Piano Trio in D major, op. 70 no. 1 “Geistertrio” or “The Ghost”

I    Allegro vivace e con brio (D major; Sonata form)
II   Largo assai ed espressivo (D minor)
III  Presto (D major)

This analysis concerns the first movement only.


The oeuvre of Beethoven is commonly subdivided in three periods:

Early period: youth in Bonn and first decade in Vienna, 1770 up to 1801
Middle period: 1802-1814
Late period: 1815-1827

The piano trio in D major was written in spring and summer of 1808 and therefore it belongs to the middle period. The trio is dedicated to countess Anna Maria Erdödy, a friend of Beethoven since 1803 and a gifted pianist. In 1808 Beethoven stayed some time with the Erdödies. Moreover countess Erdödy was probably the one that took initiative to offer Beethoven an annual allowance when he was offered a position at the court of Jérôme Bonaparte (brother of) in Kassel. The allowance was ment to prevent Beethoven from leaving Vienna. She succeeded.
The trio op.70 no.1 is the first of two piano trios, both dedicated to countess Erdödy. It is called the Geistertrio (the Ghost) which refers to the second movement. Much has been speculated about the connection between this second movement and the plans Beethoven had for an opera based on Macbeth. These speculations are based on a short sketch in d minor for the trio movement which are marked « Macbett ».[1]Barry Cooper, ed, Ludwig van Beethoven, Volledig overzicht van leven en muziek, trans. M.M.C. Mengelberg et al. (Baarn, Tirion Uitgevers 1999), 228.

Practical information

In this text a lot of references are made to the score of the piano trio. This is done by means of an identification of the movement and the measure number within that movement. The score contains a lot of annotations on my behalf. A clean score can easily be downloaded from IMSLP.

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You can find the annotated score here.

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General notes on anlysis contain some remarks on abbreviations, notation and concepts. A short list of consulted literature can be found in Consulted literature. The musical examples are made in Musescore 3. If you hover the cursor over a footnote the text of the footnote will appear. At the end of the text all footnotes can be found.

First movement: Allegro vivace e con brio

This movement is in sonata form and the constituent parts are as follows:


The Main Theme or First Tonal Area (FTA)

Looking at the beginning of the trio we first encounter a phrase of 6 measures (mm.1-6) which starts with a powerful statement in unison in D major. No cadence at the end but a mysterious VI Moll-Dur chord (B-flat, m.6) that introduces the next phrase. The VI/MD is preceded by the F natural in m.5 already suggesting the darker D minor but also hints at a cadential relation with the coming B-flat major chord. After the dark VI/MD the next phrase is like the sun breaking through in a basic idea of two bars (mm.7-8) in the cello in the tonic which are repeated by the violin in the dominant. Notice that the I in m.7 is a I64 which gives a nice voice leading in the bass (B-flat – A). We are beginning to think of a sentence with a statement – response structure meaning that the basic idea is not an exact repetition but is repeated in a dominant version.[2]William E. Caplin, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (New York [ect.]: Oxford University Press, 1998), 37-39. In a clean sentence structure we would expect a continuation phrase after this presentation but that is not the case. First the presentation is repeated by voice exchange: the basic idea in the violin and cello together and than the repetition in the piano (mm.11-14). No statement – response here but a repetition in predominant atmosphere (IV and ii mm.13-14), and then six bars of continuation and cadential idea follow (mm.15-20). Mm.15-16 show a fragmentation of the basic idea. What follows is a cadential progression in the cadential idea in mm.17-20 ending with a HC in m.20.

Figure 1 shows the structure of the main theme. Neither sentence nor period in the purest form are applicable, so the structure is a hybrid one. I would say it is a hybrid of type 3 according to Caplin.[3]Caplin, Classical Form, 61.

This means a basic and contrasting idea in the first phrase without a cadence, followed by a continuation. As shown in fig. 1 the continuation contains a sentence structure, but this is also rather loosely organized: the presentation is repeated.

