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Op. 1, No. 1 sounds like it ought to be the beginning of the story, but Beethoven had composed dozens of pieces before this, including another piano trio. (Opus numbers are not reliable chronological guides to Beethoven’s music. The Octet, Op. 103, for example, was written before the Op. 1 trios.) The three piano trios of Op. 1 are, however, “statement” pieces, a compositional debut carefully calculated for maximum return. They were dedicated to Prince Karl Lichnowsky, in whose Vienna home they were premiered. Lichnowsky enlisted many of his aristocratic friends to subscribe to the edition Beethoven published in 1795, to great artistic and financial success.

Probably much of this music had been begun in Beethoven’s native Bonn and refined during the composer’s brief study with Haydn, who wrote many piano trios himself. Beethoven took this popular form of musical entertainment and enlarged its dimensions – these are in four movements each, when three movements was the prevailing standard – and its technical and expressive demands, particularly for the string players, who previously had been limited to modest accompaniment of the pianist. (Beethoven played the premiere himself, with violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and cellist Anton Kraft, musicians who would continue to be important to him.)

Beethoven opens with a vigorous, well-defined sonata form of exposition, development, and recapitulation, and further development in the sort of expansive coda that would become a hallmark of the composer. The gracious lyricism of the slow movement would have been expected, though not the violin’s and cello’s share of it (after the piano introduces the proceedings alone), nor the extra scope of the rondo form – three appearances of the main theme separated by contrasting episodes, including a luxuriantly emotional minor-key detour. The opening motif of the Scherzo is harmonically bent, presaging the rambunctious movement’s flirtations with the dark side. The Finale is all leaping energy and high spirits, moments of mock-solemn rhetoric or flamboyant passion notwithstanding.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.