Program Notes: Beethoven Triple Concerto

Program Notes: Beethoven Triple Concerto

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Full program notes:

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Overture to Fidelio, Opus 72(c)

Few of Beethoven’s compositions gave him more trouble than his only opera, Fidelio (originally titled Leonore). This tale of marital fidelity and heroic resistance to political tyranny went through three separate versions before the composer quit work on it, and even then many critics (and Beethoven himself) were not wholly satisfied. If the opera gave Beethoven trouble, then the overture gave him fits: Fidelio is doubtless the only opera in history to have four different overtures. In the Leonore Overtures, Nos. 1 to 3, Beethoven tried to foreshadow the action of the opera by using some of its themes. The problem was that the Leonore Overtures were so dramatic by themselves that they threatened to overpower what followed, particularly the opera’s rather lighthearted beginning.

Convinced that he could never solve this problem, Beethoven simply gave up. For the final version of the opera (1814) he composed the Fidelio Overture, and this is the version that introduces the opera at performances today. The overture contains no thematic references to the opera that follows—it is a conventional curtain-raiser, full of thrust and noble sentiment. The introduction alternates a fanfare for full orchestra, marked Allegro, with Adagio passages. This fanfare contains the rhythmic cell—a dotted figure—that drives the overture forward and also suggests the shape of its main theme, first heard in the horns and clarinets. The brief overture ends with a blazing coda marked Presto. The dotted figure that opened the overture now drives it to a heroic close, a fitting, if unrelated, introduction to the opera’s tale of heroism.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Concerto in C major for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Opus 56 (Triple Concerto)

Beethoven wrote this unusual concerto during the spring and summer of 1804, a time of unbelievable creativity for him. In those months he revised the recently-completed I Symphony, began the Waldstein Sonata, and made sketches for the Appassionata Sonata and for his opera Leonore (later re-named Fidelio). Beethoven himself was apparently unsure how to classify his new orchestral work with three soloists. After the work was completed he referred to it as a “concertante for violin, violoncello and pianoforte with full orchestra.” Today it is most often called the Triple Concerto.

Concertos for multiple instruments of course call to mind the Baroque concerto grosso, in which a small group of soloists plays in contrast to the main body of the orchestra, but the Triple Concerto is no concerto grosso. Rather, it is a concerto for piano trio and orchestra. Such a concerto posed two particular problems for Beethoven: how to give each soloist enough individual attention, and how to keep the cello from becoming buried within this complex texture. He solved these problems ingeniously: the first by having his three soloists play often just as a trio, the second by allowing the cellist the first statement of many of the themes.

a concerto like no other

The Triple Concerto contrasts sharply with the other music Beethoven was composing in these years. Whereas the Eroica, the opera and the two piano sonatas burn with a sense of urgency and dramatic fury, the Triple Concerto lacks their tension: this is expansive music, relaxed and agreeable rather than striving.

allegro. The opening movement gets off to a grand start with a full-orchestra exposition of its themes, but textures thin out considerably when the soloists enter. Beethoven often has the soloists play by themselves with only unobtrusive orchestral accompaniment, punctuated by tutti outbursts. The thematic material in this movement is genial rather than distinctive, the rhythms slightly swung rather than sharp-edged. The most impressive feature of this movement may be its span: at 17 minutes, it is one of Beethoven’s longest.

largo. By contrast, the second is very brief, almost an interlude between the dynamic outer movements. Beethoven rarely used the tempo indication Largo, a marking that suggests very slow and dignified music. An orchestra of muted strings introduces the Largo, but this lyric movement belongs almost entirely to the three soloists—it is essentially chamber music. Once again, the cello leads the way, this time with a theme marked molto cantabile.

rondo alla polacca. Beethoven marks the finale Rondo alla pollaca, or a rondo in the style of a polonaise. The cello introduces the main theme and launches this jovial movement on its way. Near the end comes a surprising passage: a polonaise is in 3/4, but now Beethoven resets his principal theme in 2/4, shortening it and making it dance in new ways before going back to 3/4 for the coda and cadence.

Though completed in 1804, the Triple Concerto did not make its way decisively into the musical world, and it has remained one of Beethoven’s less familiar works. Despite several private performances, this music did not receive its public premiere in Vienna until May 1808, nearly a year after it had been published. Beethoven dedicated it to his patron Prince Lobkowitz, also the dedicatee of the Eroica.

