Thursday, January 29, 2015

Concerto Guide: Beethoven, Concerto for Piano No. 3 in C minor, op. 37

Apart from some incomplete and fragmentary pieces, Beethoven wrote only seven concertos in his career: five for piano, for his own use, one for violin and the triple concerto for violin, cello and piano. Just for comparison, Mozart wrote all five of his violin concertos in a single year, 1775 and wrote around thirty piano concertos! Of course, Beethoven's piano concertos were written for his own use and when he became deaf and unable to perform in public, he wrote no more. His Fifth Piano Concerto had to be premiered by others. But we should not conclude from this that Beethoven was an indifferent or lackluster composer of concertos. Those few that he wrote are all masterpieces and a couple, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, are superb works with no real equals.

Before getting to those, I want to take up the slightly earlier Piano Concerto No. 3, written in 1800 and first performed in 1803 with Beethoven as soloist. One of the things that the Romantic view of Beethoven as the struggling, suffering, but ultimately triumphing solitary soul tends to conceal is the close connections between his music and that of Mozart in particular. This concerto is a good example as it resembles the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491 of Mozart with which it shares not only the key of C minor, but the mood and, indeed, a very similar opening theme. Here is the first part of the Mozart:

And the beginning theme, 13 measures ending on the first note of the next measure after this except:

Click to enlarge

Here is the first part of the first movement of the Beethoven:

And here is the score. That opening is a brief, four measure phrase answered by the winds with the same theme in the dominant:

Mozart, that great imitator of others (his first few piano concertos were transcriptions of piano sonatas by J. C. Bach) would have found nothing amiss with this. The remarkable thing is that Beethoven was undoubtedly the only composer alive who could have done such a close facsimile of a Mozart piano concerto. Mind you, the Beethoven is a different kind of piece, with shorter, more articulated themes, but the resemblance is still striking.

One major difference is that Beethoven has a more static exposition than Mozart would have done: there is a completely self-sufficient orchestral exposition, ending with a pause, then the piano essentially repeats the orchestral exposition with some variations. Mozart, as we have seen in this post, had more creative ways of handling the dual exposition problem: it tends to be dull if the soloist just repeats what the orchestra has just done. Mozart might have the soloist interrupt the orchestra, as he did in the "Jeunehomme" concerto, or give the soloist a modulating exposition or give the soloist entirely new themes as Mozart did in the C minor concerto that resembles this one of Beethoven. What he did not do is what Beethoven did here and in his first two piano concertos and as Hummel and even Chopin did: have the orchestra do an exposition ending with a firm cadence, after which the soloist basically does it all again. For Mozart that was too dull and after this concerto, Beethoven rediscovers some Mozartean solutions. It is an odd thing about Beethoven's career that he became more "classical" in terms of his handling of form, later in life and less "romantic". There is a structural looseness about this concerto that he does not repeat in his later ones.

One very nice touch in this concerto is the coda where, after a very wide-ranging cadenza, the orchestra enters with a pianissimo harmony with just an echo of the opening theme in the tympani alone:

That is a very Beethoven touch and one that I don't think Mozart ever used!

While this is a very fine concerto, Beethoven has not quite gotten the measure of Mozart yet, his only real teacher when it comes to concertos. As we will see next week, Beethoven makes great strides with his next concerto, which we will look at then.


Rickard Dahl said...

Nice observations. I haven't listened to the Mozart concerto you linked here so can't compare yet but it's quite a big contrast between Mozart and Beethoven in general. The subtle orchestra entrance after the cadenza, the cadenza itself, in the slow movement a section with only piano arpeggios and sparse notes by the strings, more subtle cadenza entrances and more rhythmic variation (especially in scale runs, things like 12 groupings and 15 groupings etc.) are just a few Beethovenian touches. The first movement is majestic and passionate. The second movement is probably even more passionate. I think the third movement resembles Mozart most as it's witty/fun (albeit with more Beethovenian punch, especially with those timpanies, it sounds like quite a rumble). It's actually my favorite movement I think.

Bryan Townsend said...

The C minor and D minor Mozart concertos were Beethoven's favorites and I believe he played both of them.