LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. Sketches for this Concerto appear as early as 1796 or 1797, though the principal work of composition came in the summer of 1800. It may have been revised at the end of 1802 for the first performance, which took place in Vienna on April 5, 1803, with the composer as soloist. Some time after completing the Concerto—but before 1809—Beethoven wrote a cadenza. In addition to solo piano, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

One morning during the summer of 1799 Beethoven was walking through the Augarten with Johann Baptist Cramer, one of the most brilliant pianists of his day and one of the few whom Beethoven found worthy of praise. Cramer was on a continental tour from his home town of London and had stopped in Vienna to look up Haydn. At this time he made the acquaintance of Beethoven. As the two men were strolling through the Augarten, they heard a performance of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto, K. 491. Beethoven suddenly stopped and drew Cramer’s attention to a simple but beautiful theme introduced near the end of the concerto and exclaimed, “Cramer, Cramer! We shall never be able to do anything like that!” Opinions may (and do) differ as to exactly what passage affected Beethoven so strongly, but there is no doubt that Mozart’s C minor Concerto was one of his favorite works, and echoes of that enthusiasm are clearly to be found in his own C minor Concerto, which was already in the works.

It is misleading to think of the Concerto as “Opus 37,” a number applied when the work was published four years after composition; rather it should be linked with the other compositions of 1799–1800: the six Opus 18 string quartets, the Septet, Opus 20, and the First Symphony, Opus 21. Still, even though it is an early work, the Third Piano Concerto shows a significant advance over its predecessors.

For some reason Beethoven withheld performance of the Concerto for three years. When the performance finally took place, it was part of a lengthy concert that Beethoven himself produced to introduce several of his newest works (this Concerto, the Second Symphony, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives); he also inserted the First Symphony, already becoming a favorite in Vienna, to attract the audiences. The performance was to take place on April 5, 1803, in the Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven himself lodged gratis while working on his opera Fidelio, which was ultimately produced there. The last rehearsal for the concert, on the day of the performance, was a marathon affair running without pause from 8 am until 2:30 pm.

It is a wonder that any of the performers could manage the actual concert, which began at 6 pm and proved to be so long that some of the shorter pieces planned for the program were dropped. Still, audiences were accustomed to sitting through three or four hours of musical performances in those days, yet they can scarcely have been expected to hear three large new compositions in a completely fresh and receptive frame of mind. The fact that Beethoven made up the program entirely of his own works—and then charged elevated prices for tickets—clearly indicates that he expected the power of his name to work at the box office, and so it seems to have worked, since he cleared 1,800 florins on the event.

Ignaz Seyfried, the Kapellmeister of the Theater an der Wien, had a special reason to remember the evening clearly:

In the playing of the concerto movements [Beethoven] asked me to turn the pages for him; but—heaven help me!—that was easier said than done. I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most on one page or the other a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory, since, as was often the case, he had not had time to put it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages and my scarcely concealed anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly and he laughed heartily at the jovial supper which we ate afterwards.

Seyfried’s explanation for the empty pages in the solo part—that Beethoven had not had time to write it out—seems unlikely. To be sure, the composer was working on the music for the concert almost up to the last minute. But the Concerto had been finished three years earlier (doubtless with details touched up in the interim), and if Beethoven had wanted to write out the solo part, he could surely have found the time in that long period between composition and performance. It is much more likely that the composer’s failure to write out the solo part reflected his desire—for the moment, at any rate—to keep the concerto entirely to himself. Beethoven was still making his living in part as a piano virtuoso, and the pianist-composer’s stock-in-trade was a supply of piano concertos that he and he alone could perform.

Obviously the solo part would have to be written out in full before publication of the work, and Beethoven in any case prepared the C minor Concerto for Ferdinand Ries, who gave the second performance in an Augarten concert on July 19, 1804. Even then he did not, according to Ries, put the solo part in the score; he simply wrote it out on separate sheets of paper. It is also clear from Ries’s recollections that Beethoven had not yet written the cadenza:

I had asked Beethoven to write a cadenza for me, but he refused and told me to write one myself and he would correct it. Beethoven was satisfied with my composition and made few changes; but there was an extremely brilliant and difficult passage in it, which, though he liked it, seemed to him too venturesome, wherefore he told me to write another in its place. A week before the concert he wanted to hear the cadenza again. I played it and floundered in the passage; he again, this time a little ill-naturedly, told me to change it. I did so, but the new passage did not satisfy me; I therefore studied the other, and zealously, but was not quite sure of it. When the cadenza was reached in the public concert Beethoven quietly sat down. I could not persuade myself to choose the easier one. When I boldly began the more difficult one, Beethoven violently jerked in his chair; but the cadenza went through all right and Beethoven was so delighted that he shouted “Bravo!” loudly. This electrified the entire audience and at once gave me a standing among the artists. Afterward, while expressing his satisfaction he added: “But all the same you are willful! If you had made a slip in the passage I would never have given you another lesson.”

