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Piano Trio in E-flat (“Archduke”), Op. 97

June 19, 2022 – Zukerman Trio

Archduke Rudolph, sixteenth and youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, may have been Beethoven’s most important patron in many ways. A talented musician, he met Beethoven in the winter of 1803–04 and studied piano, theory, and composition with him for over twenty years—at times he was Beethoven’s only pupil. Beethoven dedicated more compositions to him than to any other patron; counted among the most important of these eleven works are the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, Les adieux Piano Sonata, the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Missa solemnis, and the only work that bears an informal reference to Rudolph as its nickname, the Archduke Piano Trio.

It was Rudolph who established an annuity for the composer that also involved Prince Kinsky and Prince Lobkowitz, though Rudolph was the only donor able to maintain his financial share for the long term. Rudolph also helped Beethoven over difficult patches in his tumultuous relationship with his nephew Karl and in the related custody litigations. Rudolph produced a constant stream of compositions, many of them variations on themes by Beethoven, who once asked him if he planned on covering all the rooftops in Hietzing (the district where Beethoven lived) with variations. If Beethoven sometimes seemed irked by his “little Archduke,” whom as an orphan and epileptic he pitied on some level, the benefits of his association far outweighed the irritations.

Beethoven made sketches for the Archduke Trio in 1810, completing it in March 1811. As it turns out, it was to be his last full-fledged piano trio, though he did compose a one-movement Allegretto in B-flat major in 1812 and made a few sketches for an F minor trio in 1816. The Archduke was not performed, however, until April 11, 1814, at a noontime military charity concert organized by violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Beethoven played the piano part, as he did again several days later—his last appearance as a chamber music performer. Publication was even further delayed, until 1816.

One of the supreme masterpieces of the piano trio literature, the Archduke derives its monumental architecture not from heroic motives developed with intense contrasts, but from “the development of broad, moderately paced, and flowing melodies” (Maynard Solomon). “The practice results,” he continues, “in a sense of calm spaciousness, and measured nobility of rhetoric.”

This spaciousness begins at the outset with a quiet, singing, chordal theme for the piano—the only opening for piano alone of all his piano trios. The violin and cello enter tenderly and the whole spinning out of ideas sets a scene of calm nobility. The second theme provides contrast with its staccato chords but soon opens out into flowing melody and cascading runs of fast notes. A fanfare motive from the closing theme carries over to begin the development, which nevertheless spends most of its time exploring aspects of the first theme. A lovely sense of anticipation is created in the development’s ultra-quiet section when the strings play an extended pizzicato passage with the piano in trills and delicate rising thirds. Beethoven makes a wonderfully mysterious transition to the recapitulation, which proceeds along regular lines. Out of the grandeur of the main theme’s appearance in the coda Beethoven creates an exciting build-up to the finish.

The composer places an imaginative Scherzo as his second movement. Its disarmingly simple main theme gives no hint of its extended structure—scherzo-trio-scherzo-trio-scherzo—a five-part form similar to that of the scherzo in his Seventh Symphony. Most surprising here, however, is the positively eerie chromatic unfolding of the trio. The contrast of the trio’s lusty second theme could not be greater. The coda brings back the sinuous chromaticism yet again only to end forcefully with a bit of the main theme.

For his slow movement Beethoven fashioned a rich, hymnlike theme, which he provided with four connected variations. These follow the Classic concept in which the rhythmic pattern of each employs faster and faster note values. The patterns, though highly individual and mingled with inventive thematic variants in the different voices, all impart a lovely serenity. Beethoven reaches a new level of profundity with the return of the theme, which opens out into a poetic coda that leads without pause into the last movement.

The finale bursts in on the listener’s revery with an impudent jolt, much as Beethoven was said to do to shake up his audience while improvising. Nor is that the only surprise he has in store. He humorously lets his refrains take off in unexpected directions in this sonata-rondo and then leads us on a merry adventure in his Prestissimo coda, which contains a jolt or two of its own.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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