Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37

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        It is Mozart, of course, to whom we owe the creation of the mature, symphonic piano concerto. Beethoven wrote five works in this genre; the first two were composed in the 1790s and they owe much to the example of Mozart. The third, in C minor, begun around 1800, was completed in 1803, about the time of his second symphony, and it is a far darker and impassioned work than the previous concertos. It is a remarkable early document of the personality of the composer that later came to be so familiar, and stands in clear contrast to the more or less sunny C major concerto that immediately preceded it. And of course now we understand clearly the reasons for that: the years 1801-02 marked the nadir of Beethoven’s emotional life, as he grappled with the reality of his increasing and permanent deafness. His despair was total, and the prospect of suicide is clearly implied in the documentary evidence. Tumultuous and bitter family feuding entered into this cruel time, but the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” records his final triumph over the depression and his resolve to live and compose. He soon received an engagement to compose an opera, and a concert of his compositions ensued shortly thereafter. It featured his oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, the First and Second Symphonies, and the Third Piano Concerto (with the composer at the piano).

         The first movement is suitably stormy and impassioned, marked by the strong accents and driving rhythm that we have come to associate with the composer. While this, of course, is a piano concerto, the orchestra seems to carry the brunt of working over the themes. The second important theme may be recognized by its first entrance in the clarinet. After a development of the themes and a re-summary that would almost do justice to the contemporary “Eroica” symphony, a significant cadenza for the piano signals the imminent coda. The cadenza, while perhaps not as impressive as the one that the composer would have actually improvised on the spot, is nevertheless forceful, but ends softly as the orchestra enters and “heads for the barn.” The elegiac slow movement is in the strikingly fresh (and somewhat distant, for the time) key of E major. Its dreamy and deeply reflective mood is strong evidence of approaching musical Romanticism, and contains beautifully sensitive passages, such as the duet for flute and bassoon accompanied by pizzicato strings and piano arpeggios. The last movement is the typical scamper of the times, characterized by sections that come back from time to time, interspersed by contrasting ones. The careful listener might spot Beethoven’s unusual short turn into the distant key of the slow movement in the midst of the fun. But after a last gasp in the minor mode, the movement ends triumphantly in C major, having won out over the darkness in typical Beethoven fashion.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan