Beethoven Triple Concerto

Program Notes

Music by three much-loved composers comprises tonight’s concert: an effervescent overture by Mozart, a seldom-heard concerto by Beethoven, and Mendelssohn’s many-hued Symphony No. 3.

Overture to Die Zauberflöte, K. 620

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(Born 27 January 1756, Salzburg, Austria; Died 5 December 1791, Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1791

First Performances: 30 September 1791; Vienna, Austria

Last MSO Performance: November 2006; Andreas Delfs, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 7 minutes

The summer of 1791, Mozart’s last, was an especially productive time for the 35-year-old composer. In addition to Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), he was at work on the Requiem in D minor, K. 626, commissioned by the eccentric Count Salsegg, and an opera, La clemenza di Tito, K. 621, commissioned for the Prague coronation of Leopold II. And Ave verum corpus, K. 618, a 46-measure choral masterpiece, was penned on 17 June.

The Magic Flute is a tale of the triumph of good over evil, a lesson in the redeeming power of true love. George Bernard Shaw went so far as to call it “the music of my own church.” The quality of its music and the power of its Enlightenment-era message assuredly distinguish it from the other Singspiels of its time. 

Over the years, much has been written about Mozart’s membership in the Freemasons and his use of masonic ritual and symbolism in The Magic Flute. (Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist and first Papageno, was also a member.) For our purposes, suffice it to say that the number “three” has a special significance within Freemasonry. Thus, the overture is in the key of E-flat major (three flats) and opens with three full-orchestra chords; in the middle there is another statement, by woodwinds and brass, of three (times three) chords. (These will recur in Act 2, as symbols in the ritual of brotherhood.) In between, fugal writing and nimble passages depict unrestrained merriment, surely some of the most delightful music the Austrian master ever set down.

Recommended Recording: Sir Neville Marriner; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Philips)


Concerto in C major for Piano, Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, Op. 56 “Triple Concerto”

Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770, Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827, Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1803-04

First Performance: 1808; Vienna, Austria

Last MSO Performance: February 2007; William Eddins, conductor and piano; Frank Almond, violin; Zuill Bailey, cello

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 33 minutes

Beethoven was in his mid-20s when he chose to launch his adult career with the publication of Three Piano Trios, Op. 1. By this time, he was already an experienced composer and in fact had written a piano trio in E-flat a few years prior. Over the years, the combination of piano, violin, and cello was one he returned to on more than a half-dozen occasions, most outstandingly in his “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97 (1810-11)—one of the greatest pieces in the whole of the chamber music repertoire.

The so-called “Triple Concerto,” Op. 56 was penned in 1803-04, published in 1807, and given its premiere in Vienna in 1808. The soloists on that occasion are not known, nor do we know what prompted Beethoven to compose a piece for such an ambitious combination of instruments. The master dedicated the work to Prince Lobkowitz, but it may well have been written for his younger patron, pupil, and friend Archduke Rudoph.

The concerto dates from around the same time as the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Three String Quartets, Op. 59 (“Razumovsky”). It is a truly remarkable work, one that helped pave the way compositionally toward Beethoven’s last two piano concertos and the violin concerto.

The opening Allegro is immense in scope, longer than the other two movements combined. Cast in the expected sonata form, its stately beginning is a full-orchestra statement of themes. When the soloists enter, led by the cello, the textures are notably thinner. Throughout, the soloists often play by themselves with minimal orchestral accompaniment, peppered with tutti salvos. The sublime Largo is set in the key of A-flat major. Relatively brief, it acts almost as an interlude between the vigorous outer movements. Its hushed opening—with the dusky tone color of muted violins—presages the opening of the Emperor concerto’s slow movement. Again, the cello leads the way, this time singing a molto cantabile melody. This lyrical movement is pure chamber music, belonging essentially to the soloists. 

The convivial final rondo is replete with polonaise rhythms, resplendent tunefulness, gypsy-like violin melodies, and a written-out cadenza. Listen for a surprising passage near the end: a rhythmic shift from the triple meter of a polonaise to a duple-meter dance. Beethoven shortens the principal theme, allowing it to cavort even more vigorously before returning to 3/4 meter for the soloists’ cadenza and the compelling conclusion of this oft-neglected masterpiece.

Recommended Recording: Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich; Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics)


Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”

Felix Mendelssohn
(Born 3 February 1809, Hamburg, German; Died 4 November 1847, Leipzig, Germany)

Composed: 1829, 1840-42

First Performance: 3 March 1842; Leipzig, Germany

Last MSO Performance: October 2011; Julian Kuerti, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 40 minutes

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 was the last of his five works in the genre to be composed. (The symphonies are numbered chronologically according to their publication dates, not their dates of composition.) It had its genesis as early as 1829—around the same time as The Hebrides overture—when the 19-year-old composer visited Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. Following a visit to Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace—where Mary Queen of Scots had lived—he set down 16 measures of music in piano score, along with a few ideas about instrumentation. Over a decade later, these few bars would grow into the adagio opening of his “Scottish” Symphony. Though he made several intermittent and aimless attempts at the piece, it wasn’t until 1841 that he returned to the work in earnest. Op. 56 was completed on 20 January 1842 and premiered a few weeks later, with the composer leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The score is dedicated to “H. M. Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland.”

Though we might detect the foggy Scottish highlands in the mysterious opening measures—the music set down at Holyrood—the composer discouraged programmatic associations. No folk melodies are quoted, and the symphony is sufficiently lacking in Scottish references to have brought about one of the most awkward moments in all of music criticism, when a misinformed Robert Schumann wrote enthusiastically of the work’s appealing “Italian” portrayal.

The symphony is cast in four interconnected movements, underlining its flow and continuity. The Holyrood theme is stated in the ruminating introduction; wind chords are colored by the sound of divided violas, then the violins and the rest of the orchestra enter with ever more passionate intensity. The main portion of the movement, set in sonata form, builds in texture and dynamic to sustain the sense of urgency and drama. The cellos begin an expansive melody near the end of the development section; in the ensuing recapitulation, this melody serves as counterpoint to the main theme. The woodwinds provide the transition to the F major Scherzo, where scampering strings are offset by fanfare-like figures from the woodwinds. The solo clarinet intones the main theme of this movement, a motif that’s difficult to hear as anything other than Scottish, especially since its initial phrases conclude with the short-long rhythm of the so-called “Scotch snap.”

In the Adagio, the composer offsets a gentle song-without-words melody, accompanied by pizzicato strings, with a more regal dotted-rhythm theme. Mendelssohn biographer Larry Todd believes the latter “plausibly allude[s] to the tragic figure of Queen Mary.” The finale, marked Allegro guerriero (fast, warlike), is decidedly rhythmic, with musical ideas passed quickly among the sections of the orchestra. Near the end, a dramatic transformation occurs, as the music shifts from simple meter to compound meter, and from A minor to A major: The orchestra sings out a hymn of victory—one the composer likened to the sound of a classic German Männerchor (men’s choir). It’s a metamorphosis of the Holyrood theme, one that spreads through the orchestra, to conclude the “Scottish” Symphony in majestic triumph.

Recommended Recording: Kurt Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Eurodisc)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.