Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

Beethoven was certainly known as a composer in Vienna around 1800, although he was primarily known as a pianist; his first two piano concertos (1795 and 1797) were composed to establish and confirm his reputation in the public eye. Their somewhat conservative musical style for the time was intentional, so that the audience’s attention would be fully focused on his own virtuosity during the performance.

There is, however, an important indication in Beethoven’s third piano concerto that signals his intention to take matters a step further: its key of C minor. He used this particular key only for his most stormy and full-blooded compositions. Haydn had already warned him about this key a few years earlier when they were listening to Beethoven’s ghostly piano trio in the same key: “Don’t publish that work — audiences don’t like music in that key”. Beethoven, however, was not to be restrained and went on to compose the stern and forbidding Fifth symphony, the dramatic Sonata Pathétique and the deeply moving Sonata nr. 32, all in C minor.

The Third Piano Concerto has nothing of the recalcitrant and uncompromising character of the above works: a piano concerto was always a relatively commercial work and was therefore required to appeal to a wide audience. It nonetheless has a darkly brooding first movement, a romantic and melodious second movement and a fiery finale. The orchestra has a more prominent role than in the first two concertos: for the first time it is not merely at the soloist’s service but is an equal partner, through which the concerto as a whole has a more symphonic feel. There was also a purely practical reason to reinforce the orchestra’s position: piano makers of the time were busy extending the range of the keyboard beyond the customary five octaves. Beethoven made good use of the instrument’s new possibilities in this concerto, thanks to which the piano part acquired a more brilliant timbre and could thus better combat the orchestra’s weight of sound.

Once the concerto was finished, Beethoven wrote to various music publishers, saying that his first two piano concertos were not amongst his best works and that musical politics demanded that he keep his best work hidden from the general public for the time being. The composer naturally performed the solo piano part himself at the work’s premiere in 1803. Despite the fact that the piece had been completed for some considerable time, Beethoven had not been able to find the time to write out the solo piano part fully; Ignaz von Seyfried, who was turning pages for Beethoven, later wrote that he was horrified when he saw mostly pages that were empty except for a few hieroglyphic markings that to him were incomprehensible. Beethoven played the entire concerto practically from memory and gave von Seyfried a nod when he needed to turn one of the almost empty pages.

Translation: Peter Lockwood