Written by Ronald Comber
Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The Overture to Coriolan marks Beethoven’s first attempt at writing for the stage, and, as is proved by its retention in the orchestral repertoire, it is a work of great dramatic force. The overture appears to have been originally intended for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s tragedy Coriolan, but if that is the case, something went very wrong. Collin’s play had its first performance in Vienna on November 27th, 1802, achieving a remarkable success. The play ran, with several revivals, for a number of years. However, in 1807, when Beethoven completed his overture, the play had pretty well come to the end of its working life. In fact, only one performance of the play with Beethoven’s overture took place, on April 17th, 1807. After that, the overture had to live a life of its own.
What was Beethoven thinking of? To write music for a moribund play cannot have been particularly helpful to his stage career, unless he had composed the overture as a means of persuading Collin towards writing him a libretto. If that is so, he didn’t succeed, although they remained friends until Collin’s death in 1811. In the end, Beethoven sold the publishing rights to his friend, Clementi, and with his original superscription “Overture zum Traverspiel” deleted, the work immediately became as popular as it is today.
As to the music itself, the first review by E.T.A. Hoffman still says it best: “Without reading the playbill, no one could expect anything after this overture but a tragedy, and not even a domestic one but expressly a high tragedy, in which the heroes appear and perish.”
Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, Op.15
Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s unmatched pre-eminence as a composer has obscured his importance as a piano virtuoso. In the musical world that was Vienna, however, he had no serious rivals, at least until his hearing failed him. His daring technical prowess, his brilliant textural approach to the instrument, and most of all, his revelatory skill at improvisation made him a household word in musical circles long before his gifts as a composer were recognized. All of the piano concertos were written for Beethoven’s own use, and very well they served him. Regardless of their formidable artistic merit, they all, in turn, placed unparalleled technical demands on their executants, often leaving Beethoven in a position of outright ascendancy amongst his rivals at the keyboard.
The Concerto No.1 in C Major was written in the years 1795-1798. Beethoven preferred to work on several compositions at once, finding solutions for the variety of problems this presented in a series of unrelated inspirations. The First Piano Concerto could be said to be his first technically perfect work in this form, in fact being considerably more polished than the Second Concerto, actually an earlier work but printed later.
Beethoven’s works were always in transition. He followed the rule of the avant-garde, in which the last created work was already old-fashioned. That his mature works achieved perfection in form and artistry interested him not at all, if a new idea was in process of development. In an 1801 letter to his publishers Breitkopf & Hartel (the year of the first two concertos’ publication), he already is declaring that they were “not yet among my best of this kind.” Yet though he refers to the imminent appearance of the next piano concerto, the revolutionary Third in C minor, he had only started the preliminary sketches for it.
At any rate, we needn’t concern ourselves too much with Beethoven’s sentiments on this subject. The First Piano Concerto is a work of the highest order, worthy of direct comparison with the best that had come before. In this concerto Beethoven used the interrelationships between piano and orchestra which Mozart had perfected a decade before, but in adding his own sense of drama, demonstrated the force of his personality to all who had ears to hear.
The Concerto is in the three movements proper to the time. The first movement, marked Allegro con brio, leads after a majestic opening to a series of dramatic piano sequences, wonderfully offset by the lightness of the second subject. The second movement, a Largo, is a lovely wordless song for piano, in which the orchestra lends the impetus. The Finale, a Rondo marked Allegro scherzando, is a veritable pyrotechnic display for the piano. The opening theme, regularly repeated throughout the movement, provides the framework for a series of stylish episodes, each conveying its own mood. The Concerto ends as it began, as a display of absolute mastery in art and form.
Concerto No. 3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 37
Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s piano concertos are the perfect demonstration of his revolutionary influence on the Romantic movement. If we compare any of his concertos, even the ill-conceived transcription of the Violin Concerto, with the works of Mozart in their most sublime evolved form, immediate differences can be heard. Mozart took the Classical concerto form to its peak of artistic verity, creating a compositional style in which he could express the deepest emotions with complete honesty. His later concertos are the incarnations of a musical ideal far beyond the aspirations of even his greatest rivals.
Beethoven, from his first concerto to his last, established a new sense of authority which overturned the established values of compositional expertise. Where Mozart wrote music that was gay, sad, stern or noble, Beethoven wrote music that reflected his personality directly – that is, Beethoven said “I am gay, or I am sad,” and so on. The new quality of personal authority in composition is clearly audible in Beethoven’s first two concertos, hampered somewhat by his slightly unsure technique; in his later works the composer’s personality is almost overpowering in its force.
Beethoven’s innovations were not, however, purely cerebral exercises. He was, until the onset of deafness made playing impossible, accounted one of the best piano virtuosi of his day. He worked hard to establish his personality in Viennese society, both on and off stage, and he succeeded. His music still speaks with his voice.
The Third Piano Concerto was written in 1800. Beethoven, very practical at such things, had composed it against future need. His first two concertos being still popular, he had decided to choose his date for the new work’s premiere with care. In a letter to his publishers, Breitkopf & Hartel, in April 1801, he wrote, “Musical politics make it advisable to keep one’s best concerto to oneself for a time.” It was first performed on April 5, 1803 at a special concert in Vienna which also included the premieres of the Second Symphony and of the oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” The Concerto was an immediate success, and was duly published in 1804, though Beethoven had to write out the solo part from his capacious memory, not having bothered to before.
The Third Piano Concerto is a work of immense drama and power. The Allegro con brio opening movement begins abruptly with a bald statement of the theme, shockingly intense. A rich exposition follows, almost a movement in itself, in which themes are brought out and developed. A coda leads to the pianist’s forceful re-entry. Further exposition occurs, then a marvellously discursive development. The recapitulation establishes a heightened sense of drama to lead into the cadenza, then achieves a brilliant climax to bring the movement to an end.
The Largo slow movement is both solemn and stately. An oddly wistful solo entry gains in force and passion, progressing to an orchestral declamation. Piano and orchestra alternate, using new thematic material, until after a darkly shining discourse, the opening melody reappears, heralding the appearance of a broad Coda with its expressive Cadenza.
The Rondo finale is one of Beethoven’s most pleasingly expansive essays in the form. Piano and orchestra state the effulgent principal subject; then the alternate subjects, with their different characters, are explored in turn, each brought about by a restatement of the original theme. The effect, even in a minor key, is delightful. The movement completes a work of great force and artistic truth.