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Name of Work

Brahms, Johannes (1833-1897)
Horn Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 40 (2007)

Andante - Poco piu animato
Scherzo: Allegro
Adagio mesto
Allegro con brio


Feb 25, 2007

Gail Williams, Horn
Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Deborah Sobol, Piano

Feb 26, 2007

Gail Williams, Horn
Joseph Genualdi, Viola
Deborah Sobol, Piano

BRAHMS-Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 40

Composed in 1865

Writing about his Op. 40 trio, Brahms said: "If the horn player is not obliged by the stopped notes [of the natural horn] to play softly, the piano and violin are not obliged to adapt themselves to him, and the tone will be rough from the beginning." This statement gives us a clear idea of how he wanted his trio to sound: mellow and well-blended. He specified the natural horn partly because he liked and sought that particular subdued sonority, but also because the valve horn, a mid-19th century invention, was not yet fully perfected. Schumann's Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano was the first major composition written with the new instrument in mind, but Brahms, unlike Schumann, was innately conservative. He also knew a great deal about horns in general, since his father had played that instrument and he had learned it as a boy. Its sonority is featured prominently in several of his orchestral works, and reminds us of his penchant in general for mellow-toned, middle-range instruments: clarinets, horns, violas and cellos.

With the improvement over decades of the valve horn, there is no longer any reason to employ the older instrument from the points of view of either technique or balance, and the trio is routinely played using a valve horn.

Probably the most "abstract" of all Romantic-era composers, Brahms seldom attributed external inspiration to his works or their themes, but, with this trio, he cited an early-morning walk in the woods and a sudden ray of sunshine as the stimulus for the opening horn melody. The piece as a whole was conceived as a memorial to his recently deceased mother. This circumstance links the work to the German Requiem, also composed in the 1860s. The trio was premiered in the German city of Karlsruhe, with Brahms at the piano.

Expressions of grief form a major element of Brahms' Horn Trio, but they are not as pervasive as in Shostakovich's quartet. Something very striking, in fact, about the trio is its many emotional contrasts – happy songlike themes, muffled elegies and exuberant hunting calls coexist in the same work. The sequence of the four movements is quite unusual, especially for Brahms, who was a firm proponent of Classical-era procedures and in every other of his chamber works constructed the first movement in the traditional sonata form of exposition, development and recapitulation with two contrasting keys, the given tonic and its related dominant. Here, however, the first movement is a rondo, a principal major-mode theme in Andante (moderately slow) contrasted with two sections marked “a little more animated,” which are cast in minor modes. The Andante portions are in duple meter, the alternating portions are in triple, and a number of different keys are explored through a mini-riot of ingenious modulations; the final return of the Andante is in the rather remote key of G-flat major.

The basically lyrical nature of the Andante is broken out by the intense and vigorous sound of the Scherzo. Its main Allegro section has two contrasting themes in sonata tradition; this returns to close the movement, but only after we have heard a plaintive Trio section, marked to be played “much slower,” and set in the harmonically distant key of A-flat minor. There is a powerful emotional contrast among the three sections of this scherzo, foreshadowing the pathos of the work's emotional center, the Adagio mesto that comes next.

This movement, in E-flat minor, remembers Brahms' mother by quoting a German folksong, the kind of melody the composer greatly loved and re-used in many different contexts. This one is called There Among the Willows Stands a House. The central portion of this three-part Adagio (A-B-A) is in B-flat minor, and is based on a derivative of the main theme that is presented as a canon by horn, then violin, then pianist. The Adagio culminates in a heartfelt climax for all three instruments.

The main theme of the sonata-form finale, Allegro con brio, is related to the folksong and also to a traditional German chorale, Wer nur den lieben Gott. The tempo is much faster and the mood much different, so that it really comes forth as a different theme altogether. The horn emerges as the leader in a lively conclusion that recalls open fields and lively chases, perhaps harkening back also to that sunrise stroll in the woods that inspired the work's very first theme.

Program Notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

Performance date: February 25 & 26, 2007

Performance Audio

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