The high level of canonicity enjoyed by Brahms’s chamber music since the final decades of the nineteenth century easily obscures the roles different performance settings, media, and listening practices have played in shaping how individual works are heard and interpreted. In the case of the Trio for Piano, Violin, and Waldhorn (1865), perhaps Brahms’s most singular essay in chamber music, the issue seems particularly acute given the culturally specific associations of the Waldhorn and the unusually important role accorded to timbre in this mid-nineteenth-century chamber work.
This article considers the “resonance” of the Waldhorn in the Horn Trio in terms of its symbolic associations and sounding presence. Drawing on early critical assessments of the trio in German-language music periodicals, the investigation explores the Romantic qualities of the work noted by early writers, elucidating the symbolism of the Waldhorn and Brahms’s deployment of the contrasting affects and temporalities associated with this instrument in his multi-movement composition. The later sections of the article discuss performances of the trio in relation to two important contexts: the developing institutional norms for public chamber music performance in Vienna during the 1860s, and the domestic reception of the classical chamber canon through gramophone recordings in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. These episodes illustrate how particular contexts and media might throw into relief different aspects of the Horn Trio’s compositional design, while suggesting ways in which the relatively fragile aesthetic at the heart of this work has been reengaged in the technological reception of Brahms’s music.