Program Notes

Concerto No. 3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 37

BORN: December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th). Bonn, then an independent electorate
DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna

COMPOSED: Ideas for what would become Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto began appearing in his sketchbooks as early as 1796, but he didn’t begin composing the work in earnest until the autumn of 1799. The first movement was essentially complete by April 2, 1800. Then Beethoven set the project aside, returning to it only in 1802. That effort also proved abortive, and he seems to not have finished the piece until a year later, in 1803. The score bears a dedication to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia

WORLD PREMIERE: April 5, 1803, at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien

US PREMIERE: December 8, 1842, at a concert of the Musical Fund Society in Boston; J.L. Hatton was soloist, George J. Webb conducted

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1936. José Iturbi was soloist, Pierre Monteux conducted.
MOST RECENT—February 2016. Maria João Pires was soloist, Herbert Blomstedt conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with timpani and strings. Although Beethoven surely improvised the first-movement cadenza at the premiere, he did write out a suitable cadenza for this concerto in 1809, and it is that cadenza that plays at these concerts

DURATION: About 34 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna in 1792 to study with Franz Josef Haydn, the most eminent living composer. Though the lessons with Haydn would be few and unfruitful, Beethoven respected the older master’s works as symphonic models and generally adhered to Classical structures in his early symphonies and concertos. But when it came to melodies, rhythmic gestures, and phrasing, Beethoven held Mozart most dear.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K.491, is a brooding, even despairing work that became a favorite of the ensuing Romantic generation, and Beethoven was one of its great admirers. Once, walking with the pianist-composer Johann Baptist Cramer, he heard an outdoor performance of the Mozart concerto. He stopped, called attention to a particularly beautiful motif, and exclaimed, with a mixture of admiration and despondency, “Cramer, Cramer! We shall never be able to do anything like that!” “As the theme was repeated and wrought up to the climax”—according to an account by Cramer’s widow—“Beethoven, swaying his body to and fro, marked the time and in every possible manner manifested a delight rising to enthusiasm.” Listeners familiar with the Mozart concerto will realize the extent to which Beethoven was influenced by its opening movement when he came to write his Third Piano Concerto.

At least on a professional level, things were going well for Beethoven as the old century yielded to the new. (His personal life was more troubled, with the onset of hearing problems.) He had gained renown in Vienna as a pianist, and aristocrats were beginning to seek him out to provide the piano lessons that were all but obligatory for their daughters. He had composed much and was already embarked on his earliest works in large-scale genres. On April 2, 1800, at Vienna's Burgtheater, Beethoven had undertaken his first benefit concert (in those days, a benefit concert was for the benefit of the composer). The program included a Mozart symphony, excerpts from Haydn's newly unveiled oratorio The Creation, piano improvisations, one of Beethoven’s piano concertos (probably No. 1, the C major), and two new Beethoven works, the Opus 20 Septet and the Symphony No. 1.

Beethoven had planned to unveil the C minor Piano Concerto No. 3 on that occasion but had completed only the first movement and a detailed sketch of the second. The gestation of this concerto continued, and composition was strung out over three and a half years—plus a further year if you count the time it took him actually to write out the piano part. Of course, Beethoven would not have had to write out the solo part when he premiered the work, for the piece was in his head, and the practice of the time would have allowed for a fair amount of improvisation. Ignaz von Seifert, the Theater an der Wien’s conductor, turned pages for the composer during the concerto at its premiere in 1803, and he has left an alarmed account of the experience:

I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs, wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set 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 concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly and he laughed heartily at the jovial supper which we ate afterwards.

The reviews of that first performance came in mixed, with one Viennese critic reporting that “in the Concerto in C minor, Hr. v. Beethoven did not perform to the complete satisfaction of the public.” Given the circumstances, one can only feel charitable towards the composer. He had gotten up before dawn to finish writing out the trombone parts for his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, which was also on the program, in time for the only rehearsal, which began at eight in the morning. The rehearsal ran non-stop for seven hours and resumed after a snack break for another go-round of the oratorio. This left little time before the performance began, at six in the evening. By then it had been determined that not all of the music intended for the concert would fit into a single program; even with several items excluded at the last minute, the performance went on at great length. 

