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Beethoven: “Triple Concerto”

The Beethoven Triple is from the genre called the symphonie concertante: a concerto-like composition for multiple soloists and orchestra. The concertante is a step-child of the concerto grosso of fifty years and more previous, and it had enjoyed a great vogue in the 1770s in Paris and Mannheim—cities Mozart visited during his travels of 1777–78 . . . which is how this curious form got to Vienna to begin with.

The usual story is that the piano part for the Beethoven Triple was composed for the famous Archduke Rudolf, younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis I, student of Beethoven from his adolescence, and later one of the guarantors (along with the dedicatee of this concerto, Prince Lokbowitz) of Beethoven’s annual stipend. (Rudolf is the dedicatee of the “Archduke” Trio, of course, but also of both the “Emperor” Concerto and the Missa solemnis, composed for his installation as Archbishop of Olmütz.) It’s also said that Beethoven kept the piano part simple for his aristocratic student/patron, but this seems unlikely on the face of it. What is likely is that the work was first played privately in aristocratic apartments, perhaps those of Archduke Rudolf or Prince Lobkowitz. The solo cellist was probably Anton Kraft, who had been a principal in Haydn’s orchestra.

The work is contemporaneous with the “Eroica” Symphony and the great op. 59 quartets, the “Razumovsky.” But here Beethoven seems largely unconcerned with the compositional dynamics that later came to be called the “heroic” style. He seems most interested, instead, in investigating ways the piano might be worked into (and out of) the concertante texture. The prevailing sentiment is one of courtliness, perhaps a certain lightness: only the brief second movement suggests the intellectual and psychological depth of the “heroic” period. Still the work overflows with interesting ideas: note, for instance, the strange opening for cellos and basses alone. Note, too, the way the famous “polacca” (Polish dance) at the end lifts and carries the work away, much as the theme-and-variations finale of the “Eroica” had done.

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