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In 1797 Beethoven dedicated a set of piano variations to the wife of a certain Count Browne, an Austrian nobleman of Irish extraction whose wealth, derived, it seems, from serving the Russian Imperial family, “resulted in squander and dissipation.” He even spent a period of his life in an unnamed “institution.” His thanks for the dedication took the form of a horse, which Beethoven rode a few times and then forgot about, forgetting even to feed it. Doubtless Beethoven had no thought of securing a second horse when a year later he offered a second dedication, this time to the Count himself. This was a set of three string trios, Op. 9, described by Beethoven in his dedicatory letter as “la meilleure de mes œuvres.”

Despite the brilliance of his early piano trios and piano sonatas, the string trios may be viewed with some justice as the best of his works to date. Under the shadow of the great heroic works of the middle period and the unearthly quality of the later music, Beethoven’s early period has been undervalued. Even if he had not lived to write the “Eroica,” he would have been a major master. Listening to the string trios we should think of him as the young man recently arrived in Vienna from Bonn, a piano virtuoso with good hearing and excellent contacts in high society, who was also a fertile composer with an extraordinary gift of melody and limitless invention.

Although he was known as a pianist, he writes for strings with no trace of piano idiom but with a fluent command of the three instruments. These works are more than early glimpses of what he was later to do with the string quartet, although it is striking that having once embarked a year later on writing string quartets he never went back to the string trio.

He is already treating the key of C minor as a special domain for the expression of intense feeling. The first four notes even suggest the dramatic intensity of his later music. The first movement of this Trio is marked by dramatic tension and a sense of urgency, in complete contrast with the heavenly slow movement in C major. Here Beethoven writes the opening bars in four parts (using double stopping), as if he was already warming up for the string quartets to come. The Scherzo, back in C minor, has great vitality and rhythmic bite, and a contrasting Trio section in major. The work ends with an even quicker presto, full of scurrying scales and a whimsical, Haydnesque ending. By 1798 Beethoven was already trying to tell us always to expect the unexpected, except of course when he chose to offer the expected instead.

— Hugh Macdonald