Beethoven’s Triple Threat

Beethoven composed his “Triple Concerto” op. 56, for his pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, who was a pianist and amateur composer. Rudolph, who eventually became an archbishop, remained a life-long friend and patron of Beethoven, and was the only person to whom Beethoven ever gave regular instruction in composition. In addition to the “Triple Concerto”, the Archduke received the dedication of such important works as the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the “Lebewohl” and “Hammerklavier” Sonatas, the op. 96 Violin Sonata, the “Archduke” Trio, the Missa Solemnis and the Grosse Fuge.

Beethoven’s choice of piano, violin and cello appears to be unprecedented in the literature—”really something new,” he wrote to his publisher. There was a popular genre in the Classical era known as the sinfonia concertante for two or more soloists with orchestral accompaniment, a revamped model of the Baroque concerto grosso. Mozart and Haydn left lovely examples, but the particular combination of piano, violin, and cello seems never to have been tried before.

He sketched the first movement early in 1803 during his most prolific period. At the same time he was composing the “Eroica” Symphony, the “Waldstein” and the “Appassionata” piano sonatas, and the first of the “Razumovsky” quartets. The “Triple Concerto” presented formidable compositional problems for Beethoven: how to give each soloist sufficient exposure while keeping the work within manageable formal bounds. To solve the problem, he had to devise simple and compact themes comprising basic chord and scale patterns, so this concerto is not rich in the dramatic transformation of material he was to employ in other middle-period compositions. The interest is to be found elsewhere—in the work’s contrasting sonorities, its interplay between soloists and orchestra, and its formal cohesion. This format, in turn, means that the concerto as a whole tends more toward lyric elaboration than to dramatic transformation of the material. The “Triple Concerto”, therefore, combines the scale of Beethoven’s grand concerto style with instrumental dialogues among the soloists in a manner more typical of chamber music.

The first, expansive movement commences in the murmuring cellos and basses presenting the rhythmic motif that dominates the initial subject, and ensuing movement. The second movement, a sublime melody presented by the solo cello, is, in contrast to the lengthy first movement, surprisingly brief. The peaceful theme is not developed; rather Beethoven links it to the final movement using a set of short variations in dialogue between the soloists. The prancing polonaise, “Rondo alla Polacca”, dances headstrong before erupting in the duple meter “Allegro”. The swaggering polonaise returns, bringing the Concerto to a stirring conclusion.

Often overshadowed by the composer’s other concertos, the rarely heard and underrated “Triple Concerto” stands as a testament to the composer’s craft and as a window to Beethoven’s future lyricism of the Fourth Piano Concerto, op. 58 and the Violin Concerto, op. 61.

The SSO will perform Beethoven’s Triple Concerto on May 5th with the world renowned Gryphon Trio.

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