Beethoven’s Ghost

The manuscript of Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio
The manuscript of Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio

When you hear the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, you’ll immediately understand why this piece earned the nickname, the “Ghost” Trio. It’s some of the most eerie, strange and terrifying music ever written. It constantly keeps you off guard, taking sudden and unexpected turns, like a shadowy apparition which is there one minute and gone the next. As the second movement unfolds, it may play tricks with your perception of time.

Beethoven’s ability to pack a universe of drama and color into three instruments is amazing. There are moments which seem strikingly symphonic (he had just finished the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies). At times, even tonality seems to be on the verge of slipping away (the second movement’s prolonged trills in the low depths of the piano which confuse the ear).

Gustav Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” It’s easy to get a similar sense with this trio. The outer movements are emotionally far removed from the haunting Largo. There are moments of giddy joy, love and gratitude. All of these contrasting emotions are a great reminder that this music expresses much more than the frustrations and torment of a man who was slowly losing his hearing. Beethoven’s music transcended his life, tapping into something much deeper and more universal. In that respect he “heard” things no one else could.

Beethoven wrote the two Op. 70 Trios in Heiligenstadt during the summer of 1808. Around this time he was contemplating an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The opera remained unwritten, but its ghosts seem to have found their way into Op. 70, No. 1.

Here are Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in concert in Paris in 1992:

  1. Allegro vivace e con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo assai ed espressivo (6:02)
  3. Presto (17:09)

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietShakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has inspired composers from Berlioz to Prokofiev to David Diamond. One of this timeless tragedy’s most popular musical depictions was composed by the 28-year-old Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Tchaikovsky called the work an Overture-Fantasy, but it can also be considered a tone poem.

Let’s listen to a live performance with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Consider how Tchaikovsky’s music captures the deep emotions at the heart of the story. We hear the character of noble Friar Laurence in the stately Russian Orthodox chorale in the opening. Do you hear anything foreboding in this opening music? In the ferocious fast passages which follow, listen to the way Tchaikovsky pits the woodwinds against the strings in back and forth exchanges. Also notice the cymbal crashes depicting a sword fight (6:30).

One powerful element of the piece is Tchaikovsky’s ability to build and sustain great anticipation. In the passage following 7:01 the resolution we expect is delayed. When the music slips into the familiar “love theme”, we find ourselves in D-flat major, a world away from the previous tumult.

At 11:17 notice the opening chorale theme in the horns (and later the trumpets) as the development section begins. At 14:21 listen to the unrelenting, sustained pedal tone in the base instruments and the increasing tension which results. Pay attention to how this tension resolves. Consider how the final passage from 18:33 to the end captures the essence of the drama. What feelings do the final B major chords evoke?

Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet a few times and come back tomorrow for more music relating to Valentine’s Day.

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[quote]My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite.[/quote]

[quote]“See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O, that I were a glove upon that hand That I might touch that cheek!” [/quote]

[quote]O teach me how I should forget to think…[/quote]

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet