Stay in tune. Join our mailing list.
Allegro con bio
Tema con variazioni: Pria ch'io l'impegno
The premiere of Ludwig van Beethoven’s First Symphony was still a few years off when he wrote his Opus 11 Trio. Originally scored for clarinet, cello and piano, Beethoven prudently published it, in 1798, with flexible instrumentation to maximise sales. In this Trio we hear the ‘Classical’ Beethoven, the young composer beginning to forge a unique voice but still indebted to his predecessors, Mozart and Haydn. The piece is ‘elegant and ingratiating’ in the words of Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford: ‘à la Mozart, in his light vein’.
The Trio earned the nickname ‘Gassenhauer’ for its finale, a theme and variations on a melody, ‘Pria ch’io l’impegno’ (before I go to work), from an opera by Joseph Weigl. The term gassenhauer refers to a melody so popular and catchy that it’s sung or whistled in the alleys – the gassen – of Vienna.
The piano introduces this eminently whistle-able tune, with jaunty bassoon accompaniment, at the beginning of the final movement. What follows is a series of nine variations based on that melody, beginning with solo piano, then a duet between clarinet and bassoon. The minor-key fourth variation ushers in a more sombre mood, while the ninth sees the bassoon chasing the clarinet, always a couple of beats behind – before trills from the piano announce a quirky final flourish.
The third movement might be where the Trio gets its name, but the first two are no less charming. The Allegro con brio brims with life – and just a touch of the chromaticism audiences would hear more of in Beethoven’s later works – while the Adagio opens with an expressive bassoon melody, soon handed over to the clarinet. Listen out for the beautiful sighing figures traded between the two wind instruments over the piano’s undulating accompaniment.
© Angus McPherson 2023