Written by Kimberley Manerikar
Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
“What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me. Ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce…”
These words sprang from the pen of Ludwig van Beethoven in a letter addressed to his brothers in October of 1802. The letter, which was discovered after the composer’s death and apparently never sent, is often held as a testament to both the acute distress felt by the composer as he came to realize the impairment of his hearing was worsening and likely irreversible, and to his ultimate conviction in the destiny of his art. It also provides insight into the mind of the composer at the precipice of a recognized turning point in his output—the beginning of his so-called “middle period.”
In February 1803 following the fashion of the day, Beethoven was engaged by the Wiedener Theater to write an opera. Though his opera would emerge tenuously over several years and be interrupted by a change in ownership of the theatre which would temporarily void his contract, during this period Beethoven would produce numerous substantial instrumental works. Some favourites from this time include his Symphony No. 3 (‘Eroica’), his op. 53 (‘Waldstein’) and op. 57 (‘Appasionata’) piano sonatas, and his Op. 59 (‘Rasumovsky’) string quartets. Beethoven’s ‘Triple Concerto’ is a lesser known work from this period. Though it received only one performance during Beethoven’s life—an apparently lackluster premiere—the merits of this unusual piece are now well recognized.
The first movement opens with the introduction of the main sonata allegro themes in the orchestra. Introduced first in the cellos and basses and subsequently passed to the violins, this instrumentation is mirrored by the subsequent introductions of the solo cello and solo violin. Warm and good-natured, the movement features some skillful interchanges between soloists and some brief solo features for each instrument, before building toward an exhilarating conclusion.
The second movement offers a slower pace and a chance to revel in the beautiful turns of a cantabile melody shared between the solo cello and solo violin. The piano acts more as an extension of the orchestra in this movement than as a soloist, providing a tender accompaniment for the strings.
The final movement follows without pause, launched by some pregnant, repeated-note figures that cascade into an elegant Rondo ‘alla polacca’ (“in the rhythm and character of a polonaise”). Ebullient and nimble, the exchanges between soloists and between trio and orchestra demonstrate the playfulness with which the composer approached the unique potential of the triple concerto.