Writ­ten by J. Lawrie Bloom

We  open our next Civ­i­tas con­cert with the won­der­ful Op. 11 Trio, referred to as the “Gassen­hauer”, of Lud­wig van Beethoven.  Haydn had estab­lished the string quar­tet, and the piano trio as accept­ed ensem­ble instru­men­ta­tions.  The idea of using a sin­gle wind with strings was not uncom­mon par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Mannheim com­posers.  Mozart pushed the trio idea with his land­mark “Kegel­statt” Trio for the more dis­parate instru­men­ta­tion of clar­inet, vio­la and piano.  Now Beethoven takes it a step fur­ther, pair­ing the clar­inet with the much low­er pitched cel­lo, and piano.  His pub­lish­ers made him pub­lish with a ver­sion for vio­lin, cel­lo and piano, to increase sales.


Beethoven wrote for winds quite ear­ly in his career, includ­ing the trio, the quin­tet for piano and winds Op. 16, and the great Septet, Op. 20 com­plet­ed when he was 30.  He may have writ­ten this trio for the clar­inetist Joseph Beer, though there is no doc­u­men­ta­tion that he ever played it, hav­ing com­plained that it was not vir­tu­osic enough for his prodi­gious tal­ents.

In cer­tain ways it is one of Beethoven’s most “con­ven­tion­al” pieces, though of course he sur­pris­es us nonethe­less.  In the first move­ment the three instru­ments start the first theme in octaves in Bb major, but the sec­ond theme comes in in D major, not what might be expect­ed in clas­sic sonata form.  And the devel­op­ment uti­lizes this 2nd theme, not the first, also a delight­ful sur­prise.

The sec­ond move­ment opens with a gor­geous cel­lo solo, some say one of the most beau­ti­ful he ever wrote.  Repeat­ed by the clar­inet, the instru­ments then engage in a musi­cal con­ver­sa­tion of great sim­plic­i­ty and beau­ty.

It is the third move­ment from which the piece gained it’s sub­ti­tle, the “Gassen­hauer”.  The play 33 Vari­a­tions focus­es on the Dia­bel­li Vari­a­tions that Beethoven wrote in response to a request from Dia­bel­li, who sent to many well known com­posers a theme of his writ­ing, ask­ing each to write one vari­a­tion, to be pub­lished in one vol­ume.  When Beethoven keeps putting Dia­bel­li off, and final­ly offers a set of 33 vari­a­tions, the mod­ern day musi­col­o­gist won­ders was Beethoven mak­ing fun of Dia­bel­li, writ­ing so much on what is a some­what sil­ly theme?  Ulti­mate­ly she con­cludes that Beethoven just saw more in the theme than any­one else had seen.

Like­wise in the Op. 11 trio Beethoven takes as his theme a “gessen­hauer”, street song, tak­en from Josef Weigl’s opera The Cor­sair, very pop­u­lar in Vien­na at the time.  From this sim­ple, almost sil­ly theme, the words of which begin “before I work, I must have some­thing to eat”, Beethoven weaves a won­der­ful set of vari­a­tions of great charm and delight.


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