Beethoven’s Archduke program notes

Friday, July 31, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Beethoven: Trio in B-flat Major for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 97, “Archduke”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Trio in B-flat Major for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 97, “Archduke” (1810-11)

The “Archduke” Trio’s moniker comes from Archduke Rudolf, the work’s dedicatee. The Archduke was a music lover and practitioner who became Beethoven’s piano student in 1803. He later studied composition with Beethoven, one of the few such students Beethoven took on. Their relationship remained warm for the duration of Beethoven’s life. When Beethoven nearly left Vienna in 1809 for a lucrative appointment in Kassel, the Archduke was among the three patrons who teamed up to provide Beethoven with a generous lifetime annuity to keep him in the city. Beethoven was overjoyed with the arrangement, though his hope for the title of Imperial Kapellmeister was never fulfilled.

The genial nature of the first movement of the trio defies some of the traditional associations with Beethoven’s music. We default to thinking of the fiery Fifth Symphony or the angsty finale of the “Appassionata” Sonata (both of which are on the program this summer). But Beethoven also wrote music that keeps its emotions at a more even keel: consider the opening movement of the Sixth Symphony, or the delightfully sunny “Spring” Sonata (also on this summer’s lineup), or even the calmly reverent “Kyrie” movement of his Mass in C. There is a strong sense of confidence in this opening movement of the “Archduke,” a feeling that Beethoven no longer needs to prove himself with dramatic shifts and gestures at every corner. Instead, he allows the music to unfold organically, its creative twists emerging without special attention drawn to them.

Built in a sturdy sonata form, the first movement sets the tone immediately with its lyrical and flowing first theme, marked dolce (sweet) and then cantabile (singing). The second theme contrasts in articulation and contour—now a detached cascade of notes through a descending scale—but its character is similarly inviting and cheerful. However, its key is entirely unexpected: G major, a key that shifts the home tonic note, B-flat, to B natural. Quiet innovations like this abound here, from the thematic use of piano trills and extended string pizzicato in the development section to the startling way that the music settles back into the home key during the retransition.

Don’t let its seemingly innocuous opening fool you: the second movement Scherzo is deeply strange. After an initial period of almost childlike simplicity and predictable repetition and phrase structure, Beethoven disrupts the proceedings with a sudden crescendo, an unexpected key change, and off-kilter note and measure groupings—all at once. Although order is quickly restored, Beethoven has tipped his hand. It is in the middle section (what would traditionally be called the “Trio”) that the oddness truly takes hold. The section begins with a creepy-crawly chromatic fugue, a precursor to the complexities that would emerge in his late chamber works. But just as the fugal exposition is completed, the contrapuntal texture is summarily abandoned in favor of a raucous dance fragment, led by the piano. A fragment of the chromatic fugue is looped in the brief coda, creating an effect that would not be out of place in a Ligeti score.

The theme and variations third movement is expansive and graceful. Indeed, it is a model of Classical balance. The 28-bar structure of the symmetrical theme is strictly adhered to through the first four variations, each progressively introducing more flowing accompaniment figures. In the fifth and final variation, however, Beethoven returns to the sparse texture of the theme but introduces subtle harmonic and formal shifts that end up leading the music to E major instead of the expected D major. This allows him to add a much freer coda, which brings the movement to a quiet close.

A single chord connects the third movement to the finale, delivering the surprising but necessary tonal shift (D major to B-flat major). Beethoven organizes the last movement as a 7-part rondo (ABACAB’A), maintaining the friendly Schubertian dialogue between the instruments that characterized the previous movements, as well. He does have one last trick up his sleeve, though. The final appearance of the rondo theme (A) comes in the wrong key: A major instead of B-flat. As in the third movement, this opens up the space for a coda, here a whimsical flight of fancy, that strikes this listener as a musical representation of our three players engaged in a spirited game of tag.

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi