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Brahms began the second of his three Piano Trios in the summer of 1880 and finished it in the summer of 1882, years of marked change in his life. For one thing, as he became financially successful and internationally eminent as a composer (a position solidified with his first two symphonies in 1876 and 1877), he grew more into the role of composer and out of the role of piano virtuoso. He performed less, and colleagues noted that his piano technique was deteriorating, probably because of lack of practice. He noticed it himself, and in 1882 his longtime friend Clara Schumann wrote in her diary. “Brahms plays more and more abominably. It is now nothing but bump, bang, and scrabble.”

He also seemed to embrace middle age and its external trappings, perhaps deciding that, after a quarter of a century, being a boyishly handsome rake was more trouble than it was worth. One wag noted that before he grew his famous beard in 1878, he looked like Clara Schumann’s son, and after he grew it he looked like her father.

Brahms was pleased with his maturation as a composer, and seems to have been especially pleased with the C-major Trio and uncharacteristically eager to say so, writing to his publisher, “You have not yet had such a beautiful trio from me and very likely have not published its equal in the last ten years.” He had developed a leaner, more concise style in which material is worked out with greater economy, often using the “accompaniment” material from the very beginning of a movement as featured thematic material further on: he could lay his cards on the table at the beginning and still pull them out of a hat later.

Much of the C-major Trio’s character is revealed in the opening bars of its first movement, in which the violin and cello, without the piano, state the broad, sweeping theme together in octaves. The piano, when it enters, almost immediately begins playing a figure that accents every other beat of the triple meter, which means that while the violin and cello are playing in three, the piano is playing in two. Both events are indications of what is to come. Throughout the Trio, the two string instruments tend to form one unit, playing similar material in octaves, thirds, or sixths, while the piano accompanies, counters, or goes its own way. Indeed, all four movements begin with the violin and cello playing together in octaves, as if to signal their unity. And the Trio, like much of Brahms’ music, is filled both with cross-accents that make it seem that the basic meter has changed, or even halted (in fact, it almost never does either), and with cross-rhythms of two against three. The first movement is also noted for its profusion of themes, the first two of which remain largely the property of the violin and cello.

The second movement is a theme and five variations, or more accurately two themes and variations, since the syncopated accompaniment figure that the piano plays under the violin and cello’s theme is also treated as a theme to be developed and changed, most noticeably in the fourth variation. The gypsy/Hungarian flavor of the theme is, of course, no accident: Brahms’ interest in Hungarian music dated from his youth, when he collected Hungarian folk songs, and came to the attention of the musical world while touring with a Hungarian violinist in 1853.

The third movement is a brisk, jittery scherzo in C minor that sounds a bit like Mendelssohn in a dark mood. The tension is released when it blooms into a broad, soaring middle section of sublime lyricism. (Oddly, this is the one part of Op. 87 that Clara Schumann criticized when Brahms sent a copy for her opinion, writing back that it was “not quite important enough and seems rather manufactured.” She may have been fooled by the simplicity of it on the page; in any event, Brahms did not change it.)

The finale’s boisterous good cheer masks a composition that is subtle, clever, and impossible to pigeonhole into a standard form. It is laid out in a kind of sonata form, but the major themes reappear regularly, as in a rondo, and those reappearances tend to be of the complete but altered theme, as in a theme and variations. At the exact middle of the movement is an extended treatment of a short, jaunty descending motif, which is none other than the accompaniment to the first theme, laid on the table but pulled out of a hat.

— Howard Posner