While some members of the nobility kept full orchestras or opera companies on their estates, most were content with (or could afford only) much smaller ensembles. Prince Karl von Lichnowsky was among the latter, maintaining a string quartet to perform in his home. At one of Lichnowsky's weekly soirées Beethoven's three piano trios later published as Opus 1 received their first performance. Legend has it that Haydn was present at that performance, and he praised all three works highly, although he recommended against the publication of the final one, the Trio in C Minor. Recent scholarship shows clearly that Haydn must have heard the pieces upon his return from London in August 1795, after they had been published. The Op. 1 Trios were composed in 1794-1795, although Douglas Johnson has shown that the first of the set may have been written in Bonn and then revised in 1793. In May 1795 Beethoven negotiated a contract with Artaria to have the trios published in Vienna and dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, who secretly subsidized the printing. These were the first works to which Beethoven gave an opus number.
The Trios, Op. 1, reveal Beethoven's complete assimilation of the high Classical style. Some critics have heard "symphonic ambitions" in the three trios, especially in the slow introduction to No. 2 and the uncharacteristic four-movement format of all three. Haydn's Symphony No. 95 in C minor may have influenced Beethoven's composition of Op. 1/3, also in C minor. Still considered the finest of the three Opus 1 trios, the C minor exhibits writing on a grand scale with tightly controlled, long-range tonal implications and generation of forward momentum, especially in the first movement. The trio seems to be the first evidence of Beethoven's predilection for writing dramatic, tempestuous works in C minor. We also find Beethoven creating links between movements. In both the first and last movements of the C minor there is an emphasis on the interval C to E flat.
In the slow movement Beethoven begins to distance himself from the superficial variation technique of the Classical style and work toward more complex principles. In variation III, for example, rapid scales and melodic fragments maintain the harmonic contour of the theme, but the theme itself is unrecognizable. Beethoven retains the traditional repetitions of an eight-measure, antecedent-consequent theme, as well as the obligatory minor-key variation, in this case, variation IV.
Unlike the third movements of the E flat and G major trios, that of the C minor trio is labeled Menuetto, not Scherzo. Similar to the E flat and G major trios, however, is the construction of the second part of the minuet from material of the first part. The trio section is in C major, anticipating a key relationship that would appear in the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony. The first theme of the finale is built on the interval of a minor third; this theme eventually becomes accompaniment to the leaping second theme -- a technique borrowed from Haydn.
(John Palmer, Rovi)