Triple concerti are the exception, certainly not the rule in musical literature. And it takes a composer like Beethoven to find the perfect balance between the orchestra and the soloists: piano, violin and cello. In 1803/04, Ludwig van Beethoven composed one of the most fascinating pieces I know: The Triple Concerto in C Major, op. 56. It is written in three movements. The first movement is disproportionately long (17 minutes), the second last only 5 minutes while the final movement stretches over 13 minutes. It has been recorded by the Trio Wanderer and the Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker led by James Conlon.
The first movement is marked by a march-like theme, and apparently Beethoven aimed to give the three soloists ample occasion to shine – which would explain its length. I deeply love this first movement. It is stirring, powerful, galvanic and so typically Beethoven! After the first ten bars you will understand what I mean. It is one of these piece where I cannot sit still which is embarrassing for all involved when I am driving a car. If I ever have a road accident, it will all be Beethoven’s fault.
The second movement features a melody that is repeated several times: The largo is introduced by the orchestra, varied by the cello, than the piano and finally the violin. Very solemn, very delicate, a deep melancholy, some foreboding worthy of Tchaikovsky – aaah, what a pleasure. The final movement is marked by a polka-like rhythm and the final bars where the three soloists play together. Joyfully it begins and joyfully it ends. And all is well.
Beethoven wrote the triple concerto in the tradition of the Baroque concerti grossi for one of his student, a very special student: the Archduke Rudolph of Austria. The nobleman was a strong sponsor of music, but his abilities as a pianist did not match Beethoven’s supreme talent as a composer. This explains why the piano part is less demanding than the parts of the other two soloists. The fact that you need a complete piano trio and an orchestra to perform the concert has prevented this piece from becoming as popular as Beethoven’s other solo concerts. The archduke of course had the means to perform such a piece at his discretion.
According to Beethoven’s biographer Jan Caeyers, a former assistant to the conductor Claudio Abbado and director of the Beethoven-Akademie, the two men were rather close. At least a hundred letters testify of this friendly and respectful relationship. They did not meet before 1808, but Beethoven hoped to gain him as a sponsor and perhaps as an employer quite early. Beethoven taught him the principles of composition from 1810 on. Initially the lessons should have started in 1809, but the nobleman had to flee temporarly when Napoleon’s troops marched into Austria.
By 1819, Rudolph of Austria had composed his first (and last piece): 40 variations of a theme set by Beethoven. His career as Archbishop of Olomouc (Moravia) did not leave him any time and his poor health – he was epileptic – did not leave him any choice. Sic transit gloria musici!
© Charles Thibo