Program notes on both Beethoven works by Eric Bromberger.



Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

Brahms knew from the outset that his Fourth Symphony was different from the other three, and he apparently entertained fears that it might not be received as warmly.  Composed in 1884 and 1885, on the heels of the extroverted Third Symphony of 1883, the Fourth was at once the composer’s most passionate and his most abstract symphonic outpouring. As with the Second Symphony, he joked self-consciously about its unique quality, stating in a letter that it consisted of “a few entr’actes and polkas that I happened to have lying around.”

Like the first two symphonies, the Third and Fourth also form a pair, one clear-eyed and direct, the other gray and troubled. The English critic Donald Francis Tovey called the Fourth “one of the rarest things in classical music, a symphony which ends tragically.” (The torrid First had broken into triumphant C-major at the end.)

Evidence suggests that the source of the Fourth’s high drama was not personal crisis but Brahms’ interest during the 1880s in the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and others. Brahms’ friendship with conductor Hans von Bülow beginning in 1881 was also a factor. Bülow, who had just been named director of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, offered Brahms a first-class ensemble with which the composer could “try out” the Fourth and other works.

Bülow prepared the Meiningen Orchestra’s first performance of the Fourth Symphony, which Brahms conducted on October 25, 1885. The composer then took the piece on tour with the Orchestra, performing it throughout northern Germany and the Netherlands, before allowing Hans Richter to present it to the Viennese public in January 1886.

The initial response was surprisingly cool, considering the extent to which the city had lionized Brahms throughout the 1870s and early 1880s. The Fourth was declared “un-Brahmsian.” (At an earlier private performance of a four-hand piano version, the biographer Max Kalbeck reportedly suggested that the fourth movement be omitted altogether.)

Brahms did not lay a finger on the work. And sure enough, by the end of the composer’s life the Viennese public had gained a deeper appreciation not only for the Fourth, but for a whole career of symphonic music that it seemed to sum up. A performance of the Fourth in 1897, a month before the composer’s death, indicated the depth of the shift of opinion. Here is Florence May’s description of the emotional evening:

“A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artists’ box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience.

“An extraordinary scene followed the conclusion of the work. The applauding, shouting audience, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar and yet in present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go.

“Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there shrunken in form, with lined countenance, a strained expression, white hair hanging lank; and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for they knew that they were saying farewell.”

Four weeks later, hordes of admirers turned out for the composer’s funeral.

tragedy of the classical kind

allegro non troppo. The first movement is uniquely tragic in tone yet glowing with an inner warmth that is unprecedented in Brahms’ orchestral output. “It acts its tragedy with unsurpassable variety of expression and power of climax,” Tovey writes. One is tempted to wonder why tragedy should sound so beautiful. Some have also found echoes of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in the obsessive descending thirds. (Brahms’ appreciation of late Beethoven had deepened recently as a result of hearing his works played by Bülow, who was also one of the great pianists of his day.)

andante moderato. The slow movement is a moody intermezzo, lightening the tone to take some of the first movement’s weight from the listener’s chest.

allegro giocoso. Likewise is the third movement, one of the composer’s splashiest and most “bacchanalian” scherzos. Its finale-like fervor caused Tovey to ask, “After three movements so full of dramatic incident, what finale is possible?”

allegro energico e passionato. The finale Brahms devised for the Fourth Symphony was indeed singular, and was the chief point of controversy when the symphony was introduced. It was perhaps also the work’s chief point of contact with the last Beethoven piano sonatas, and with the Renaissance and Baroque music that had recently occupied Brahms the scholar. It is a set of variations on the bass from Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich (For Thee, Lord, Do I Long).

Brahms inflects the bassline with a tiny, “Romanticizing” chromatic alteration before submitting it to a set of variations that gradually reduces the “theme” to a vague, schematized scaffolding. Such a procedure calls to mind not only Baroque works such as Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin but also the variation movements of late Beethoven. The Opus 111 Sonata, Beethoven’s last, also ends with an ethereal set of variations whose theme is slowly reduced, bit by bit, to little more than an abstract harmonic skeleton.

In retrospect, the orchestral variations were perhaps the only way Brahms could have ended the Fourth Symphony—with a conservative twist that set musical limits by evoking Baroque harmonic ideals, yet creating closure through subtle thematic reminiscences and a reduction to harmonic essentials.

Program note by Paul Horsley.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff