1800-1802: Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, age 29-31

This is my favorite concerto by Beethoven, played by one of my favorite pianists in one of my favorite all-time recordings. I can’t recommend a movement. They are all miracles. Music simply does not get better than this. Beethoven was on fire with the number 3, also the number of the Eroica Symphony.

Claudio Arrau/Piano Alceo Galliera, Philharmonia Orchestra (1958)

Allegro con brio, C minor

Largo, E major

Rondo. Allegro, C minor – C major 9:45

Total time: 37:20

Arrau, the quintessential Beethoven interpreter…

This is from 1958, and I had this recording when I was very young. I only knew that Arrau was a famous pianist and that I loved it. Today I believe it is the finest recording ever made of this composition.

There is not much to say about this man except that he was internationally admired both as a human being and a man with indisputable musical integrity. He was never flashy. He belongs to a time when great artists were supposed to strut their stuff through their playing, not through grand gestures, painful facial expressions and other nonsense.


  •  piano solo
  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in Bb, 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns in Eb, 2 trumpets in C
  • timpani
  • strings

1st movement:

This is standard sonata form, and it works perfectly. It starts with a rather long orchestral introduction. Beethoven wrote a cadenza for this movement, and although other composers and pianists have written alternative cadenzas, none come close to Beethoven’s, and for that reason you will hear all the best performers only playing his.

2nd movement:

The expected key is Eb major, the relative major. But he goes to E, which is a shock, moving from three flats to Four sharps. This is what I call the “Trinity chord movement with three notes morphing”. For this time period that move was almost shockingly daring. You do this by moving two notes up and one down. C goes to B (down), Eb goes to E (up) and G goes to G# (up). The main melody always reminds me with the theme from Gone with the Wind., and I’ve always wondered if Max Steiner, that composer, knew this concerto. I’d wager a small amount of money that he did.

3rd movement:

There is nothing new or original in form here, but what is unusual is the triple morph from E major to C minor. Then it does what a rondo should do. There is a theme, and that theme keeps coming back with other ideas in between. Then there is a short cadenza followed by a coda in C major. So the form is not original, but the music still sounds new and original right now.

When was it composed?

Contemporary musicologists think this concerto was begun around 1801. Because of the way Beethoven wrote, working on several things at the same time and taking breaks, his compositional process is always hard to pin down.

Premiered by Beethoven…

The composer was the soloist in the first performance on April 5th, 1803, He also premiered Symphony No.2 and and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and that’s important because Beethoven gave very long concerts in which he often presented two or more massive works at the same time.

Beethoven used music, and there was very little actually there…

There is an assumption today that you don’t “know the music” unless you play without music. Nothing could be more absurd, and I have been screaming about this for decades. Even though the the score was incomplete at its first performance. Beethoven’s friend, Ignaz von Seyfried, turned the pages of the music for him that night and later wrote:

“I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper.”

Published in 1804…

The 3rd Concerto was published in 1804 and was dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. Just to keep the relationship between Mozart and Beethoven clear, Mozart’s last piano concerto, No. 27 in B♭ major, K. 595, is from 1791. Mozart’s last symphony is from 1888, The Jupiter. Beethoven’s 1st Symphony was not written until around 1799-1800. And Beethoven’s last symphony, No. 9, was not written until 1822-1824

That’s important because they were born only 14 years apart, but Beethoven developed more slowly and lived much longer. There was a minimum of 36 years difference in time between the last symphonies of these two composers.

Perhaps the first truly Romantic piano concerto:

This is where things get tricky. By just listening to the music, with no facts about when all of this was composed, I would not link the 3rd Piano Concerto to the 2nd Symphony. I would link it to the 3rd Symphony. I can’t justify that with chronology, and obviously there are people who know much more about this history than I do. But the weight of the music, the drama and something about the structure tell me to link Concerto No. 3 to Symphony No. 3, whose composition started very close to the performance of the 3rd Piano Concerto.

Not deaf yet:

The exact year of composition may be disputed, but Beethoven performed it in 1803. It’s worth pointing out that Beethoven, the famous “deaf” composer, was not deaf most of his life and only almost totally deaf very close to the end of his life. Before his deafness he was known as one of the greatest pianists in the world, and a superb improviser. To me his 3rd and 4ths concertos are his best, and this one is my favorite. He would have been at most 31 years old when this was composed and may have been as young as 29.

Again, the similarity to the Beethoven 3rd Symphony…

In the same way, the 3rd Symphony, the Eroica, marked an evolution in Beethoven’s expression. He still primarily used musical forms from the Classical Period, but his expression was clearly Romantic, and for this reason he is generally considered the man who most exemplified the move into the Romantic Period. The 2nd Symphony is, for the most part, much lighter, more playful and still has more similarity to Haydn, although it has the stamp of Beethoven in it from bar one.

Only five concertos…

I think it is also important that although Mozart wrote more than 20 piano concertos, Beethoven wrote just five. But why is this important? Because in the Romantic era, which pretty much started with Beethoven, composers became more and more individualistic, independent and self-motivated. They were no longer content to create according to the whims of others, usually rich patrons. They started composing primarily for themselves, and this more creative impulse resulted in a higher overall quality, much more struggle, and a demand for more and more time.

Archduke Rudolph…

One of Beethoven’s greatest financial supporter, and also a composition student, was the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II, Archduke Rudolph. Quite obviously Beethoven not only saw himself as the equal of those in power but also saw himself as superior, because he was the teacher, the great master composer. Mozart never had such a friend.

More about the difference in times…

Mozart wrote some pretty weak symphonies and piano concertos. The quality goes up and down from composition one to the next, and often within a symphony or concerto, where one movement is absolutely brilliant but the next sounds as if it was tossed off glibly.

Beethoven struggled…

In comparison, nothing seemed easy for Beethoven. Often his initial sketches are very little like his final creations. Mozart’s first steps were always brilliant and rather effortless, and often needed very little reworking. Beethoven’s beginnings often seem far inferior, as if he had far less talent, but by the end he evolved his ideas to a level that has never been bettered and very infrequently matched.

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