How can I enhance my experience of Beethoven's Triple Concerto?
July 31, 2013 5:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm listening to Beethoven's Triple Concerto in C major (op.56), and it seems inscrutable to me. I'm unfamiliar with and unschooled in classical music. Any listening tips for this particular concerto? What should I be paying attention to?

What can I read that will help me appreciate this work?
  • Accessible online articles are most useful (due to their immediate accessibility). Preferably digestible to the layperson, but more highbrow stuff is okay, too. I have access to university libraries and database subscriptions, so scholarly article suggestions are fair game.
  • Also worth suggesting: relevant book chapters or encylopedia entries on the subject of this concerto.
If it matters: The version I have was recorded and released in 1977 by the Beaux Arts Trio with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink.
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have just the book for you: The Concerto: A Listener's Guide by Michael Steinberg. He has 5 pages on Beethoven's Triple Concerto.
posted by John Cohen at 6:45 PM on July 31, 2013

Interesting. Try taking a look: here
posted by tintexas at 7:56 PM on July 31, 2013

What can I read that will help me appreciate this work?
Beethoven was heavily influenced by Egmont the play by Goethe and many of its themes show up on this piece.
Also, keep in mind that it was written specifically for the Archduke and note how the piano is sort of the star of the show, so to speak. Notice the interplay between the three instruments. They can almost be three characters in a play.
posted by Lucubrator at 8:18 PM on July 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

A little more detail: the concerto was (according to Anton Schindler, who isn't always fully trusted) written for the then-sixteen-year-old Archduke Rudolf, who just had become Beethoven's pupil (1803/4). Not knowing how Rudolf played back then (he clearly became quite a good pianist later), we don't know whether the idea was to give him a "showy" part that was easy to play (as the Wikipedia article claims), or what else the practical meaning of the piece was.

No matter, the Triple concerto has achieved something of an ugly-duckling-status in Beethoven scholarship. In his book Beethoven's Concertos, Leon Plantinga provides a bunch of structural explanations of why the listener's interest may be "flagging" in the first movement, and he quotes a bunch of others about how the work as a whole suffers somewhat from too much uniformity, "a certain lameness and shortness of breath," and so on (Leon Plantinga 1999. Beethoven's Concertos (New York: Norton), Chapter 8. Quotes from p. 161).

Now, the fact that Beethoven scholars turn up their noses on one of his works should definitely not encourage you to drop it. I'm a Beethoven scholar myself, so you should trust me on this. Old Beethoven, writing a to-be-played-and-enjoyed work during his perhaps most productive period, would have liked you (I imagine) to enjoy the piece for what it is, and not for what it could have been (such as, for example, another think-deep, heroic, or proto-romantic, visionary masterwork). It is not a work of great dramatic depth (in spite of the Egmont references), and one shouldn't try to play it, or listen to it, as if it was greater than it is. It is a concerto in which (a composer and) three soloists play around with some fun motifs and contrasting moods, while the orchestra provides not much more than a generic backdrop for this activity. You could try listen to the players enjoying themselves ping-ponging musical ideas around.

(It could also be that the Beaux Arts Trio and Haitink in your version aren't enjoying themselves enough. This could be a good reason for going on youtube and making comparisons, with that specific focus in mind. It could be truly rewarding.)
posted by Namlit at 12:18 AM on August 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm certainly enjoying the version I have. It's just that I'm used to the structure of modern pop music, and I feel quite lost approaching classical music as a novice. But I don't want to go too broad to begin with (e.g. 'How to appreciate classical music') - I'd rather focus on one random work at a time, and get to know it methodically (including learning something along the way about appreciating classical music in general) before moving on to the next work. This approach has worked for me with other media in the past.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 2:45 AM on August 1, 2013

I'm used to the structure of modern pop music

Right, ok. When I introduced myself to Beethoven (I came from the opposite end, earlier music), I actually for a long while didn't care about structure at all, but tried to "get into" the emotional content of the pieces: you try to recognize the parts of the music that sound good to you, or not good, and you ask yourself "why is that" - look for personal answers that only fit you, and your relationship to the piece. Forget about how one (maybe) "should" listen to this style.

This is rather easy to do in this piece. The triple concerto is populated by personages: the violin, the cello, and the piano, and a chorus (the orchestra), all playing roles, imitating each other and so on, so you can totally listen to it as a stageplay, and sympathize with one or another character. You don't need to sympathize with all of them (and not with Beethoven either for that matter).

As said, the concerto's topics aren't highly dramatic, but this is definitely some stage music. Stylistically, this piece is closer to the works of the younger Beethoven than to his other works from the same period (1803). Beethoven was trained and first employed (as a teenager) at the Court Chapel in Bonn, and there exposed to operas in a late-Baroque/early Calssical Italian style; many of them were not too deep, but there's always a play-for-people-is-fun element present in this kind of music.

If, on the other hand, you really need to know about the structure for enjoying the music, perhaps the wikipedia article about the concerto is a good general starting point. Other than that, it would probably help co-listening together with someone classic-savvy who can point out the landmarks of the piece to you while listening.
posted by Namlit at 3:41 AM on August 1, 2013

The Steinberg book mentioned above quotes Tovey's essay on the triple concerto which is available in the 1200 page The Beethoven Companion which has similar essays on many of his works.

One thing that has helped me approach new classical music styles/eras was to, as Namlit mentioned, come from earlier music. I didn't get Hildegard von Bingen until I immersed myself in Gregorian chant and then I was overwhelmed by how lovely her melodies were, etc. Then when I got to Leonin his polyphonic music felt amazingly rich.

Immersion is not necessary of course but you may wish to consider listening to precedents for this piece, such as Beethoven's first three piano concertos or his violin romances or even maybe the Double Concertos of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, etc.
posted by mountmccabe at 8:50 AM on August 1, 2013

For an introduction I would highly recommend this website and this Yale lecture (I suggest you actually buy the textbook and follow the lectures)
posted by Lucubrator at 3:26 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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