October 3, 2003 - Town Hall Seattle
October 4, 2003 - Rialto Theater Tacoma
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Program Notes by Ron Drummond
Aperçu of Apotheosis
The Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor was written during an extremely
well-documented period of Beethoven's life, yet determining the
precise circumstances of its composition has proven difficult. It
was long thought to have been composed in early 1800 for Beethoven's
first benefit concert, but the recovery of the autograph score (lost
during the Second World War) in 1977 revealed Beethoven's handwritten
notation, "1803", which forced a reevaluation. What puzzled
scholars was the fact that the Third Piano Concerto does indeed
belong stylistically to the period around 1800 -- it has more in
common with the First Symphony than with the Third Symphony or the
"Waldstein" sonata. But it's precisely such apparent contradictions
that inspire scholars to dig deeper.
What's now clear is that both dates are correct. During the fall
and winter of 1799-1800, Beethoven did indeed start drafting the
Third Piano Concerto, intending it for the benefit concert in April.
These same months saw composition of the First Symphony, the Septet,
and continued work on Beethoven's two-year project, the six string
quartets of Opus 18. Yet he managed to complete the concerto's opening
movement and much of the middle before realizing his compositional
pace wouldn't allow him to make the fast-approaching performance
date. So he set it aside and pulled out the score of Piano Concerto
No. 1, something he'd been meaning to polish for some time - and
that's what he played at the concert. It was almost two years before
Beethoven worked again on the C Minor Concerto, in anticipation
of another benefit. When that concert fell through, he once again
put it aside. Finally, late in 1802, a concert benefit for the following
April was firmly scheduled, and Beethoven went back to work on the
concerto a third time, at last completing the slow movement and
So much for heroic inspiration.
Yet clearly the practical inspirations are not to be underestimated.
Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist of Mozart's Magic Flute, had
just hired Beethoven as "house composer" for the suburban
Theater an der Wein, which meant a hefty salary, free rent on the
theater's apartment (which Beethoven wasted no time moving into),
and use of the theater for his own benefit. In return, Beethoven
agreed to write an opera.
After completing the concerto, Beethoven, perhaps to warm up to
the operatic commission, and recalling his attendance at the premiere
of Haydn's The Seasons the year before, decided to try his hand
at an oratorio. Written in less than a month, Christ on the Mount
of Olives has not been treated kindly by posterity. Yet advertisements
for the benefit in the Wiener Zeitung mention nothing but the oratorio.
This is even more astounding when one realizes that, in addition
to the Third Piano Concerto, the Second Symphony was also receiving
its premiere at the same concert!
Perhaps one is inevitably caught up in the moment's heat. The morning
of Tuesday, April 5th saw Beethoven awake before 5 a.m. When his
student, Ferdinand Ries, arrived, he was still in bed, madly copying
out the trombone parts for the oratorio. By 8 a.m. , the orchestra
and chorus were gathered in the theater, and rehearsals commenced.
As Ries later recalled, "It was a terrible rehearsal and by
half-past two everyone was exhausted and unhappy. Prince Carl Lichnowsky
[one of Beethoven's patrons] sent out for great hampers of bread
and butter, cold meats and wine. In a friendly way he invited everyone
to help themselves, which they did with both hands, so everyone
was once again in a good humor. Then the Prince requested that the
oratorio be tried once more, so that it might come off well in the
evening and Beethoven's first work of this kind be presented to
the public in a worthy manner. So the rehearsal began again."
But time soon ran out, and final run-throughs of the other works
on the program (which, typically for the time, likely received no
more than two or three prior rehearsals, if that) were not possible,
as the concert was set to begin at six o'clock.
Though no copy of the printed program has survived, we know that
the First and Second Symphonies, the Third Piano Concerto, and the
Oratorio were all performed - which meant the concert lasted well
over three hours. During the concerto, the theater's new conductor,
Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried, was recruited as Beethoven's page-turner,
which, as Seyfried later recalled, "was easier said than done.
I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most on one page or
the other a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me
scribbled down to serve as clues for him . . . 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."
There was much to laugh about, considering the size of Beethoven's
take - 1800 silver florins, several times the annual salary of an
average bureaucrat in the Hapsburg government.
Reports of the concert itself focus almost exclusively on the oratorio;
its reception was decidedly mixed. As for the other works, one critic
wrote that the Second Symphony wasn't as good as the First Symphony,
but at least it was better than the Third Piano Concerto, which
suffered because Beethoven, "who is otherwise known as an excellent
pianist, failed to perform to the public's satisfaction." In
comments from others, the concerto, when it's mentioned at all,
is shrugged off or dismissed. Today we can only wonder at such a
non-response. But the performance likely suffered from being grossly
under-rehearsed and played by a composer who'd lost considerable
sleep in the preceding weeks scrambling to complete another work.
