This happy work was originally written for clarinet, cello and piano, which is how most of us know it, but Beethoven also furnished a violin part, so it also turns up from time to time as a piano trio. The work has sometimes been criticised for having an insufficiently idiomatic clarinet part, since he almost completely avoids the chalumeau register. However it seems that Beethoven’s intention all along was to write a trio that would suit both clarinet and violin, for this is how the work was published.
The work dates from 1797-8, when Beethoven was inundated with commissions, which may partly explain the seemingly random succession of his compositions in the late nineties. His brother Carl managed his affairs at this time and he stated: These pieces were mostly commissioned by amateurs under the following agreement: he who wants a piece pays a fixed sum for its exclusive possession for a half or a whole year, or longer, and binds himself not to give the manuscript to anybody; after this period the composer is free to do what he wishes with the work [ie. he can publish it]. This system produced rich rewards for a composer as popular as Beethoven, who had impressed the aristocratic musical elite of Vienna. He could even get an extra present for the dedication. Prince Lichnowsky was his main patron at this time, and this trio is dedicated to Countess Elisabeth von Thun, the Prince’s mother-in-law.
Energy and buoyant spirits are present from the first bar. This is offset by some typically mysterious harmonic digressions, which naturally turn out to have far-reaching consequences. Beethoven is still pushing at these boundaries when he rounds off the movement. The adagio goes on a wonderfully sensuous voyage to distantly-related keys. The finale is a set of variations on a popular tune from Joseph Weigl’s opera L’Amor marinaro – Before I begin work, I must have something to eat, went the aria’s text. Beethoven was apparently unaware that the theme was Weigl’s, and threatened to rewrite the variations on a theme of his own, something he never got around to.