Beethoven wrote most of the Third Piano Concerto in 1800, in advance of a major debut concert in Vienna, but he chose to play an earlier concerto instead. After a few more years of tinkering, he unveiled the new concerto on an 1803 program that also included the premieres of the Second Symphony and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, along with a reprise performance of the First Symphony. For the new concerto, Beethoven performed off of a hastily written score that, in the words of his page turner, contained “almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him.”
The concerto’s opening measures have a balanced, Classical flavor, with a definitive statement from the strings countered by a questioning response from the winds. In line with the style that would come to dominate Beethoven’s “middle” period, the themes separate into essential fragments to be examined from all angles, with various rising triads, falling scales, and timpani-like alternations appearing in the foreground and background.
The first E-major chord of the central Largo could hardly be more alien, or more luminous. The movement continues as a study in contradictions: humble yet ornate, foreign yet familiar, slow yet restless. A striking exchange occurs when the flute and bassoon trade childlike melodies over a simple plucked background, while the piano issues gusts of sound blurred by the sustain pedal.
The finale returns to the home key with a theme that lands heavily on an unresolved A-flat: the very same pitch that, in a different guise, defined the bright harmonies of the slow movement. (On the piano, A-flat is identical to G-sharp, the major third in the key of E.) Later in the movement, the same musical pun turns A-flat back into G-sharp, and the slow movement’s key of E returns briefly to put a radiant new sheen on the finale’s main theme.
— © Aaron Grad
Aaron Grad ©2018
Beethoven’s first two symphonies owe much to Haydn, the formidable “father of the symphony” and Beethoven’s teacher for a short while after he moved to Vienna. Soon enough, Beethoven honed a symphonic voice that eclipsed even Haydn’s in its scale and grandeur, beginning with the massive Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) from 1803 and continuing in the fateful Symphony No. 5 from 1808. Sandwiched between those landmark symphonies is a smaller specimen, the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, a work that underscores Beethoven’s lasting debt to Haydn.
Beethoven composed the Fourth Symphony in mid-1806, and first unveiled it at a private concert in March 1807. Close followers of Haydn’s London symphonies might have noted Beethoven’s nod to the Symphony No. 102, which likewise begins with a held B-flat octave. Whereas Haydn made a subtle detour to B-flat minor in his introduction, Beethoven fully embraced the move to the minor scale, especially leaning on its characteristic lowered sixth tone, G-flat. The harmony sneaks back to the major key via one of the score’s many slippery and surprising transitions, launching the Allegro vivace body of the movement. Later, the introspective development section wanders off to an unexpected F-sharp chord—an enharmonic re-spelling of the pivotal G-flat from the introduction—before finding the proper F chord to prepare the recapitulation.
The Adagio movement begins with an introductory figure that seems to have lingered from the end of the first movement, preparing the way for a sweet, singing melody. The second theme, for solo clarinet over plucked and bowed violins, invokes the intimacy of chamber music. Although the first publication called it a minuet, the quick and boisterous third movement is a scherzo in all but name. The contrasting trio section intervenes twice, creating an expansive five-part form.
The spirit of Haydn is on full display in the breathless romp of the finale. It saves its best humor for the end, when the violins, as if thoroughly exhausted, slowly trudge through the main theme one last time. After a similarly lethargic response from the bassoons and then the cellos and basses, the group rallies to end the symphony with an energetic flourish.
Aaron Grad ©2014