Brahms’ Trio in E-flat Major for Horn, Violin, and Piano: Music of Nature

In May of 1865, following the death of his beloved mother Christiane three months earlier, Johannes Brahms retreated to the picturesque seclusion of Baden-Baden in Germany’s Black Forest. It was here that Brahms composed his Trio in E-flat Major for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40. He worked in a room which, in his words, “looks out on three sides at the dark, wooded mountains, the roads winding up and down them, and the pleasant houses.”

Blending adventure, nostalgia, and lament, Brahms’ Horn Trio is music of nature. It brings together a virtually unprecedented combination of instruments. Although the chromatic valved horn was available at the time, Brahms chose instead to use its more limited predecessor, the natural horn. The darkness of its sound, limited to the harmonic series, evokes timeless hunting calls. It was an instrument Brahms had studied as a youth, along with the cello and piano. “I would be apprehensive about hearing it with the valve horn,” Brahms wrote to a friend. “All poetry I lost, and the timbre is crude and dreadful right from the start.” (Barbara Leish)

The first movement (Andante) abandons the typical sonata form in favor of two contrasting alternating themes, the first of which came to Brahms “on wooded heights among fir trees.” The solemn and tender theme is followed by music which is passionate and tempestuous.

The mood lightens with the boisterous, fun-loving Scherzo which follows. The movement’s wistful trio section was taken from a brief, unpublished piano piece Brahms wrote twelve years earlier in 1853.

The haunting and elegiac third movement (Adagio mesto) is introspective and melancholy. A dreamy, distant quote of a German folk song emerges in the movement’s final moments. Heard in open “horn fifths” between the violin and horn, it is a melody that Brahms’ mother sang to him as a child. It is this theme which forms the basis for the final movement (Allegro con brio). Now sped up and infused with a galloping sense of adventure, it provides an emotional release. The Horn Trio concludes with the thrilling sounds of the hunt.

This performance, recorded in 1960 at the Marlboro Music Festival, features Michael Tree (violin), Myron Bloom (horn), and Rudolf Serkin (piano):

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: “Hunting Horn in D,” Jacob Schmidt

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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