Despite the attenuated composition process, the Piano Concerto No. 3 displays a strikingly unified vocabulary and taut structure. One might argue that it is the first of his five piano concertos really to sound like the mature Beethoven. The work also reflects an important advance relating to technology. In the final decades of the eighteenth century, manufacturers were beginning to stretch the piano’s range by incorporating keys beyond the instrument’s standard five-octave range. Beethoven was not always among the first to make use of these extra notes; doing so, after all, would have limited the practicality of his music for musicians whose pianos were not so equipped. But in his C minor Piano Concerto, he made full use of the new technology, and he asks his soloist to play all the way up to high G. This concerto, in fact, is thought to be the first piano piece ever to call for that particular note, and Beethoven leads his pianist there right at the outset of the solo part, when the first movement’s main theme is announced in double octaves. By the time he got around to writing out the piano part for his student Ferdinand Ries, in 1804, he was emboldened to push the range further, all the way up to the C that sits above the fifth ledger line above the treble staff. His C minor Concerto therefore stands not only as a great work in its own right, but also as a document relating to the adolescent growing pains of the instrument itself.

THE MUSIC  The opening movement has an aggressive cast, its C minor outbursts prefiguring in some sense the more thunderous C minor emotions of the Fifth Symphony, which lay several years in the future. Like that symphony, the main theme of the concerto’s first movement is terse, blunt, to-the-point. What the strings play is answered by a mirroring woodwind phrase, proceeding into a passionate continuation for the whole orchestra. A second principal theme appears several pages into the piece, a gracious melody in the contrasting major mode, introduced by violins with the added intensity of gentle clarinets. The orchestra’s exposition goes on at ample length and with considerable force—if the piano weren’t sitting in plain view, a listener could be excused for imagining that this was a symphony in progress. The piano makes its entrance with an ornamental, three-measure lead of scales (played in octaves) before articulating the stark main theme on its own.

Beethoven develops this opening movement along the general lines of Classical concertos, but he pays specific obeisance to Mozart’s C minor Concerto near the end. Where the first movements of most Classical concertos end with a summation by the orchestra alone (perhaps with the piano doubling the orchestral music literally), Mozart, in his C minor Concerto No. 24, provided more intricate interplay between soloist and orchestra right to the end. So does Beethoven here. Following the cadenza, he launches into a coda in which the piano continues to sparkle with arpeggios and other expressive motifs—indeed, in which the orchestra plays a subservient, merely accompanying role. At the end, the piano revisits the scales-in-octaves that had marked its entrance long before, an inspired finishing touch.

The second movement, the E major Largo, begins with the piano alone, singing with quiet nobility. Beethoven supports the hushed mood of this movement with imaginative touches of orchestration, including a magical dialogue among the piano (playing sweeping, murmuring arpeggios), flute, and bassoon, against a delicate accompaniment of plucked strings. After a little cadenza, the movement dies away into a pianissimo reminiscent of music that has come before. But Beethoven will be Beethoven, and he surprises his listeners by appending one last chord, a fortissimo exclamation point.

The final movement opens with a piano solo, and the first note the instrument plays is a G-natural. Following a nearly ten-minute expanse of E major, the ear is bound to hear the G-natural in the context of E major; the mind accordingly jumps to the conclusion that Beethoven is switching into contrasting E minor (in which G-natural takes the place of E major’s G-sharp). But it’s a red herring: That’s not what he’s doing at all. Instead, Beethoven is sending us back to the concerto’s overriding tonic key of C minor, and after an unsettled moment, the ear grasps that tonality again, this time attached to a jaunty theme with Gypsy flair. This movement is all fun, unrolling as a rondo, with contrasting interludes of sunny temperament. The proceedings come to a climax when, following the soloist’s brief cadenza, a coda in triumphant C major shifts into giddy 6/8 meter and the rondo theme is broken apart and reconditioned into an insouciant sort of tune that brings everything to a high-spirited conclusion.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Paul Lewis with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi)  |  Emanuel Ax with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)  |  Maria João Pires with Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Onyx)  |  Leon Fleisher with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)  |  Murray Perahia with Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Sony Classical) 

Online: Keeping Score: Beethoven’s Eroica with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

ReadingThe New Grove Beethoven, by Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson (Norton)  |  Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer)  |  Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, revised and updated by Elliot Forbes (Princeton)

(April 2018)

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