Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

The image of Beethoven towards the end of his life– the tempestuous deaf maestro, alone in his singular mastery of the universe of sound– is today so strong on the public consciousness that it is easy to forget that Beethoven was once a frightened young man, uncertain even of whether his life was worth living.

In April 1802, two years after he first started working on his third piano concerto but a full year before it was completed enough to be performed, Beethoven went on his doctor’s advice to the small town of Heiligenstadt. Although restful travel was a common medical prescription, neither his doctor nor Beethoven himself expected this trip to cure his encroaching deafness. Instead, he was determined either to figure out how to live with it, or to die.

He chose life. “It is only my art that holds me back [from suicide],” he wrote to his brothers in the unsent letter now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. “It seems to me impossible to leave the world until I have brought forth all that I feel is within me.”

When he arrived back in Vienna, he embarked on the project that defined the rest of his career and much of the development of Western art music: expanding the musical, conceptual and intellectual scale of what music can do. That trajectory eventually culminated in the massive and genre-busting Ninth Symphony; but before embarking on new projects, Beethoven finished the old.

Among his stymied works in progress was a piano concerto in which he was attempting to prove wrong his own assessment of his abilities. During better times for his hearing, Beethoven had been walking with his friend, fellow composer Johann Baptist Cramer, when they came across an outdoor rehearsal of Mozart’s 24th piano concerto. “Cramer!” Beethoven lamented. “We shall never be able to do anything like that!”

But he was wrong– at least on his own account, if not on Cramer’s. The 3rd piano concerto, a traditional three-movement Classical concerto finally finished after Heiligenstadt, pays homage to Mozart’s 24th piano concerto in its ominous opening C-minor chords and its intricate give-and-take between orchestra and piano. Considering the disruption and havoc Beethoven would wreak on the traditional Classical forms, we could also interpret it as a loving farewell to the entire genre of the classical concerto.

Beethoven premiered the work as its soloist. He was the only one who could; his friend Ignaz von Seyfried, who turned his pages for the performance, described them as almost entirely blank, with a few “Egyptian hieroglyphs” scribbled here and there to serve as reminders. Beethoven’s immense gift for memory recall of music was such that he was rarely finished writing down his own solo parts before playing them. It was an aptitude for intense interior musical experience which would only increase as his hearing deteriorated, setting the stage for music unlike any the world had seen before.