LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37 (1800-1803)

i. Allegro con brio    ii. Largo     iii. Allegro

As the foremost pianist of his day and already flexing his compositional muscles Beethoven was inevitably going to compose vehicles for his own performing genius. By 1800 he had composed eleven of his eventual complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique, Op 13 (1798), together with the first two piano concertos, the Second in B flat, Op 19, written first, (1795), but published second, and the First in C major, Op 15, (1800), carrying the piano concerto genre beyond the perfection of Mozart into new territory.

The young composer had made an extensive study of the piano works of Mozart and was fully aware that he was the composer to carry the torch forward. In particular he greatly admired Mozart’s tragic C minor piano concerto, No 24, K491, and its influence is clear in Beethoven’s own C minor concerto, his only minor-key piano concerto, at least in the first movement. In fact C minor became a talismanic key for him, Op 37 one in a line of major works in the key which include their own brand of Beethovenian anguish, including the Pathétique piano sonata, the Eroica Symphony’s Funeral March, the Coriolan Overture and the Fifth Symphony.

The date of composition of Op 37 has been open to some conjecture; it’s thought by the eminent Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper that the first sketches date back as far as 1796, although it’s most likely that it was largely written in 1800 at a similar time to the composition of Prometheus and of the First Symphony. What is known is that the premiere did not take place until 5 April 1803 with the composer himself as soloist despite the onset of his deafness; the Second Symphony was premiered in the same concert. In common with many of Mozart’s concerto premieres, and despite the fact that the body of the work was some three years old, Beethoven performed his solo part largely from memory; his turner-over for the evening, one Ignaz von Seyfried, later confirmed that the solo part in front of Beethoven consisted of little more than a collection of brief squiggles which reminded him of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Of course the solo part had definitely been crystallised by the time of the work’s publication in 1804, and included Beethoven’s own cadenzas, which remain the most commonly performed today. The concerto was dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a great friend of Beethoven and a fine pianist and composer himself.

The hushed opening of the Allegro con brio sets an atmosphere of quiet menace, promising an orchestral introduction of volatility. The first extended forte brings a taste of the major key, but it doesn’t last long. The second subject, however, brings a more classical duet in the major between the first clarinet and first violins over a lyrical accompaniment. The end of the orchestral exposition brings a challenge to the piano which is accepted forthrightly, and the solo part leads a second exploration of the main themes, but seems intent on calming some of the angst of the first. The development is largely reflective, then the recap carries us to Beethoven’s cadenza — here the piano pulls no punches, acknowledging the more trenchant aspects of the movement; the coda begins sublimely with the piano quietly floating descending arpeggios over hushed, sustained chords and purposeful timpani, but brings us shortly to a suitably turbulent ending to the movement.

In contrast, the Adagio brings one of Beethoven’s most beautiful and heartfelt slow movements in the surprising key of E major, the piano musing by itself over the introspective opening theme before the orchestra bathes itself warmly. Woodwind solos in subsequent material are accompanied by the piano, and on its journey to its seemingly peaceful conclusion the movement sees continued sharing between piano and orchestra of the roles of prime mover and accompanist.

The finale is an ebullient Rondo despite returning us to C minor. Once again the soloist introduces the rondo-theme, then hands it to the orchestra. The episodes take us into a variety of moods, but the general atmosphere is genial, although later on there is a mysterious fugal episode in the minor. Finally a brief, flashing cadenza introduces a scherzo-like coda in C major, Presto, in an entirely new time signature — 6/8 — its humorous touches bringing an effervescent end to a concerto which began in potential tragedy.

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Beethoven  (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Many composers in the nineteenth century were to be inspired by Shakespeare, from Berlioz (Beatrice and Benedict, Romeo and Juliet), to Tchaikovsky (Hamlet, another great Romeo and Juliet,) to Verdi (Falstaff), and it might be thought that Beethoven’s Coriolan was an early example, drawing on the harrowing tale of the Roman Coriolanus, whose revolt against the Roman establishment had resulted in tragedy, but in fact his inspiration was a play written in 1802 by an Austrian Civil Servant, one Heinrich Joseph von Collin, a friend of the composer but – somehow – unaware that Shakespeare had written his version in 1607. The source for both plays was the true story of Caius Martius as told in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans; some five hundred years BC, he rose to fame by sacking the Volscian city of Corioli, enemy of Rome, and was honoured with the name Coriolanus and the status of Consul, but then through arrogance lost the loyalty of the Roman Senate and people and defected to the Volscians. Intent on destroying Rome, in both plays he is persuaded against an attempt by his mother Volumnia; however, in Shakespeare’s play the Volscians perceive his betrayal as treason and murder him, whilst in Collin’s Coriolan is stricken by remorse at his failings and takes his own life.

Collin’s play was first performed on 24 November 1802 in Vienna and remained current for some three years, but a brief single-performance revival in 1807, possibly to try Beethoven’s overture as a prelude to the play, was eclipsed by a rising tide of admiration throughout Germany for Shakespeare’s version, and Collin’s play disappeared virtually without trace.

Beethoven, fascinated firstly by the conflicts of loyalty which faced Coriolanus / Coriolan and the personal flaws which proved his downfall, and secondly by the relationship between the Consul and his mother, decided to write the work despite the fact that no further performance of the play was officially planned; there was no commission and there would be no incidental music, unlike the circumstances surrounding the composition of his music for another political play, Egmont, two years later.

Thus, in effect, Coriolan was written as a stand-alone concert item, and its gravitas and subject-matter raise it to the status of an early tone-poem in all but name. Beethoven clearly also identified with Coriolan’s anger and desperation, his deafness, which had caused him to contemplate his own suicide in 1802, having by 1807 become almost complete.

The work, in the tragic key of C minor, could scarcely begin more dramatically or with more searing intensity; the strings then set off a darkly conspiratorial figure which will pervade much of the piece. Two species of muscular tied rhythms fight each other – one imagines that Brahms must have admired this piece as these passages surely presage similar muscularity in the later composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. A lyrical theme depicts Volumnia’s pleading with Coriolan to avoid attacking Rome, but music of complete defiance soon dismisses it. More conspiracy ensues with lower strings and bassoon working away underneath, but once again this is rudely thrown aside. The structure of the piece is sonata form; the exposition of the material to date leads to a development and then a recap, before the crisis is reached and the opening string theme is unravelled in desolation by the cellos as Coriolan’s life ebbs away.                                     

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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