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Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37

For virtuoso performer-composers like Beethoven, concertos were designed as personal showpieces.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn (then an independent electorate) probably on December 16, 1770 (he was baptized on the 17th), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827.

Sketches for the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37, appear as early as 1796 or 1797, though the principal work of composition came in the summer of 1800. It may have been revised at the end of 1802 for the first performance, which took place in Vienna on April 5, 1803, with the composer as soloist (the Symphony No. 2 and his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives also being introduced on that occasion, which also included a performance of the Symphony No. 1). Some time after completing the concerto—but before 1809—Beethoven wrote a cadenza for the Archduke Rudolph, though the concerto had been dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. In addition to the solo piano, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. The concerto is about 36 minutes long.

Much of the Piano Concerto No. 3 is manifestly indebted to Mozart, the quiet unison opening recalling Mozart’s great C minor concerto, K.491, but Beethoven adds flavors of his own. Its tone is dark and dramatic, again with a certain military-march flavor.

A Beethoven craftsmanly trademark: the entire concerto will turn around a few ideas heard in the beginning. The first measure is a rising figure, the second measure a down-striding scale, the third measure a martial drumbeat by way of what musicians call a “dotted” rhythm. Separately and together, these ideas will pervade the first movement and beyond. The opening string phrase is echoed by the winds, who add another fundamental idea: a line that rises up to a piercing dissonance on A-flat. In various guises, that dissonant A-flat (aka G-sharp) will resonate throughout the piece. The second theme of the opening movement is a lyrical contrast to the sternly militant opening, and brings us to the piano’s entrance on an explosive up-rushing scale (an idea that will mark the solo voice throughout). The soloist then takes up the main theme, establishing a commanding personality in the dialogue with the orchestra. It is as if the music has found its leader. Much of the movement from the solo entrance on, especially the middle development section, is dominated by the drumbeat figure in constantly new forms.

The second movement is in a striking E major, about as far from C minor as a key can be. The form is a simple A B A, the piano still the commanding presence, now with an air of rapturous improvisation. Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny said that this movement should evoke “a holy, distant, and celestial harmony.” For the finale, a lively and playful rondo. Again the piano leads the symphonic dialogue; we hear steady echoes of the first movement in dotted rhythms, downstriding figures, uprushing scales from the soloist. A couple of times the piano interrupts with mini-cadenzas, the last one bringing in an expansive and surprising coda where the 2/4 main theme is transformed into a Presto 6/8, driving to the end in pealing C-major high spirits.

Jan Swafford

Jan Swafford is a prizewinning composer and writer whose most recent book, published in December 2020, is Mozart: The Reign of Love. His other acclaimed books include Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Johannes Brahms: A Biography, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, and Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music. He is an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, where he studied composition.

The first American performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 took place on December 8, 1842, at the Tremont Temple in Boston, with George J. Webb conducting the Musical Fund Society and pianist J.J. Hatton.

The first Boston Symphony performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was on April 21, 1888, with soloist Amy Beach (or, as she was always billed, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) under the direction of Wilhelm Gericke.