The Kennedy Center

Triple Concerto

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

"Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel," counseled the 19th-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli. He would have gotten no argument from Beethoven on that point. When Rudolph, Archduke of Austria and titled scion of the Habsburg line, turned up among Beethoven's Viennese pupils, the young composer realized that he had tapped the highest echelon of European society. Beethoven gave instruction in both piano performance and composition to Rudolph, who had a genuine if limited talent for music. Questioned once whether Rudolph played really well, the diplomatic teacher answered with a hoarse chuckle, "When he is feeling just right." Concerning flattery, the most important manner in which 19th-century composers could praise royalty was by dedicating one of their compositions to a noble personage. Rudolph, who eventually became Archbishop Cardinal of Austria and remained a life-long friend and patron of Beethoven, 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. While Rudolph was still a boy of sixteen, however, his teacher wrote for him his very own composition, a piece that made a grand noise and showed off his piano skills in a most sympathetic setting.

Beethoven's choice of piano, violin and cello for Rudolph's concerto 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. The sinfonia concertante was especially favored in France, where the combination of violin and either viola or cello was most common. Beethoven, powerfully under the influence of French music at the time (the "Eroica" Symphony and Fidelio also date from 1803-1804), took over the form for two solo strings and added to it a piano part and — behold! the adolescent Archduke had become a star. Beethoven liked his student, who seems to have been quite a nice young man. The composer tailored the piano part to Rudolph's skills so that it did not present extremely difficult technical demands but still showed off his abilities to good advantage. The string parts, on the other hand, he filled with florid lines woven around the keyboard writing so that the soloists as a group come off as a dazzling band of virtuosos. To assure a good first performance, Beethoven called in two of the best players of the day to share the stage with Rudolph — violinist Carl August Seidler and cellist Anton Kraft. If the demands of the cello part on the range and technique of the soloist are any indication, Kraft, especially, seems to have warranted his reputation as a master performer.

Beethoven set himself a thorny compositional problem with his Triple Concerto: how to give each soloist sufficient exposure while keeping the work within manageable formal bounds. Absolute equality would demand that every theme be played four times — once by the orchestra and once by each of the three soloists. 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 cantabile melodies he was able to employ elsewhere in his 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. While it does not scale great emotional heights, the "Triple" Concerto shows with what mastery Beethoven could command the purely technical aspects of his craft.

The Concerto's first movement is a modified sonata design with a lengthy exposition and recapitulation necessitated by the many thematic repetitions. After a hushed and halting opening in the strings, the full orchestra takes up the main thematic material of the movement. The soloists enter, led, as usual throughout this Concerto, by the cello with the main theme. The second theme begins, again in the cello, with a snappy triad played in the unexpected key of A major rather than the more usual dominant tonality of G. It is through such original and, for 1804, daring technical excursions that Beethoven widened the expressive possibilities of instrumental music. Much of the remainder of the movement is given over to repetitions and figuration rather than to true motivic development. A sudden quickening of the tempo charges the concluding measures with flashing energy.

The second movement is a peaceful song for the solo strings with elaborate embroidery from the piano. The movement is not long, and it soon leads into the finale without a break. The closing movement is a strutting Rondo alla Polacca in the style of the polonaise, the traditional Polish dance that Chopin was to immortalize in his keyboard works. The cello again is the first to seize the dance-like theme, sharing it with the other participants in turn. There is an almost constant buzz of rhythmic filigree that gives this movement a happy propulsion which eventually erupts into a truly fine frenzy when the meter changes from triple to duple near the end. The triple meter and the rondo tune return to bring the Concerto to a rousing conclusion.