The Transition (Tr)

The Transition starts with the theme of the presentation in the second phrase of the main theme (mm.7-8) and can therefore be called a dependent transition (DTr).[4]Steven G. Laitz, The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Theory, Analysis and Listening (4th Ed (New York [etc.]: Oxford University Press, 2016), 636. As expected after the HC this is in the tonic (D major). [5]Caplin, Classical Form, 127-129. After two statements of the basic idea in cello and violin (mm.21-24) a fragmentation follows in E major, the dominant of the dominant. Of course the transition is going to lead us to A major, the dominant of D major and the key of the subordinate theme. So here already we experience a forecast of this key but this forecast is deceptive. Table 2 shows the layout of the transition. After the fragmentation in E major (V of V; mm.25-26) we arrive at the transition theme in F major in m.27. F major? Yes, this is the VI Moll-Dur of A major, the key we are headed for. Or to put it differently: it is a modal mixture and as a matter of fact it is a harmonic mixture: the root of the chord has been altered. [6]Laitz, The Complete Musician, 513. The F major passage can be interpreted as a predominant for A major to come.

So what does this transition theme consists of? Again we find the motive of the second phrase of the main theme: a minor third up and a sixth down (mm.7-8 and 27-28). But the rhythm has been changed to a hemiola. Above the running sixteenth in the piano in three quarter time the theme is in a two times three quaver rhythm. What a beautiful contrast! Then after a full cadential progression in F major[7]I have interpreted the B-flat in m.31 as predominant of F. One could think of interpreting it as a N6 for A major, another predominant. But after this we return via a V to F major and not to the dominant of A major (E major). That only occurs in m.35, the cadential area. (mm.31-33) a subtle chromatic change takes us via a vii06/5 of E major (m.34) to E major, being of course the dominant of A major, the key of the subordinate theme.
Thus from m.35 onwards we are in the atmosphere of E major and this is the cadential area of the transition. In m.38 we find the dominant of E major and the section ends with a dominant seventh of A major. The melodic material is a prelude to the subordinate theme but starts with a restatement of the very first motive.

Subordinate Theme or Second Tonal Area (STA)

In m.43 the subordinate theme starts, as expected in the dominant of the home key, A major. In analyzing the structure we find a clear cut after eight bars (m.50). There is a strong half cadence and the same phrase starts all over again with the voices exchanged between strings and piano. This phrase ends in m.58 with another rather strong cadential progression but this time it is followed by a V6/5 chord (m.59). We enter a phrase which is something of a fusion of continuation and cadential function.[8]Caplin, Classical Form, 99-100. In m.64 a predominant is found and then a passing viiø4/3 leads us to a prolonged tonic (A major) of 7 measures.
So I think we can distinguish three segments in this theme, shown in table 3:

The most remarkable thing here is that there is nowhere a perfect authentic cadence (PAC) to close the subordinary theme. This is really exceptional for a classical style piece. The result is a fading out of the STA into a prolonged tonic phrase (mm.67-73) which ends quite mysteriously in pianississimo (mm.70-73). One more consequence of this is that there is no closing section.[9]An alternative would be to end the STA in m.63 and define a closing section from m.64 onwards with a I-IV-I progression. I chose here for the option of no closing section, because the A major chord in m.63 has a seventh in the cello and therefore is not a very strong closure if any at all.

Now let us take a closer look at the segments defined in table 3. The first phrase starts with running eighth notes in the strings. In the piano there is a shifted comment on the running quavers. This is shown in fig. 2. After this, with the upbeat of m.48 a fragmentation is found in the piano part leading to the half cadence in m.50. So here we have a sentence structure of 2+2+4 measures. This phrase is the presentation of the subordinate theme. The next phrase (segment 2, mm.51-58) is in fact a repetition of the first phrase with the roles of the strings and piano exchanged (voice exchange). As has been noticed before this phrase ends with an evaded cadence and we enter the third phrase (segment 3, m.59).

