Thursday, May 22, 2014

Beethoven - Piano Trio In B-flat Major, Opus 97, 'Archduke'

Beethoven was a man as revolutionary in his thoughts about society as he was about music. Tradition has it that Beethoven wrote his now famous opinion of the nobility in a letter to, in fact, a nobleman:
Prince, what you are you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven! 
The quote makes Beethoven seem like a no-nonsense product of the Enlightenment, but the truth is that he was not above mingling with the nobility when it suited his purpose. Many of his most ardent supporters and patrons were members of the nobility.  It was a time when things were beginning to change, when a composer could make a living by selling their compositions to publishers. But before copyright laws and legal protection for a composer's works, the patronage of the nobility could make the difference if a composer would earn much of anything from his works or not.

Archduke Rudolph
To Beethoven's noble patron's credit, they tolerated his rude behavior, crude humor and general disrespect out of admiration for his talent. One of those noble patrons was Archduke Rudolph Of Austria. The Archduke was not only Beethoven's patron, but his piano and composition pupil dating back to 1804.  It was to his nobleman that Beethoven dedicated his Piano Trio, Opus 97, hence the nickname Archduke.

The trio was written in 1811, and was not just the last piano trio Beethoven wrote, but at its public premiere in 1814 Beethoven played the piano in public for the last time.  The trio is in 4 movements:

I.  Allegro moderato -  The piano opens the movement with one of Beethoven's most recognizable themes. This theme is expanded along with other minor themes until the second main theme is also begun by the piano. A short transitional section leads to the exposition repeat. The development section separates the first theme into smaller motives and develops them. A part of the development has the piano elaborate on the trills that are heard in the end of the exposition while the strings play a pizzicato accompaniment. The recapitulation begins with a slight variation on the opening motive and then proceeds with the first theme and second theme playing out. A short coda brings back the first theme briefly until it builds to a chord that ends one of Beethoven's most thematically rich movements.

II. Scherzo: Allegro -  The first movement's grandeur is contrasted with a witty scherzo. The trio of this scherzo is one of Beethoven's most memorable one. It begins in B-flat minor in the cello with a crawling motive that begins a canon between the three instruments which ends with a crescendo and piano solo. The crawling motive briefly returns for another crescendo, this time the climax of the crescendo has the music change key to E major for a short section. Once again the crawling motive appears and returns to the key of B-flat minor as it slithers and creeps to an even larger crescendo that climaxes to B-flat major. The scherzo returns and dances its way to a short coda that brings back a short section of the crawling motive until the scherzo makes one last quiet appearance, after which the piano plays the last four bars of the movement save for a loud final octave played by all three instruments on the note F, a fifth above the home note of B-flat.

III. Andante cantabile ma però con moto. Poco piu adagio -  A set of variations where the slowly unfolding theme is played and commented upon by all three instruments. Beethoven explores combinations and textures within the piano trio ensemble with the result that justifies Beethoven's own description of himself as a tone poet.  After a short section, the last movement begins without break.

IV. Allegro moderato - Presto -  In Beethoven's early days in Vienna, he was known for his skill and artistry as an improviser on the piano. He would play the most tender music and have his audience thoroughly entranced, and then he would delight in shifting gears and play fast and loud. Something of Beethoven's improvising prank can be heard in the sudden intrusion of the slow movement with the loud chord that signals the beginning of the finale.  The theme of this rondo is a simple tune that Beethoven decorates and expands each time it returns after being interrupted by other material. The movement continues on its way until the last appearance of the theme when the pace quickens. A very short coda marked presto makes a false start, and then the three instruments chase each other to the final B-flat chord.

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