A second performance the following year, with Beethoven conducting
and Ferdinand Ries as soloist, was much better received, the review
in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung ranking it "among Beethoven's
most beautiful compositions."
Beethoven's first three piano concertos were all inspired by Mozart's
piano concertos; all were an effort to transcend them. It was only
with the Third that Beethoven finally succeeded. Though modeled
on the Mozart C minor concerto, K. 491, Beethoven's work need make
no apologies. The opening movement is spare, almost hungry, tight
in structure, tensely dramatic, with sharp rhythmical contrasts.
The E major slow movement is among Beethoven's most beautiful, a
music of depths, sensuous yet, in the long suspended transitions,
ethereal as well. A brief written-out cadenza leads into the punning
Rondo Finale, with its fugal interlude and final rush to the long-sought
* * *
Wagner called Beethoven's Seventh Symphony "the apotheosis
of the dance," and for its time and place it arguably was that.
Dancelike rhythms permeate every measure. If they catch you up,
it's all outdoors you want to dance in. Hearing Beethoven's most
radiant symphony, it's hard not to think that he must have been
in the full bloom of love when he wrote it. It took more than a
century of scholarship to show us definitively what our hearts knew
all along: that indeed he was. Beethoven completed the Seventh Symphony
just weeks before writing the famous letters to his "Immortal
Beloved," Antonie Brentano, in July 1812. Those letters and,
it's now clear, that symphony, marked the height of a passionately
mutual love that had been brewing for years but that ultimately
was fated never to be consummated. In the Seventh Symphony, we have
an epic expression, not of romantic love per se so much as of the
vibrantly forward-looking and joyously celebratory outlook that
fills the heart and mind and limbs of one who is immersed in such
The Seventh had to wait a year and a half before receiving its
premiere. The Napoleonic wars had been taking their toll for a long
time. A decisive Allied victory in the battle of Leipzig had turned
the tide against France, but the French invasion of Russia continued.
In Vienna in the fall of 1813, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, the inventor
of the metronome and of a mechanical orchestra called the panharmonicon,
convinced Beethoven to lend his name and music to a benefit concert
for Austrians and Bavarians wounded in the battle of Hanau. The
concert was held on 8 December 1813, in Vienna's old University
Hall. With a worthy cause, Beethoven conducting, Vienna's finest
musicians in the orchestra, and the flavor of imminent victory over
Napoleon in the air, the hall soon filled with a boisterous crowd.
The program was certainly appropriate: Beethoven's "entirely
new" Symphony No. 7 in A Major; marches by Dussek and Pleyel
played by Mälzel's "Mechanical Trumpeter" with full
orchestral accompaniment; and Wellington's Victory, a programmatic
"Battle Symphony" written by Beethoven for the panharmonicon
but recast for a real orchestra for the occasion, a piece that,
though wildly popular at the time, is now considered the absolute
nadir of his mature orchestral works.
In all respects, the concert was a resounding success. A lot had
changed in the ten years since the premiere of the Third Piano Concerto,
and the Seventh Symphony was received rapturously by the audience.
This was certainly helped by the orchestra's more extensive than
usual preparations. Franz Glöggl, whom Beethoven allowed to
attend rehearsals, tells how the violinists refused to play a passage,
complaining that it was too difficult. Beethoven begged them to
take the parts home, and practice there. "The next day at the
rehearsal the passage went excellently," Glöggl writes,
"and the gentlemen rejoiced that they had given Beethoven the
Among the violinists was the composer Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859),
who was astounded by Beethoven's conducting style, noting how he
used "all manner of singular bodily movements. As a sforzando
occurred, he tore his arms, previously crossed upon his breast,
with great vehemence asunder. At piano he crouched down lower and
lower to show the degree of softness. If a crescendo entered he
gradually rose again and at a forte jumped into the air."
One can well imagine just how lively Beethoven's conducting must
have been with a work like this. The symphony is prefaced by one
of his longest and most elaborate slow introductions. But rather
than foreshadow the thematic elements of the Vivace movement it
prefaces, this Poco sostenuto contains a tonal blueprint for the
entire symphony. The introduction ends with a long hush of intense
anticipation; when the theme of the Vivace finally sounds, it's
like coming home and setting out on an adventure all at once - the
sheer energy of the 6/8 dotted rhythm is exhilirating.
The rhythms in each movement are obsessive, often hypnotic, but
utterly individual. With a sigh we subside into the Allegretto slow
movement, its funereal march rhythm pulsating unswervingly in a
repeating theme of haunting beauty. In the first years of the symphony's
existence, audiences almost always demanded a second hearing of
the Allegretto, and the movement is no less tempting in an age with
"Repeat" buttons on the remote. The Presto prances light-footedly
through a delightful bacchanal, and the Finale's rhythms are almost
literally pounding, as Beethoven seems to guide us to a place of
lasting jubilation. Would that it were so. Still, the symphony's
air of grateful welcome lingers long in the memory, reminding us