Johannes Brahms, Trio in B-flat Major

In 1974, we baby boomers descended on universities en masse. Most dorms were severely overcrowded and a number of students had to sleep in the lounges where the temporary beds had been installed. I was lucky having registered early and requested and paid extra for a single room. However, being a sophomore and a transfer student to Indiana University, they assigned me to a dorm called Briscoe, which sat at the bottom of a hill at the north end of campus.

This part of campus was devoted to the physical plant and the sports complex–a new football stadium, a basketball arena, and an outdoor pool–and a few freshman dorms. To further increase the sense of isolation, it was a long hike up one side of the hill and down the other before you reached the academic buildings and library. Since most of my dorm-mates were freshman, and therefore preoccupied with drinking themselves into nightly stupors, on first blush I though we had little in common. But eventually a few interesting characters showed up that helped make the circus bearable.

The day of my arrival, for some reason I stopped in the lounge and befriended a student from the United Arab Emirates. His name was Mohammed Al Mahmood, and he was beside himself. He came from a wealthy family in one of the Emirates, Sharja, and he couldn’t believe he had ended up in a communal sleeping arrangement in the lounge of a dorm. He fascinated me, because, quite frankly, he was the first person of my age from a foreign country that I had ever met. We became friends on the spot, for mutual reasons. Being a fish out of water in Indiana, he probably appreciated my taking an interest in him. And he won my friendship by pulling out a bottle of arak, a clear, anise flavored Arabian spirit. We sat up late the first night smoking his Marlboros. He talked about his country and family, and showed me how arak changed to a milky white when mixed with water. One weekend, I took him home to introduce him to my parents and he cooked us an incredibly spicy hot chicken stew cooked with a number of herbs and dried oranges that he had brought with him from his country.

By an interesting coincidence, the resident counselor on my floor turned out to be a guy I had swum with on the YMCA swim team back in grade school. His name was Kurt Kabboth and he was a second year law student. He had a wickedly funny sense of humor and at six feet four with blazing red hair he cut an interesting figure in the seersucker suit and bow tie he often wore to class. He came from a fairly liberal family and was one of the first people in a position of authority that I ever remember treating everyone with a sense of dignity. He was dating a philosophy graduate student name Kathy who was studying to be a minister.

As I mentioned before Briscoe dorm consisted of twin, 13-story high towers. These were connected by complex that housed a large lounge area, the cafeteria and a library. Every dorm had its own library, and I was happy to find that ours had a very decent classical music collection. One day, while combing through the racks, I found a recording containing today’s piece, Brahm’s Piano Trio Number 1 Opus 8. As I mentioned before, I was beset by an unrequited love for a girl who lived in the dorm next to mine, and this piece, which even today I find to be one of the most passionate of all the works from the Romantic era, captured my mood perfectly.

Scored for piano, cello and violin, Brahms wrote this piece in 1854, when he was a mere 21 years old. It starts with the piano playing the opening phrase-which I find heartrendingly beautiful. Shortly thereafter, the cello joins in repeating the phrase and playing a short duet before the two are joined by the violin.

This has to be the most passionate piece of music ever written. The instruments weave in and out and around each other in a most balanced and voluptuous, almost like the limbs of lovers intertwining. The second movement is a scherzo with an almost Beethoven-like driving rhythm. It alternates however with a second, beautiful melody. The adagio start out with one hand of the piano playing an ascending chord progression, the other descending. This gives a mysterious, almost oriental feel. Brahms alternates this piano work with brief lyrical statements by the cello and violin, but always returns to the piano. He continues this for the first third of the movement before breaking into an equally pensive, almost sad interlude. In the last part of that third movement, he returns to the chordal progressions of its beginning.

The final movement, marked Allegro, starts off with the cello playing a hear-felt piece, joined quickly by the piano playing a rolling, roiling moody introduction variation on it. The violin joins in and you think that the movement will be fraught with angst. But then, the three resolve this tension and the piece launches off at a fast clip, with each instrument complimenting, echoing, and reinforcing each other. Brahms does return to the tension of the beginning, and he makes gives the violin the focus for an extended section. He eventually brings back the upbeat tempo, with the three instruments playing loud and fast in what sounds like some kind of triumph. I must confess, however, I do not find the last movement as Romantically beautiful as the previous three.

The copy of this trio that I checked out of the library at my college dorm had a stellar cast-Isaac Stern, Eugene Istomin (piano), and Leonard Rose (cello). These three virtuosi came together in the 1960s and recorded a number of works by Brahm and Beethoven. I still find their recording one of the most sensitive and loving homage to this passionate, passionate composer.


Buy CD or download MP3s of Brahms’s Piano Trios Nos. 1- 3 from Amazon


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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