Music I Love: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, by Brahms

Work: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8
Composer: Johannes Brahms
Year: 1854 (Original Version); 1889 (Final Version)

Movements:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Allegro molto – Trio (Meno allegro)
  3. Adagio
  4. Finale (Allegro)

Brahms is a fascinating composer to me; aside from the beauty and passion of his music, he was a notorious perfectionist, burning old manuscripts if he felt they weren’t up to his standard – even years after he originally wrote them. His piano trio in B – listed as his first, and only his eighth composition ever – is dated 1889, only eight years before Brahms’ death in 1897. Brahms wasn’t a particularly prolific composer – following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert, but he wrote more than eight works in his lifetime.

The reason his first piano trio has such a late composition date is because it was, in fact, originally written in 1854, when Brahms was only twenty-one. A sprawling opus, it’s one of the few surviving early manuscripts that Brahms left behind; so many others were lost to his passion for perfection. Brahms rewrote the piano trio in 1889, significantly shortening several movements and almost completely rewriting others.

It’s interesting, because to listen to the two versions side by side doesn’t immediately reveal one as better than the other; in many ways, they’re simply different. The opening melody of the first movement, introduced on piano for a few measures before the cello and violin enter, is heart-meltingly beautiful, and luckily one of the things Brahms didn’t change, but it isn’t long before the two pieces diverge, and don’t really come back again at all.

It brings up the complex relationship between the artist and the audience. If Brahms had had his way, no one would ever be aware of the 1854 version of the work; we’d all only know (and the version that is most often performed, is, of course) the 1889 version. But are they two distinct works? Or is one simply a revision of the other, to be known and played whilst the original settles to dust?

Once published, who does art belong to? Does the artist have the right to retract a piece of music that, for thirty-five years, stood untouched and was beloved the world over? What happens to the original, when the new one is so significantly changed?

I don’t think there are any simple answers to this, but it is a curiosity that, in this instance, we have the ability to hear what Brahms thought was good music at twenty-one, and to hear his opinion of that same music at fifty-six (clearly he didn’t care for most of it).

As for me, I’ll gladly listen to either version – from the gloriously melodic opening of the first movement (one of Brahms’ best melodies by far) to the jittery unease of the Scherzo and the passion of the Finale, this is easily one of my favorite pieces of music in the world.

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