After two bars there is another evaded cadence (mm.60-61) and then in m.63 we arrive at last at a tonic chord (A major) but with the G in the cello it is a dominant seventh chord which introduces immediately the predominant IV in m.64. The half diminished seventh chord in m.66 can be seen as a passing chord to the tonic in m.67 but also has a dominant quality as a result of the leading tone (G#) in the piano.

And that’s it as far as the cadential closure of the STA concerned. Remarkable! Figure 3 shows the structure of the subordinate theme.


Harmonic structure of the development.

My hypothesis is that in the development Beethoven used twice the same harmonic progression, once in the home key (D major) and once in the dominant (A major). It is in fact a complete cadential progression: tonic – predominant – dominant – tonic. [10]Caplin, Classical form, 27. I will try to make this plausible. The main structure of the development is shown in table 4.[11]See for an explanation on the pre-core/core technique: Caplin, Classical Form, 141.

The pre-core is a kind of introduction to the body of the development (the core). It is in A major and is not a part of the two main harmonic progressions that I would like to point out. These start in the core. So off we are in D major, the home key (m.82). The complete cycle consists of the following progression:

An explanation on VI and iv Moll-Dur (MD) chords can be found here.

The elements of the progression are clear: tonic, twice a predominant (VI/MD and iv/MD), the dominant and then the tonic again. The end of this total progression is in m.157. The tonic of D major (the last I in the complete progression) is the first bar of the recapitulation. The last I in the dominant A major progression (the I of V, being A major) is as a matter fact the dominant group as mentioned in table 4.
Let’s first translate this progression in keys:

This is the main harmonic progression. Of course there are many smaller harmonic constructions to make the connections between these elements of the main structure. In the middle we will encounter a variety of sequences.

Let’s start at the very beginning. In m.82 the core starts in D major. Immediately we pass on to D minor (m.83), and in m.85 there is a pivot chord for the modulation to B-flat major (VI/MD). It is a iv in D minor and a vi in B-flat. M.86 is a Cm chord (a ii and PD in B-flat) and then through two measures of F major (V of B-flat) we arrive at B-flat in m.89. Notice the persistent pedal on F (almost twelve measures) which destabilizes the key of B-flat. A seventh chord in m.91 brings back F major and then a down and up sequence starts, both in steps of a second: D2(-5/+4) and A2(+5/-4) respectively (mm.92-95). This is partly repeated in m.96-98, but then the F# diminished chord (third beat of m.98) introduces G minor, the iv/MD of D major. As shown in the score the thematic material is repeated with a voice exchange. I will come back to this later. First the harmonic analysis is continued.
In m.100-107 the measures 92-99 are repeated but now in G minor. Both keys (B-flat and G minor) are part of the main harmonic structure. The pedal on the dominant again diminishes the power of the key of G minor. After a rather weak cadential construction (V6/5 of D on the third beat of m.107) D major is reached in m.108. Then again we enter an area of harmonic sequences: first another – very slow – D2(-5/+4) sequence (mm.108-118) followed by the same type of sequence but now in a much increased harmonic rhythm and with an overlapping imitation like structure (m.119-127). A reduction of this sequence is shown in figure 4.

The sequence starts in m. 120 in the violin to be found in the upper stave. The notes of the violin are represented in magenta. In m.124 the melody continues in the left hand of the piano but is here reproduced in the same stave (so it is transposed up two octaves) and the notes of the piano are represented in red. In m.121 the imitation starts in the right hand of the piano. This is found in the lower stave and has been transposed down an octave. It continues in m.25 in the cello (blue). The citation of the very first motive in the violin and the right hand of the piano from m.124 onwards is left out.
The end of the sequence reaches C major in m.127 and this is an applied dominant to F major in m.128. This F major can in retrospect already be seen as the introduction to A major. It is the VI/MD of A major we are headed for in the dominant group. It is part of the main harmonic structure (a predominant of the dominant of D major). Soon (m.132) the transition to D minor is made, the relative minor of F major and the iv/MD of A major. In m.136 the transition from iv/MD to the V of A major is made (E major). And in m.140 the dominant group in A major is reached. The full harmonic progression is fulfilled except for one step: the transition to D major. This will take place in m.157, the start of the recapitulation. Once more the overall structure with measure numbers added:

