Brahms: Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 101

Program Note

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 101 (1886)

A short, plump, fifty-three-year-old man clad in a striped flannel shirt, muddy walking boots, pants cropped unskillfully with dull scissors, a satchel filled with books that looked to his friends “as if it belonged to a wandering geologist and were full of stones,” and a grandmotherly gray shawl pinned unfashionably to his chest, could be seen trekking up the mountains around Lake Thun, Switzerland, during the summer of 1886. The man puffed and grumbled in a shockingly high-pitched voice all the way up. When he reached the top, he would stop to read at least one of his books or to smoke a cigar. He would then tumble down the mountain cheerfully, going at least twice the pace that he ascended. This was Johannes Brahms on summer vacation.

Interspersed with walks and morning coffee-drinking and cigar-smoking were evenings spent reading and discussing philosophy, politics, and music with friends. The writer and critic Joseph Viktor Widmann was a great source of company for Brahms during this summer. It was his house where Brahms and friends congregated for impromptu concerts. Hermine Spies, the soprano with whom Brahms shamelessly flirted but kept at an arm’s length, showed up for a week, as well as Gustav Jenner, one of the only students Brahms ever taught. 

One day, after taking the time to look through some of Jenner’s pieces and mercilessly marking them up, Brahms told him, “When ideas come to you, go for a walk; then you will discover that the thing you thought was a complete thought was actually only the beginning of one.” Given this insight into Brahms’s compositional process, it is hardly surprising that, with his surroundings, the summer of 1886 was one of his most prolific writing seasons. In just three months he wrote the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99; the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 and the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108; many of the songs included in the Op. 104 and Op. 105 cycles; and his Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 101

Lasting only twenty-five minutes, Brahms’s Piano Trio in C Minor is more succinct than many of his other works. In a typical Brahmsian fashion, he takes one motive, one idea, and develops it throughout the rest of the piece. Brahms is pegged in music history as an atavist. His study of the greats—of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven—is well documented (so well, that Brahms’s First Symphony is often nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth”). Certainly, during his life, Brahms was the counterrevolutionary to Wagner and Liszt. While they were breaking with tradition to create new, programmatic musical forms, Brahms stayed firmly rooted in the structures of the past. 

However, one of the most progressive and influential revolutionaries in musical history disagreed with this regressive picture of Brahms. Arnold Schoenberg, the first composer to experiment with the 12-tone row, wrote an essay in 1947 called “Brahms the Progressive,” in which he explains how Brahms was revolutionary in his own way. Rather than creating entirely new forms, Brahms found a way to establish his own prosaic freedom through the subtle evolution of motives and the dissolution of rhythmic symmetry. His Piano Trio in C Minor is a perfect example of this. In the first movement, the pulse becomes systematically obscured; in the third movement, Brahms breaks with tradition to write an intermezzo that alternates between beat groupings of seven and five. 

As Schoenberg wrote, “Real popularity, lasting popularity, is only attained in those rare cases where power of expression is granted to men who dwell intensely in the sphere of basic human sentiments.” Brahms spoke to audiences during his day as a voice of history, and continues to speak to audiences today with his unique sense of style.

—Annie Jacobs-Perkins