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Beethoven (1770-1827) - Piano Concerto No. 3

What do they say about “little acorns”? Who’d have thought that a child - born in the backyards of Bonn, as it were - who learned violin and piano at his father’s knee, was destined to become one of the very few true giants of music? Even when he emerged as a virtuoso pianist, he was known mostly for his hot-headed aggression. The gentlefolk of Vienna may have been wary of his lack of refined manners, but they lived in real fear of the damage he could do to their pianos. 

Granted, his earliest music was only “mildly radical”: people could dismiss his departures from Haydn’s classical models as “bumpkin-isms”. However, if his angry demeanour was the fuse, then the Third Piano Concerto (1801) was the bomb: his realisation, conscious or not, that temperament could become music is what made him truly original. The piano style was suddenly less ornate, more muscular, as if he’d decided that he didn’t have to conform to established standards and had immediately set about challenging the capabilities of the then current instruments. 

Here was born the “Romantic view” of the concerto as a “battlefield”, on which soloist and orchestra waged war. Of the slow movement it is often said that, at the point where he relegates the soloist to “mere” accompanist, Beethoven breaks new ground. Not exactly. Really, he was harping back to the Baroque, when soloists habitually slid into and out of the limelight - already in the first movement we hear precisely this. It’s called “give and take”, and hardly constitutes representative behaviour for supposed antagonists! Oh, there are battles alright, but they’re in the adventures of the themes and the straining of the musical fabric, inevitable when gauntlets are cast at the feet of tradition. 

Having our cosy familiarity with concertos by such as Brahms and Rachmaninov, it’s only by comparing the opening of this concerto with its contemporaries and predecessors that we can be fully gobsmacked by it. For me there is an unprecedented sense of power, purpose, and potential: this is not just the start of a musical work, it is the start of a journey into the unknown. 

In spite of the first movement’s awesome scope, all is not bull and bluster. There is almost pious serenity in the second movement, and robust relaxation in the finale. With consummate cunning, Beethoven lays the touchstone of his burgeoning genius right at the work’s centre of gravity. Emerging from the first movement cadenza comes a wondrous passage, where the piano discreetly articulates arpeggios over soft string chords and pulsing tympani. As this blossoms and expands majestically, I find myself musing: here’s another “little acorn”, for surely here was born the opening of the Ninth Symphony

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 18 October 2003


© Paul Serotsky 


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