My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What we can learn from Beethoven and his 3rd Piano Concerto

Only nine more days until performance day!  In preparation for the New River Valley Symphony concert on May 1st, I have written program notes for Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto.  Although you can read these same notes at the concert, I thought it would be good to post them here as well so that if you are still deciding whether or not to attend, you might be more tempted to come if you knew some background on this fabulous piece of music.  I have to admit that learning some of this info has made me even more excited about the performance!  What I find so inspiring is that Beethoven, in spite of being completely dismayed by his serious medical issues, was determined to keep writing the music he found inside of himself.  He didn't just pout, moan, and groan, which I'm tempted to do.  So without further blabbing, here are the program notes:

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is an impressive, inspiring work especially considering the circumstances in which it was written.  Composed at various times over the course of several years, between 1799 and 1802, Beethoven was starting to come to the realization that the hearing problems he had been having were more than just a temporary problem.  He had already started his retreat from society in order to hide his encroaching deafness and was struggling to understand why fate had dealt him such a terrible blow.  In a letter to a friend he admits, “Beethoven lives most unhappily, in discord with nature and with the Creator.  More than once I have cursed the latter for exposing his creatures to the slightest accident, so that often the loveliest blossoms are destroyed and broken by it.”  Although he was only about 30 years old at this time, his hearing was bad enough that he had difficulty having conversations with people and hearing certain instruments play.  In his Heilegenstadt Testament, written in 1802, he even admits that he wanted to end his life but didn’t, feeling that he was called by “Art” to produce all that he was capable of producing.  It is thanks to this calling of his that we have this piano concerto and many other monumental works in our repertoire.
Contrary to the feelings of dismay that Beethoven was having at the time, the Third Piano Concerto is full of triumph, beauty, and light-hearted humor.   The first movement shows the more serious of the composer, opening in C minor with an unusually long orchestral prologue in which all of the movement’s themes are presented.  This is followed by the piano’s dramatic solo entrance, marked by ascending scales.  The movement’s ending is preceded by a piano cadenza or improvisatory passage which in tonight’s performance is one written by the pianist and wife of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann.  The pianist then ends the entire movement in the same way it began, with the same ascending C minor scales.
 The pianist starts off the second movement in the key of E major – a key that is not ordinarily used in conjunction with C minor.  The effect of using such a distant key is transforming, making one feel as if time has stopped and as if we have been transported into a completely different world. 
 The third movement brings us back into C minor but not for long.  This rondo is full of twists and turns, taking the audience on a whirlwind voyage to many different keys until Beethoven finally settles on the key of C major.  A brief piano cadenza towards the end of the movement further highlights the change in mood as it jokingly taunts the orchestra and the audience before diving into a triumphant coda. 
Voila!  Pretty cool stuff, I think.  And here are some links to some other posts I have written about this piano concerto in case you're interested:

WANTED: Pictures and storylines inspired by Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

The slow "moment" from Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

Another Florence Foster Jenkins scenario? (a.k.a. Erica makes the crazy decision to rent a concert grand piano)

A discovery about Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto and Clara Schumann

Let's play, "Stump the Pianist" - AARGH! (a.k.a. How Erica finally memorized the cadenza)

And if you are wanting to hear and watch a great pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, performing the entire piece, click here and scroll down until you see the YouTube videos!

Videos of Mitsuko Uchida performing Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

Stay tuned in the next week for more posts about this concerto!


  1. Your program notes are always so fascinating to read; you offer lots of info on composer's background, the piece, and musicality. thank you!

  2. Thank you for that feedback, June. I'm glad you found them fascinating! I'll have to keep it up now - the pressure! Just kidding. Thanks for that comment!

  3. Have you ever listened to Glenn Gould's performance of this piece? The cadenza in particular has an ethereal quality that is rather poignant and un-bravura like.

  4. No, I haven't but I will definitely check that out! Thanks for the suggestion.