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TitlePresentation of the triple concerto in C major, by Geoffrey Marshall

This presentation has been published in the booklet of the cd: "Triple concerto de Beethoven - Gérard Poulet, de Williencourt, Emile Naoumoff and the Orchestre National de Lorraine directed by Pascal Verrot (Arion - 1998)".

Geoffrey Marshall wrote the presentation of this work.

Many thanks to the Orchestre National de Lorraine which allowed this text to be part of this website.

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TitlePresentation of the triple concerto in C major, opus 56

There are relatively few concertos among the works of Beethoven. They all date from the period 1790-1815, and include one for the violin, five for the piano, and the triple concerto. Otherwise, the two romances for violin and orchestra are pretty close relatives, albeit on a smaller scale.

The triple concerto is dedicated to Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian von Lobkowitz. He was a keen music lover and violinist who, having an orchestra at his disposal in his private palace from 1796 onwards, made it available for Beethoven to test his orchestral works before their public performance. In 1809 he formed a team with Prince Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolph to provide Beethoven with an annuity of 4000 florins. Lobkowitz was also the dedicatee of the Eroica, the Opus 18 string Quartets, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and the cycle An die ferne Geliebte.

The triple concerto would seem to have been composed between April-September 1804. It received its first known performance in May 1808, and was published in 1807 in Vienna, yet it had already been anticipated in 1802 by fairly substantial sketches for a work in D, calling for the same team of soloists. It may have been intended for a concert in spring of that year. However, the director of the theatre cancelled the concert, leaving Beethoven to turn his attention to the opera.

After a difficult boyhood in Bonn, Beethoven had chosen to settle in his adoptive Vienna, and in the space of five or six years (making much allowance for the gestation and lengthy reworking of his ideas) produced a quantity of masterpieces astonishing by any standards, including the third symphony, the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, Fidelio, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three Razumowsky Quartets and the Violin Concerto. At this time he was coming to terms with increasingly "meaty" sonata-form structures. The Waldstein and the triple concerto display the lengthiest first movements he had undertaken by that time, and several ideas in the concerto may have been distilled from the piano sonata.

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TitleTriple concerto in C major: first movement - Allegro

The forces are both unusual and formidable, and the scale of the triple concerto is correspondingly grand. The first movement has over 530 bars (nearly half of them in C major), and the third is virtually as substantial, with just under 500 bars. The opening of the Allegro is spectacularly quiet and unobtrusive: six bars' worth of cello and double bass provide the material for a vast paragraph before the cello, violin and piano appear successively in a tonic-dominant-tonic order respectively.

The lion's share of the development is initiated by the string soloists, the piano behaving obediently and without undue pomp. The technical problems of balance between resources (violin, cello, piano, orchestra) are solved here by an unusual paucity of chordal writing for the piano. The chords actually played by the piano can almost be counted on the fingers of two hands. There is much liberal use of unison semiquavers, or thirds, sixths and tenths, sometimes at the double or triple octave placed above or below the strings so as not to hinder their own tessitura. The very first entry is in octaves only (as is also the case in the two following movements) with only a little arpeggio work, and some thirds in broken octaves when the piano is flexing its muscles.

Some of the stormiest passages contain triplet arpeggios in contrary motion, but the rest is virtually all two-part polyphony, in scale passages, or arpeggio work plus some discreet quasi Alberti-bass activity by way of varying the texture. The Violin and Cello Sonatas display similar restraint in their allegro movements, the texture being largely a two-part affair. In place of the usual cadenza just alter the recapitulation comes an animated dialogue between the piano trio members with unobtrusive support from the orchestra, and the movement closes with a brief coda. A similar formula is proposed in the third movement.

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TitleTriple concerto in C major: second movement - Largo

The slow movement (Largo) is in the key of the flattened submediant (C-A flat-C), a relationship also encountered in the First Piano Concerto and the Emperor (E flat-B-E flat). The thematic material is presented shortly after the opening by the cello (playing in such a high register that it constitutes the soprano voice of the texture) accompanied by muted strings, while the piano joins in much later and provides extremely delicate and remarkably discreet unison arpeggio figuration most of the time. There is not a single chord in the entire movement, only four bars of broken chord patterns.

The movement itself is short, albeit with dramatic potential, leading directly (perhaps a backward glance at the Waldstein?) into the Rondo alla Polacca (there are similar links between the corresponding movements of the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos).

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TitleTriple concerto in C major: third movement - Rondo alla Polacca

The lively Polacca theme is entrusted to the cello, playing on the treble stave and the accompaniment is provided by the strings at a lower pitch, exactly as in the largo. The piano is content to play in octaves, just as in the two previous movements. The rest is a model of clarity, with no more than three or four bars of cadential punctuation.

Otherwise considerable use is made of single and double broken octaves, elegantly varied with arpeggios and trills.

Only a composer thoroughly versed in the production of chamber music and attentive to the needs of other instruments could have produced such a finely crafted texture.

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