Between the iv/MD of the home key (m.99) and the VI/MD of the dominant (m.128) there is the sequential area. So far for the harmonic structure of the development. What a neatly designed scheme. Beethoven must have been a wonderful chess player thinking so many moves ahead.

Thematic material of the development.

Now I shall look at the thematic material used in the development. The pre-core (mm.74-81) starts with the first motive of the main theme that is fragmented in all three instruments. These four bars are repeated and close with a half cadence after which the core starts in D major, the home key. This starts again with the main theme the second half of which is in D minor and this seamlessly transfers into the basic idea of the presentation of the continuation of the main theme (mm.7-8). A fragmentation follows of this idea with only the first half left (mm.88-91). Then we enter a large segment of sequences. The first four sequences (mm.92-107) use a combination of the second half of the afore mentioned basic idea (marked red in the score, m.8) and an augmented version of the running eighth notes of the subordinate theme in thirds (marked yellow in the score, mm.43-58). In the repetition voice exchange is used. The same combination of thematic material is used in the next harmonic slow sequence (mm.108-118). The falling sixth with the incomplete neighbour note remains, the augmented running quavers return with sixteenths (piano) and triplets (strings).
Still heaving fun with sequences we enter a harmonic fast sequence the reduction of which is shown in figure 4. It starts in m.120 and again uses the falling sixth in an imitation like manner and in the second half it is combined with the first motive of the main theme.
This opening motive of the main theme is the material that is used throughout the rest of the development.
Form m.128 onwards there is an alternation of this motive and its inversion (going up instead of down) in four voices. Harmonically we are in the VI/MD of A major, the dominant of D major turning into iv/MD (D minor). In m.140 the dominant group is reached and the theme is combined in a contrary motion: two voices up and two voices down. In m.146 the rhythm of the repetition of the motive is getting faster and faster but the dynamics decrease. The effect is an enormous tension in which the harmony changes to the minor version of the dominant (m.150 and 152). Then an explosion of a predominant in minor in fortissimo (m.153) leads to the final dominant run in an exciting contrary motion to the recapitulation.
Should we call this a HC or a PAC. I would say this is a PAC (the first one we encounter) because of the G in violin which makes it a dominant seventh chord. It really asks for a solution so the connection to the start of the recapitulation is really felt. This might be called an overlap: the end of the development is the start of the recapitulation.


In the recapitulation the exposition returns and of course with some alterations. The general rule is that there is no modulation to another key, so the subordinate theme is in the home key of D major and the transition is a bridge between FTA and STA but no modulation is made to another key. That however is not what Beethoven had in mind when he was writing this trio. As we shall see the subordinate theme returns not in the home key but in de subdominant key (G major). So the transition in this recapitulation has a modulating function.

The Main Theme or First Tonal Area (FTA-R)

The recapitulation decently starts with a restatement of the compound basic idea of the main theme in D major (mm.157-162). An exact copy of the exposition. Then the continuation starts just as in the exposition with the presentation of the basic idea and its repetition, this time in the piano (mm.163-166). In the exposition the presentation is then repeated. Instead, here we find another statement of the compound basic idea but this time in D minor (mm.167-173). A rather strange interruption. And after this a nearly complete statement of the continuation of the main theme occurs (presentation, repetition of the presentation, continuation starting with the same fragmentation as in the exposition, mm.173-182). The key however is B-flat major, again the VI/MD the home key D major. From here on things change. There is no cadential but in m.183 starts an ascending sequence which lasts up to m.193. From this point onward there clearly is a chained dominant progression towards the subordinate theme: E – A – D – G (the key of the subordinate theme). This means we are in the transition.

