Notice: There’s a prize question at the end of this piece. You’re cordially invited to participate!

The music edition of a piano trio comprises in principle, as is generally known, a piano score with two solo parts (violin and cello) enclosed. It is only the pianist who plays from the score consisting of a grand stave for piano in large print with string parts placed above in small print, violin part on top, cello part below. That’s so far nothing new. But what many musicians don’t know is that this particular score format for today’s piano-trio music is an invention (and standardisation) of the 19th century. In the original tradition up to Beethoven’s time composers were neither acquainted with the piano score nor was there a single method of notation.

Each of the ‘classical’ composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, notated their piano trios in score formats that were completely different from one another. The standardisation of modern printing did away with this not insignificant graphic phenomenon for understanding the music. That is, the way these pioneers of one of the most important of modern music genres organized the instruments made it possible to directly comprehend their compositions and the sound of them:

HAYDN, founder of the genre, in his early and middle compositional period notated the piano grand stave on top, violin below and then cello:

Haydn, Piano Trio in G Major, Hob. XV:5 (1784), start of the finale

MOZART notated the piano grand stave at the centre, with violin above and cello below, as did also Haydn later (and Schubert, see below):

Mozart, Piano Trio in E Major, KV 542 (1788), start of the opening movement

BEETHOVEN notated in the more ‘modern’ manner, thus, in the order of violin, cello, piano:

Beethoven, Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808), start of the opening movement

Schubert sometimes notated his divine piano trios like Mozart, sometimes like Beethoven. Then later in the 19th century Beethoven’s style – probably thanks to printed editions in circulation – became the norm.

Based on these three entirely different autograph score formats we can, to my mind, recognize the musical development of this new genre from its beginnings up to Beethoven’s standard-setting format: From a more or less independent piano piece with the two strings serving as accompaniment (Haydn), through emancipating the strings, especially the violin part, as an increasingly important dialogue partner of the piano (Mozart), to equalising the status of all three musicians (Beethoven).

Well, I’m not saying that in the future we should go back to these original score formats, for today’s format has proved its usefulness and practicality over much more than 150 years. All the same, such a quick look into the originals is eye-opening and mind-expanding.

The playing of pianists from the score also conforms by no means to the early printed transmittal of piano trios. Up until about 1830 pianists also had, after all, only their own parts. Here are, randomly selected, easily accessible examples:




I would now like to know more precisely at what point the tide turned, that is, just when a printed edition of a piano trio with score and enclosed parts became the custom. I can’t help suspecting that it would have had to be shortly after the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert, probably in conjunction with the advent from the 1830s of the numerous efforts at composers’ complete editions. Just one example of this: Beethoven’s last piano trio, the ‘Archduke Trio’, Op. 97, initially published in 1816 by Steiner as printed parts, of course. A quite early reprint from 1831 by the Frankfurt publishing house Franz Philipp Dunst already shows, however, the new kind of score format. This kind of  presentation seems to have exerted such great persuasive power on musicians of the time that it was very quickly established as a binding norm. Felix Mendelssohn’s piano trio, Op. 49, for example, published in 1840 by Breitkopf & Härtel, shows in any case, today’s usual format as piano score with enclosed strings parts. Here very quickly is a recording ‘live’ of the Mendelssohn’s op. 49, with Lang Lang, Andreas Röhn and Sebastian Klinger, that is really worth hearing and viewing.

The prize question I announced above is as follows:

Just when exactly did piano-trio editions begin to exist in today’s standardised format? Who can identify the earliest ‘modern’ printed score of a piano-trio (with parts)? Your entry must be received by the end of this year. Whoever comes up with the earliest print will receive from G. Henle publishers a piano-trio edition of your choice from our well-furnished Urtext catalogue.


Many thanks for participating – and ladies and gentlemen, the experts, have fun!


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