Serenade: the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD The Music part 2
Trio in E-Flat Major for Piano, Violin, and Horn, Op.40 (1865)
Brahms spent the summer of 1865 in the little town of Lichtenthal in the Black Forest near Baden-Baden. Lichtenthal was home to a flourishing artists' colony, and Brahms, surrounded by congenial friends, could indulge his passion for long walks through the woods. He had a special reason to seek the solitude of the forests: His mother had died on January 31 of that year, and he was still coming to terms with the loss. The Horn Trio, composed that summer, was intended at least in part as a memorial to his mother. The beautiful slow movement contains a quotation from the Rhenish folksong "In den Weiden steht ein Haus" ("In the Willows Stands a House"), an evocation of happy childhood memories.
The lovely and peaceful forest setting seems to have had a profound effect on the Horn Trio. Brahms said that the opening theme came to him during a walk along wooded heights among fir trees, and many have noted the calm, almost pastoral nature of this music. The Horn Trio is not so much elegiac, though, as reflective and commemorative; Brahms observed the death of his mother not by wearing his heart on his sleeve but by writing gentle and beautiful music.
The opening movement is remarkable for not being in sonata form. Aware that sonata form would bring a type of musical drama alien to the spirit of this trio, Brahms instead cast it in rondo form: The opening Andante episode occurs three times, separated by a slightly quicker section marked Poco più animato. The calm beginning, the section that came to Brahms on his walk through the woods, has drawn special praise: American composer Daniel Gregory Mason called it a sort of symbol of all that is most romantic in music. Brahms specifies that he wants this opening section played dolce, espressivo, and it alternates with the violin's surging, rising line of the Poco più animato before the movement comes to a quiet close. By contrast, the boisterous Scherzo flies along on resounding triplets. Its brief trio section, in the unusual key of A-flat minor, features a long duet for violin and horn.
Brahms gave the third movement the unusual marking Adagio mesto (slow, sad), and the piano's rolled chords at the very beginning set the mood for this somber and grieving music. Again, violin and horn trade expressive melodic lines, and the music rises to a climax marked passionata, where violin and horn soar high above the piano accompaniment before the music drifts into silence.
The concluding Allegro con brio has struck many as the most hornlike of the movements, for it is built on a brilliant 6/8 meter reminiscent of hunting-horn calls. Brahms has prepared the way for this movement by quietly inserting, at a very slow tempo, the shape of its main theme in the slow movement. The finale seems never to slow down, never to lose its energy, and the Horn Trio rushes to its close in a blaze of color and excitement.
Brahms originally wrote the trio for the Waldhorn, or natural horn, the precursor of the modern valved French horn. The player had to use his lips or stop the bell with his hand to generate each note. It was an extremely difficult instrument to play accurately, and virtually every performance today, including the one on this CD, uses the valved horn. Recognizing that the unusual combination of piano, violin, and horn might result in few performances, Brahms made arrangements of the trio that substituted viola or cello for the horn. But these versions are almost never played today; the music may suit the substitute instruments' range, but not their temperaments, for the trio takes much of its character from the rich and noble sonority of the French horn.