JOHANNES BRAHMS: Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, op. 101

The last of Brahms’s three piano trios, and possibly the least known of the three, is a powerful work in the composer’s late, concise style. There is no leisurely and expansive enjoyment of sensuous thematic interplay, such as had characterized the First Trio in B major, published as Opus 8—even that work’s late revision tightened the structure considerably. Few Brahmsian works are kept more strictly under control than Opus 101, which was the last work he produced during an especially fruitful summer vacation in Switzerland in 1886, in which his imagination evidently overflowed with the sounds of violin, cello, and piano.

The new Trio was played privately at the home of local friends soon after its completion, but perhaps the most interesting performance came in Leipzig, early in January 1888. Brahms was to be the pianist, and the rehearsal was held on the morning of New Year’s Day in the home of a mutual friend, who invited Brahms to stay for dinner, when they were to be joined by his friend Edvard Grieg and Grieg’s wife Nina. Also staying as a guest in the house, and invited to dinner, was a visitor from Russia, Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky, who had only met Brahms once previously. 

Neither Brahms nor Tchaikovsky held a high opinion of the other’s music, and the Russian composer was no doubt shocked to find, upon returning from a walk, that Brahms was conducting his rehearsal in the living room. His host invited Tchaikovsky to listen. Somewhat nonplussed, the Russian suggested that perhaps it would be an intrusion, but Brahms assured him he was welcome. “Besides,” said Brahms, with his genial, bumptious gruffness, “this is not at all interesting.” Unfortunately Tchaikovsky agreed, and when, at the end of the rehearsal, some response was clearly expected of him, he found himself speechless, to the embarrassment of all concerned. The atmosphere at dinner was thus a little tense, though it was lightened by the charm of the Griegs and by Brahms’s determination to be cordial. Still, all parties heaved a sigh of relief when the social ordeal was over.

The C minor Trio manages to combine elements from the other two chamber works composed that summer, taking the Cello Sonata’s emotional turbulence and the Violin Sonata’s brevity. Brahms was clearly determined to make it a compact work; he even crossed out the repetition of the first movement exposition that he had originally intended. The minor key predominates in the score, and it projects moods of defiance and unease. Even the secondary subject—though it seems at first to be on the verge of becoming a swinging Viennese waltz, like those the Brahms admired so from the pen of his friend Johann Strauss, Jr.—never quite relaxes. The short development works both themes together and restates them with even greater brevity in grim, tragic determination.The scherzo is delicately shaped, but it remains in the minor key, which inevitably gives the air of something stealthy and suppressed, devoid of joyous outbursts.

Brahms originally wrote the slow movement, in C major, in 7/4 time, a most unusual feature, but even this meter required adjustment because of the wonderful flexibility of his rhythms and phrase structures. In the end he settled on irregular alternations of 3/4 and 2/4, most often forming a 3+2+2 pattern, which is that of the original conception. His treatment of the violin and cello playing together without piano already foreshadows the texture and the sonorities of the Double Concerto, which was to be his next work. The middle section, too, features an unusual rhythmic pattern, alternating 9/8 and 6/8 to produce the equivalent of 15/8.

The finale, with its fast 6/8 meter, feels something like a scherzo, though it is much more fiery and energetic. Finally, it brightens to C major at the ending, though the close is more vigorous than either warm or mellow. Brahms’s close friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg once commented in a letter to him that the Trio was “better than any photograph, for it shows your real self.” It is hard to guess exactly what she meant by this, though certainly the energy and drive, coupled with occasional glints of good humor and a powerful feeling of self-control can be read from these notes—and all those we know to be essential to Brahms’s character. —© S. L.