So the question is: where does the transition start?

I think there are two options. The first one is in m.183: the cadential of the continuation fails to come, so is this the start of the transition? But then the question would be: a cadential to what? Not D major because we are in B-flat major, not the key of the recapitulation. Going further back and especially looking at the harmony the most striking point is the interruption in m.167. Here the harmony changes to D minor and I think that this should be the start of the transition, mainly on harmonic grounds.
So where does this bring us for the recapitulation of the main theme? Well, it is only 10 bars long (mm.157-166). And the structure has been explained and can be found in the first 10 bars of figure 1.

The Transition (Tr-R)

According to the conclusion in the previous paragraph the transition starts in m.167. So we can distinguish the following segments in the transition:

The first segment is nearly an exact copy of the very first compound basic idea of the main theme. The only difference is the last note in the piano. In the exposition it is a B-flat (m.6) and here it is an F (m.172). Although it is only one note (F), I would interpret this as a III in D minor and a V in B-flat, the key to come. So it is a pivot chord and an applied dominant.

Segment 2 is nearly a complete restatement of the continuation of the main theme in B-flat major (again a VI/MD of the home key D major). The structure can be found in figure 1 mm.7-16.

Segment 3 starting in m.183 is the start of an ascending sequence in seconds of which the model is in B-flat (mm.183-185). Copies in C minor (mm.187-189), D minor (mm.191-193) and E major (mm.195-198) follow and in between are chromatic passing chords (mm.186, 190 and 194). The last copy is not exact, contains one bar more and functions as an applied dominant for what is about to come (segment 4, mm. 199-206).
The thematic material comes from the basic idea of the continuation of the main theme like in mm.173-174. This is played by the violin. The piano plays a motive strongly related to the cadential of the main theme (mm.17-18).

Segment 4 starts as the cadential area of the transition in the exposition (mm.35-42). The key is A major, the dominant of D major. So in fact we expect to be in the cadential area and to pass on to the subordinary theme in D major. This however is not the case. Beethoven takes us one step further in the chain of dominants.

This is done in segment 5 (mm.207-214), so the cadential area is repeated one more time. Here the final cadential area of this transition is reached. It is in the home key D major but nevertheless it functions as a cadential area because the subordinate theme starts in G major, being the subdominant of the home key. The melodic material is the same as in the cadential of the transition in the exposition but voice exchange between piano and strings has been applied.

Subordinate Theme or Second Tonal Area (STA-R)

The subordinate theme in the recapitulation very much resembles the one in the exposition. There are a few differences however. For the overall structure I refer to figure 3.
Let’s look at the differences. The first one is of course the key it is in. It would have been different anyway but even then it is not what we expected. We expected the home key (D major) but we got the subdominant (G major). This is sometimes done to neutralize the influence or feeling of the dominant. So for a short time there is one sharp less. In m.222 at the end of the presentation of the STA-R there is an applied dominant (A major) and with the repetition of the presentation we are back in the home key (m.223).

After the repetition we enter the continuation + cadential area (m.231). As shown in figure 3 this consists of two main parts: the dominant part with the evaded cadences (mm.59-63; 8 bars) and the long prolonged tonic of seven bars (mm.67-73; 7 bars).
In this version of the STA-R we see these parts from m.231 to m.242 (12 bars) and from m.243 to m.249 (7 bars). So as a matter of fact we have 4 bars extra in the first part. These can be found immediately at the beginning of the continuation and cadential (mm.231-234). Beethoven uses these measures to firmly establish the home key before entering the evaded cadences to be found in mm.234-235 and mm.236-237. Beethoven uses here diminished vii chords in stead of the V6/5 chords of the exposition. The prolonged tonic is the same as in the exposition.
The first ending (mm.250-253) consist of an applied dominant for A major so the connection with the start of the development is provided for.


