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

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            The concerto in its various guises has long been an important part of the symphonic literature, going back to the middle of the seventeenth century.  But by Beethoven’s time, some 150 years on, concertos were most often written for one instrument—usually piano, violin, or ‘cello--with orchestral accompaniment.  Of course, many fine compositions were written for other solo instruments:  predominantly any of the woodwinds, horn, or trumpet.  But, piano, violin, or ‘cello were the stars—and so it has remained.  Beethoven, a virtuoso pianist, wrote five significant piano concertos, initially of course to showcase himself, and an important violin concerto.  But, the concerto that he composed in 1803 for three solo instruments and orchestra stands apart for several reasons.  It's the only concerto that he wrote for more than one solo instrument, and in the rest of the nineteenth century not very many of them were written at all. 

            Now the idea of a group of soloists accompanied by an orchestra was not a new one by that time, for an important genre of the Baroque era was the concerto grosso.  And during the time of Haydn, Mozart, and frères, the so-called sinfonia concertante, along with the concerto grosso, exploited the idea of a group of soloists accompanied by an orchestra.   But, there was a rub.  By Beethoven’s time, and especially with the great man himself, musical style had moved to one of extended musical architecture, driven by an integral emphasis of developing and manipulating musical ideas, and a greater rôle for the accompanying orchestra.  All of these factors didn’t leave as much room (and time) for multiple soloists to fully occupy the limelight.  So, simple traffic control between the soloists and the orchestra posed structural problems.  To allow each of the soloists to develop and expand on their material and share ideas with each other—not to speak of giving the orchestra a significant part--would have made for compositions that were just too long and unwieldy, among other things.

            But great artists meet difficulties that deter lesser folks, and Beethoven was more than up to the job.   Just why he wrote his “triple concerto” is subject to some conjecture, but there is some evidence that he had in mind as his pianist his well-known pupil and patron, Archduke Rudolf of Austria—the Emperor’s son.  The Archduke studied both piano and composition with Beethoven for almost two decades, and became a very creditable pianist—his patronage was significant financial support for Beethoven, and the two were close friends to boot.  Several of the composer’s finest works are dedicated to the young archduke.  Some speculate that the somewhat easier piano part, compared with the two string soloists, is evidence that the archduke was the pianist in mind, but that’s not established.  In any case, at the première in 1808, the archduke was neither the pianist, nor the dedicatee in the earlier publication.

            Cast in the usual three movements, the extensive first movement, full of gravitas,  has a conventional first-movement form of several themes, appropriately worked through, with recapitulation and coda.  The following largo is quite brief, and leads directly into a substantial, energetic rondo.

            The first movement begins quietly, with the main theme heard immediately in the low strings—there will be several more in the structure of this rather complicated movement. You can spot the next main idea when the woodwinds take it.  Finally, our soloists enter, the ‘cello—as it does frequently in this concerto—taking the lead.  Throughout this movement—given that three soloists have to be given ample opportunity to shine—one does not hear much as one would expect of the composer’s vaunted ability to develop and extend aphoristic ideas.  Rather, somewhat in the manner of Schubert, there’s just a lot of delightful repetition.  So, the listener gets to hear a lot of familiar material, as each soloist takes his turn, with a constant trading back and forth between the three.  The movement is in a rather complicated sonata/concerto form, but that needn’t detain us.  The pleasure in this substantial movement is in following the variety of the constant interplay, as well as the entertaining tunes and enterprising harmonic turns.  A quick little, almost perfunctory, coda, with the requisite cascading scales, brings us to the end.

            The ensuing slow movement is an elegant example of one of Beethoven’s most endearing characteristics.  In like manner to the beloved slow movements of his solo piano concertos, it leisurely and serenely spins out a remarkable long-breathed melody of breathtaking beauty and eloquence.  The key is Ab, a relationship to the main key of the work that is a favorite of the composer, and a decidedly “romantic” characteristic.  It provides a surprising, breathtaking harmonic moment at its inception.  As in other parts of the concerto the ‘cello take the lead, singing out in its higher register, before yielding to the violin, which takes its turn with the same material.  Throughout the movement the piano stays in the background, providing a filigree accompaniment.  After a short time, all three instruments participate in a kind of dance of teasing give and take, and we’re quickly into the boisterous Rondo alla polacca of the last movement.

            Rondos are a popular form for last movements, for they are tuneful, energetic, and the “roadmap” easily followed.  Typically, a clear, sharply profiled main theme is followed by a variety of contrasting sections, most not too long, and the main theme entertains by constantly returning.  Nothing lasts too long, everything is usually pellucid, and on the whole it’s a welcome contrast to the seriousness and complexity of what went before.  In this particular rondo, Beethoven chose the time signature of three beats to the measure, with the characteristic dance accents of a polonaise.   The main theme appears immediately, first in the ‘cello and quickly taken up by the violin.  Without much delay we’re into the contrasting material, much of it figurations.   The orchestra then thunders in shortly with the main theme—this is a rondo, after all.  And so it goes—the middle section has an attractive turn to the minor mode.  With each solo section, each of the soloists burns through increasingly impressive virtuosic figures, as Beethoven cunningly builds to a climax—interspersed with typical Beethovenian dramatic pauses, before bolting off again.  Moving ahead, the composer turns on the heat with a turn to duple metre, allowing the tempo to really surge in a blazing coda.  A massive tutti statement of the main polacca theme brings us to the triumphant end.  The “Triple Concerto” may be somewhat of a stepchild of Beethoven’s concertos, not garnering near as many performances as the solo works, but it is marvelously entertaining, and a tour de force of handling a treacherous musical architecture.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© William E. Runyan 2020