10 Sep 2013

Beethoven – Concerto in C Major for Piano, Violin and Cello, op. 56

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings,

Duration: 35 minutes in three movements.

THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – Beethoven had much to keep him busy in 1804. The “Eroica” Symphony was complete and ready for premiere and he was working hard on his opera, Fidelio. Throughout all of it, he maintained his duties as a private piano instructor. Two of his students are worth mention here. Josephine von Brunsvik, who became a love interest for Beethoven (was she his “Immortal Beloved?”), and the 15-year-old Archduke Rudolf.  

THE HISTORY – Rudolf is the person at the heart of a historical debate surrounding the Triple Concerto. There is little doubt that Beethoven completed the score for this unusual concerto in the summer of 1804 but we are left to wonder for whom it was intended. Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s earliest and most “subjective” biographer, later claimed that the piece was written for the Archduke. Rudolf had just begun his studies with Beethoven at the time he wrote the Triple Concerto and the relative simplicity of the piano part certainly suggests the composer had an amateur performer in mind. It is nice to think that Beethoven would have written this work for his young student and also practical given Rudolf’s later associations as dedicatee of the 5th Piano Concerto and the “Archduke” Trio. Proof in this case is wanting however and, in the end, we have little more than speculation and the highly disputable word of Schindler. The first verifiable public performance occurred in 1808 and by most accounts, the soloists did not give the piece a very good reading. That first impression seemed to stick as critics over the years took an unkind view of the Triple Concerto. Most did no more than damn it as forgettably mediocre by Beethoven’s own standards. This is likely due to the Triple Concerto’s position in time near “Eroica,” the 4th Piano Concerto and other such monuments but also possibly related to its strangeness as an idea. No composer had ever thought to cast a piano trio as a concerto soloist grouping and no one has successfully done so since. The critics were wrong about this piece, of course, as any performance by appropriately virtuosic soloists proves.  

THE WORLD – The Serbian Revolution against the Ottoman Empire began in 1804. This was also the year of Alexander Hamilton’s death at the hands of Aaron Burr, Napoleon’s naming as Emperor and the isolation of Morphine from the opium poppy.  

THE CONNECTION – The “Triple” is the most rarely programmed of Beethoven’s concerti on the Masterworks Series. It was last performed here in 1999 with the Claremont Trio as soloists.