testament to his grief and, in a way, opened the door for some novel compositional concepts, testing grounds that appear here for the first, and sometimes, last time.

Among the many striking features of the trio is the fact that many of its themes are drawn from the violin’s opening phrase. Of course, beginning with a slow movement is another unusual feature of this work, not to mention that the trio as a whole is comprised of four movements, not the more traditional three, perhaps hearkening back to the four-movement church sonata of the Baroque era. The A-B-A-B-A rondo form of the opening Andante is also more simply organized than the rather sophisticated sonata forms common to his other opening movements—in fact, this is the only opening movement of a major work by Brahms not constructed in sonata form! The violin will then also introduce the more agitated second idea, and these two ideas will be swapped out over the course of the movement.

A playful Scherzo offers momentary relief from the somber qualities of the movements that surround it. Like the others, its constructed in the key of E-flat, that in which the horn is built, and its thematic ideas are mined from the same ore that make their way through all of the trio’s movements. And, as if not to forget itself entirely, the “trio” at the center of this movement is imbued with feelings of nostalgia that are so much a part of the larger work. The centerpiece of Brahms’ score is the Adagio mesto, a mournful dirge established by the piano alone and which leaves no doubt about the composer’s frame of mind while at work on the trio. When played on the open horn, the performer has to “stop” the instrument in order to negotiate pitches beyond those naturally available, creating a haunting quality that certainly spoke to Brahms, particularly in this time of grief. In fact, Brahms ends the movement on just such a note, the horn’s closing G-flat.

Rather than allow grief to color the work’s conclusion, Brahms closes his trio in a playful mood, as if determined that the lasting memories are joyous ones. The muscular Allegro con brio has everything we might expect in a finale from this master, including sophisticated musical dialogue—listen how the opening figure is later submerged becoming the development’s accompaniment—and forward drive. And as for the hunting calls, thoughts of Christiane may have dominated the deeper moments of the work, but there is no mistaking the hunting horn, noble echoes from the nearby mountains Brahms could nearly have made out from the room in which this music was composed.

© Marc Moskovitz