Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Menuetto: Allegretto
Movement 4: Adagio
Movement 5: Menuetto: Moderato
Movement 6: Finale: Allegro
Beethoven’s important early works for string trio seem to have been composed fairly independently of his teachers, and were probably written as vehicles for self-instruction in what was then considered to be a ‘difficult’ musical medium. The Trio in E flat major, Op 3, was composed in mid or late 1795. It opens with a bold, almost orchestral effect, combining syncopation with repeated chords in a brusque first subject. The whole work is notable for its clever variety of rhythms and textures, and its defined character is remarkable even if we compare it with the more assertive aspects of the Opus 1 Piano Trios, the Opus 2 Piano Sonatas, or other known early Vienna products. It has been suggested that the six-movement structure of Op 3 was directly modelled on Mozart’s recently published (by Artaria in 1792) Divertimento in E flat major for string trio, K563, in which, also, two different Menuetto and Trio alternative pairs are heard on either side of a slow fourth movement, but if Beethoven was indeed affected by the earlier masterpiece, it seems rather that he was reacting to, or even against, Mozart in this work. Not until the Serenade in D major, Op 8, was Beethoven to choose a more divertimento-like style and address. The Allegro con brio (considered to be a fast speed at that time), with both its fiery opening material and much of the lighter material, would have been tricky for standard string players—especially in the key of E flat, not then regarded as ideal for strings. The premature ‘false recapitulation’ in F minor anticipates the proper one by nearly forty bars, extending the development section to about twice its predictable length, but the forward pointing of the thematic restlessness compensates for these rather unorthodox proportions. Beethoven was still composing his Opus 1 (three piano trios) around 1795, and at some early stage he started to adapt the first movement of this work for that medium; the authority of his copying hand is clear, even though suggestions for keyboard figures seem to be much more sketchy.
The Andante—in more standard sonata form—is built intriguingly around gentle anacruses and figures in which rests seem almost as important as sounded notes. Although the development is more in the manner of a sonatina movement than one from a sonata, a delightful touch appears soon after the recapitulation where the extension of the opening by the viola is no longer doubled at the octave by the violinist, as formerly, but is instead accompanied by expressive descanting figures. A few bars later in the recapitulation the rhythms are cunningly disguised to create an illusion that the players have drifted out of syncopation, but Beethoven is simply developing rhythmic patterns to their own benefit. A notable device just before each double bar is the stressed off-beat ostinato in the viola part. The special features of this movement were all to continue as Beethoven trademarks for many years; this Andante in B flat seems particularly to anticipate the Eighth Symphony, composed in 1812. The two Menuetti, each to be heard alternativement with its Trio (the second Trio actually being headed simply ‘minore’), demand different tempos (the standard Allegretto and the faster Moderato, respectively). In each case the rather more pointed and even slightly military character of the Menuetto is offset by the lighter Trio—indeed the ‘minore’ seems eventually to evaporate in solo-violin heights of ecstasy; the far from impractical Beethoven sees to it that his soloist has time to descend from the high position before having to start either the repeat or the reprise of the Menuetto: Moderato. The warmly expressive Adagio in A flat is fluidly expressive, with the instruments exchanging the coloratura lines in a remarkably mature manner. The A flat Adagio of the later Piano Sonata Op 10 No 1 inhabits a similarly expansive world to even more striking harmonic effect.
The Finale: Allegro of Opus 3 probably owes some debt to Beethoven’s contrapuntal studies with Albrechtsberger, who seems to have stood in semi-officially for Haydn during the latter’s absences abroad during the mid-1790s. In any event it is a witty contrapuntal movement, of the emphatic type that remained a Beethoven speciality long after he had ceased to compose string trios—the motto-adorned last quartet movement (Op 135, movement 4) has something of the same manner, and there are examples also in the last piano sonatas. Here, as later, the composer is apparently not at all worried when, at times, strict counterpoint has to make way for even more emphasis, such as from bar 199 where each of the participating solo lines enters in turn with the same triplet subject; it looks like fugue, but actually it is but the same declamation, amplified threefold by repetitions at the octave. That is yet another Beethoven trademark, already displayed at the age of twenty-four.
from notes by Stephen Daw © 1998