Piano Trio No.5

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Trio No.5 in D major

Op. 70/1 • “Geist”

About this work

The two piano trios of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 70 were both composed in 1808 during the composer's stay at the house of the Countess Marie von Erdödy; out of gratitude for her hospitality, he dedicated both works to her. The Op. 70 trios inaugurated a period during which Beethoven wrote a great deal of chamber music both dense and wonderfully intimate. The Piano Trio No. 5 in D major, Op. 70, No. 1, has three movements, an old-fashioned scheme that Beethoven endows with new concision. Because of its strangely scored and undeniably eerie-sounding slow movement it was dubbed the "Ghost" Trio. The name has stuck with the work ever since. The ghostly music may have had its roots in sketches for a Macbeth opera that Beethoven was contemplating at the time.

But one mustn't listen for ghosts in the other two movements -- they positively sparkle with life, from the wonderfully boisterous metric obfuscation that opens the Allegro vivace e con brio first movement (the movement is in 3/4 time, but in the first few measures the eighth notes, after a single group of three, are grouped in fours), through the swinging scales that underscore that same movement's second theme, and finally to the humorous, scampering Presto finale and its occasional comic fermatas. And yes, one should chuckle as the pianist, violinist, and cellist try desperately not to step on each other's toes when, near the close of both the exposition and the recapitulation of the finale, the piano takes off with a rapid-fire little right-hand cadenza that moves to a completely ridiculous key and the strings have no choice but to help the piano find its way back by spinning out a chromatically ascending sequence in octaves that does manage to arrive at the proper key but, unfortunately, manages to get the downbeats all out of sync!

More serious structural thinking is on display as well -- consider the elaborate modulation from tonic to dominant in the first movement's exposition, forecast by a quick shading, as in the Symphony No. 3, within moments of the beginning of the piece. The harmonic scheme of the work as a whole is elaborate, with references and interconnections between movements. As much as any other work Beethoven ever wrote, the "Ghost" Trio invites and challenges listeners to appreciate it at a variety of levels.