Beethoven wrote the two piano trios of Op. 70 in Vienna in 1808, the year during which he also completed the Fifth Symphony and composed the Sixth Symphony and Choral Fantasy. The trios are dedicated to the Countess Marie Erdödy, in whose house he was living when he composed them; they were first performed there in December 1808 and were published together the next year. The first is popularly called the “Ghost” Trio, an allusion to the mysterious atmosphere of the second movement (Largo assai ed espressivo) evoked by a languid metrical pulse, hushed tremolos on the piano, subtly shifting tone colors, and unsettled harmonies.
Why the ‘Ghost’ trio?
The name was coined by Carl Czerny, pianist, composer, pupil and friend of Beethoven who wrote that the slow movement always reminded him of the appearance of Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth.
The themes and setting for this movement (which occasioned the work’s sobriquet – “Ghost”) were derived from some sketches that Beethoven made for the witches’ scene in an aborted opera to a libretto by Heinrich Collin on the subject of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of a sizable number of theatrical projects (including Romeo and Juliet) that the composer tinkered with at that time but never brought to fruition.
Shuddering tremolandos and painfully slow repeated chords almost set the scene for 20th Century minimalism, but not before igniting the full imagination of the 19th Century Romanticism, revelling in the evocative effects, unlike any that had been heard in chamber music before.
These trembling figures are reminiscent of Florestan’s despairing aria at the opening of Act 2 of Beethoven’s only completed opera “Fidelio”, and this movement lacks none of its spine-chilling passion, wityh aching melodic curves shared between the three instruments.
1808 saw Beethoven composing at full power: his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasia, the A major cello sonata as well as the two Op 70 piano trios all come from this year. The cello sonata and the piano trios seem to have been part of a conscious decision by him to revisit the chamber music forms with which he had made such an impact shortly after his arrival in Vienna. Beethoven opted to return to a three-movement format for this Trio.
The sonata-form finale returns the bright spirits of the opening movement to bring this splendid product of Beethoven’s most fertile period to a joyful close.