Trio in E-flat major for horn, violin and piano, op. 40 (Brahms)

Program note

French Horn
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Trio in E flat major for horn, violin and piano, op. 40

Andante ­– poco più animato
Scherzo: Allegro – Molto meno allegro – Allegro
Adagio mesto
Finale: Allegro con brio

In Recollections of Johannes Brahms, German composer and conductor Albert Dietrich remembers walking with his friend in the woods above Baden-Baden. During their walk, Brahms stopped to point out a place he claimed inspired the theme from the first movement of his Opus 40 Horn Trio, premiered years before. ‘I was walking along one morning,’ Brahms said. ‘And as I came to this spot the sun shone out and with it this theme.’

The bright first movement of the Trio, which Brahms wrote in the summer of 1865, is brimming with pastoral beauty – an affect the composer sought to emphasise by writing this music for the ‘Waldhorn’ or natural horn, the predecessor of the modern French horn. Brahms’ father, Jakob, was a horn player and double bass player, and it was Jakob who gave the young Johannes his first music lessons. It is not a stretch to suggest that Brahms had a personal connection to the instrument, which he used to such magical effect in his symphonies.

The Horn Trio’s galloping Scherzo recalls the Waldhorn’s origins in hunting, but the movement’s slower central section – material borrowed from a piano piece Brahms wrote some ten years before – takes on a mournful, yearning quality.

Brahms’ mother died earlier in 1865 and you can hear the composer’s grief in this slow section as well as in the third movement, marked Adagio mesto – a sad adagio, almost a funeral march. The third movement contains some of Brahms’ most heartfelt writing. ‘He who is searching for pure beauty, direct from the creator of all things, need look no further than the two solo bars for the horn announcing the second theme of the Adagio,’ wrote American musicologist Henry Drinker. ‘Nor is there, in all music, a more beautiful passage than that where this theme in the violin combines with the first theme in the piano, to express a musical thought obviously different from each of the two.’

The sun shines again in the rollicking finale, with its boisterous, syncopated jabs, but the energetic Allegro con brio still contains occasional moments of quiet reflection.

Brahms wrote to Dietrich to tell him how pleased he was with the Horn Trio after its first private performance in December 1865. Several years later Brahms’ friend and mentor Clara Schumann played the piano part in a performance, later describing the Horn Trio in her diary as a ‘truly spirited and thoroughly interesting work’.

‘The first movement,’ she wrote, ‘is full of the most ingratiating melodies, and the last movement, teeming with fresh life.’

© Angus McPherson, 2022

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