Beethoven’s first published opus was a set of three trios for piano, violin, and cello, which appeared in Vienna in 1795. After a hiatus of more than a decade, the mature, established composer returned to the medium, upon finishing the “Pastoral” Symphony in the summer of 1808. In his op. 1 trios, Beethoven had experimented with featuring the two string instruments more prominently than in the keyboard-dominated trios of Mozart and Haydn. With the op.70 trios, full emancipation has been gained; witness the free conversational interplay between equals that is one of the glories of the Viennese classical style.
The D major Geistertrio (“Ghost Trio”) begins with a rousing “call to attention” by the three instruments in unison, which is immediately countered by a lyrical response in the cello. This opening at once establishes the capricious nature of a movement that trades on abrupt contrasts of texture and dynamics. These two motifs permeate the movement, even appearing simultaneously at one point in the central development section. The D minor Largo assai ed espressivo which inspired the nickname “Ghost Trio” is one of the slowest slow movements in all Beethoven. The eerie tremolos in the bowels of the piano, unearthly quasi-orchestral textures, and bizarre notation are derived from sketches Beethoven made for the witches’ scene for an abandoned Macbeth opera, a favorite subject of the Romantic age. Thematic material is fragmented to the point of incoherence, coalescing with unstable harmonies to evoke a mood of Gothic anxiety. The finale restores us to the familiar world of cheery conviviality, with genial themes and clearly defined sonata form. The movement’s pregnant pauses and harmonic feints, which undergo delicious elaboration in the coda, convey Beethoven’s droll music wit. Basil Smallman, in his historical overview of the piano trio, describes this finale as “an admirable compound of high spirits, wit, and occasional rustic good humor.”