Critical response to the Concerto at its first performance ranged from lukewarm to cold; in fact, the only thing that really pleased the audience, it seems, was the familiar First Symphony; even the delightful Second, receiving its first performance, put off the critic for the Zeitung für die elegante Welt with what he perceived to be too much “striving for the new and surprising.” And in the concerto Beethoven’s playing was apparently not up to his best standards. Perhaps he was tired from the strenuous day’s rehearsal. Still, the concerto quickly established itself in the public favor. When Ries played the second performance, the prestigious Allgemeine musikalische Zeitschrift declared it to be “indisputably one of Beethoven’s most beautiful compositions.”

Although Beethoven knew and admired the Mozart concertos, he had not yet learned one important trick of Mozart’s: that of withholding some tune for the soloist. Invariably Mozart left something out of the orchestral exposition so that it could first be presented by the piano in the solo exposition, thereby helping to characterize the pianist as an individual personality against the orchestra. But in the C-minor concerto, Beethoven lays out all of the thematic material at once in the longest and fullest orchestral statement that he ever wrote for a concerto. The main theme is typically Beethovenian in its pregnant simplicity, outlining a triad of C minor in the first measure, marching down the scale in the second, and closing off the first phrase with a rhythmic “knocking” motive that was surely invented with the timpani in mind (although Beethoven does not explicitly reveal that fact yet). Much of the “action” of the first movement involves the gradually increasing predominance of the “knocking” motive until it appears in one of the most strikingly poetic passages Beethoven had yet conceived—but that’s anticipating.

As the orchestral statement proceeds, Beethoven modulates rather early to the secondary key of E-flat and introduces the secondary theme. But then, as if suddenly recognizing his faux pas, he returns to the tonic major, C, and passes on to the closing thoughts, once again in C minor. The orchestra’s definite close on the tonic threatens stasis, but the soloist enters with forthright scales that run directly into the principal theme, whereupon the real forward momentum begins.

The piano exposition restates all the major ideas that the orchestra has already presented but makes the modulation to the new key definitive with an extended closing idea based on the rhythm of the “knocking” motive, which begins to grow in prominence. It completely dominates the development section, which twines other thematic ideas over the recurring staccato commentary of that rhythm. The recapitulation does not emphasize the knocking beyond what is minimally necessary for the restatement; Beethoven is preparing to spring one of his most wonderful ideas, the success of which requires him to build on the other themes for the movement. Even in the cadenza, which Beethoven composed some years after the rest of the concerto, he retains his long-range plan by basing it on all the important thematic ideas except the knocking rhythm. The reason appears as the cadenza ends. Beethoven (following the example of Mozart’s C minor Concerto) allows the piano to play through to the end of the movement, rather than simply stopping with the chord that marks the reentry of the orchestra, as happens in most classical concertos. But it is what the soloist plays that marks the great expressive advance in this score: wonderfully hushed arabesques against a pianissimo statement of the original knocking motive, at last in the timpani. Here for the first time in Beethoven’s concerto output he produces one of those magical “after the cadenza” moments of otherworldly effect, moments for which listeners to his later concertos wait with eager anticipation.

The Largo seems to come from an entirely different expressive world, being in the unusually bright key of E major. It is a simple song-form in its outline but lavish in its ornamental detail. In his last two piano concertos, Beethoven links the slow movement and the final Rondo directly. He has not quite done that here, though he invents a clever way of explaining the return from the distant E major to the home C minor: the last chord of the slow movement ends with the first violins playing a G-sharp as the top note of their chord, which also includes a B-natural; Beethoven reinterprets the G-sharp as A-flat (part of the scale of his home key) and invents a rondo theme that seems to grow right out of the closing chord of the slow movement. Nor does he forget that relationship once he is safely embarked on the rondo; one of the most charming surprises in the last movement is a solo passage in which the pianist takes over an A-flat from the orchestra and, while repeating it in an “oom-pah” pattern, reinterprets it again as a G-sharp to recall momentarily the key of the slow movement before the strings return with hints that it is high time to end such stunts and return to the main theme and the main key. But Beethoven has not yet run out of surprises; when we are ready for the coda to ring down the curtain, the pianist takes the lead in turning to the major for a brilliant ending with an unexpected 6/8 transformation of the material. —© S. L.