The first point to discuss is whether this part of the first movement is a coda or the closing section that is missing in the exposition. As Caplin argues that closing sections come after the cadence that ends a theme[12]Caplin, Classical Form, 16. and that a coda “wraps up loose ends left hanging from earlier sections, [and] it functions as the movement’s genuine conclusion”[13]Caplin, Classical Form, 179. I choose to call this part a coda. There is no PAC at the end the STA-R and this open end is definitely closed in the coda.
So after the weak cadential ending of the STA-R the coda has a strong cadential progression. Starting on a predominant IV in the second ending with the material from the presentation of the continuation of the main theme we find a IV- ii – V7 progression and then a vi – i6/5 – D6/4 – V – I progression. The final cadence starts with a last restatement of the very opening of the movement.
This is only the second PAC in this movement and an unambiguous one. The other one is found at the beginning of the recapitulation but that one involved an overlap with the beginning of the recapitulation.

4 replies
  1. Erwin van Oostenbrugge
    Erwin van Oostenbrugge says:

    Nice work! I always am awestruck by the amazing transitions Beethoven writes in his recapitulations. It’s like he can’t help himself to modulate at least once, just for the fun of it. This transition is absolutely amazing! A true work of art.

    I believe Barry Cooper would call the first six measures of this piece the “curtain” of the work. Beethoven usually composed small attention-grabbing pieces before the actual start of the first movement of a piece. The fourth symphony is a great example of this. These curtains could have some motivic relation to the rest of the movement (think about the famous opening statement to the fifth symphony), but sometimes it would even bear little semblance to the following piece. I guess the biggest difference between this and a “normal” slow introduction would be that when it has a clear pulse, it’s practically never slower than the rest of the piece.

    • SHuijsmanAdmin
      SHuijsmanAdmin says:

      Hi Erwin, thank you for your comment. I didn’t know this “curtain” concept of Cooper. I’m going to look it up and I will listen again to the fourth and fifth symphony. I think you would agree that the opening theme is quite solitary and has an identity of its own in this piece.
      As for the modulation in the recapitulation: I interpreted it as an antidote for the influence of the dominant key (used in the subordinary theme and of course in a large part of the development). Very soon there is the modulation to the expected home key (D major). And I agree completely: what a beautiful and ingenious transition in the recapitulation!

  2. Marjo van den Doel
    Marjo van den Doel says:

    Very interesting, helpfull and thorough analysis! When are you analyzing a piece containing viola?!

    • SHuijsmanAdmin
      SHuijsmanAdmin says:

      Hi Marjo, thank you for comment! As for your question: I’m working on the analysis of a string quartet by Mozart (in B-flat major, KV 589). It will be published shortly.


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1 Barry Cooper, ed, Ludwig van Beethoven, Volledig overzicht van leven en muziek, trans. M.M.C. Mengelberg et al. (Baarn, Tirion Uitgevers 1999), 228.
2 William E. Caplin, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (New York [ect.]: Oxford University Press, 1998), 37-39.
3 Caplin, Classical Form, 61.
4 Steven G. Laitz, The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Theory, Analysis and Listening (4th Ed (New York [etc.]: Oxford University Press, 2016), 636.
5 Caplin, Classical Form, 127-129.
6 Laitz, The Complete Musician, 513.
7 I have interpreted the B-flat in m.31 as predominant of F. One could think of interpreting it as a N6 for A major, another predominant. But after this we return via a V to F major and not to the dominant of A major (E major). That only occurs in m.35, the cadential area.
8 Caplin, Classical Form, 99-100.
9 An alternative would be to end the STA in m.63 and define a closing section from m.64 onwards with a I-IV-I progression. I chose here for the option of no closing section, because the A major chord in m.63 has a seventh in the cello and therefore is not a very strong closure if any at all.
10 Caplin, Classical form, 27.
11 See for an explanation on the pre-core/core technique: Caplin, Classical Form, 141.
12 Caplin, Classical Form, 16.
13 Caplin, Classical Form, 179.