Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

Theater-an-der-Wien, opened 1801, circa 1815
Theater-an-der-Wien, opened 1801, circa 1815

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 is the first of his “mature” piano concerti. While he had sketched bits and pieces of it as far back as 1799, he didn’t get to the nuts and bolts/nitty-gritty/down ‘n’ dirty essentials of composing the thing until early 1803, by which time – in response to the suicidal depression over his hearing he experienced in October 1802 – he had reinvented himself as a hero battling fate through music.

Theater-an-der-Wien today
Theater-an-der-Wien today

The concerto received its premiere on April 5, 1803, at an Akademie (public concert) held at Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien. Anxious to get as much of his new music before the public as possible, Beethoven, true to form, overloaded the concert with way too much music: a repeat performance of his Symphony No. 1 and the premieres of his Symphony No. 2, Piano Concerto No. 3, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives.

(According to Beethoven’s friend and student Ferdinand Ries, the concert was originally slated to be even longer:

“The concert began at six o’clock, but it was so long that a couple of the pieces were not performed.”

Try as I might, I have not been able to track down exactly what works were not performed.)

The day of the premiere – April 5, 1803 – was long and gnarly. Beethoven got up before dawn to finish copying out the trombone parts for Christ on the Mount of Olives in order to have them ready for the concert’s one-and-only rehearsal, which began at 8 am. The rehearsal went on for over six hours straight. According to Ferdinand Ries:

“[The rehearsal] was frightful. At half past two everyone was exhausted and dissatisfied. Prince Karl Lichnowsky [Beethoven’s principal patron at the time], who was at the rehearsal from its beginning, sent out for large baskets of buttered bread, cold meats, and wine. He invited all the musicians to help themselves, and a collegial atmosphere was restored.”

The rehearsal resumed and went on almost to showtime: 6 pm.

For the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 3, Beethoven played the solo part and conducted from the piano. He did so from memory; the “score” on the piano contained almost no music. Nevertheless, Ignaz von Seyfried, the Theater-an-der-Wien’s regular conductor, was drafted to turn pages for Beethoven, and he has left us with this nerve-wracking account:

“He asked me to turn the pages for him; but – heaven help me! – that was easier said than done. 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 cues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages, and my scarcely concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly and he laughed heartily at the jovial supper which we ate afterwards.”

A page from Beethoven’s manuscript of his Piano Concerto No. 3, empty but for “a few Egyptian hieroglyphs”
A page from Beethoven’s manuscript of his Piano Concerto No. 3, empty but for “a few Egyptian hieroglyphs”; no wonder Ignaz von Seyfried freaked out having to turn the pages!

The reviews of the concert were mixed at best, disappointing at worst. The critics focused on the oratorio Christ On the Mount of Olives and had almost nothing to say about the piano concerto. The critic for the Freymüthige wrote:

“Even our doughty Beethoven, whose oratorio Christ On the Mount of Olives was performed for the first time at the suburban Theater-an-der-Wien, was not altogether fortunate, and despite the efforts of his many admirers was unable to achieve really marked approbation. . .”

The correspondent for the Zeitung für die Elegante Welt wrote:

“The first symphony is better than the later one. However, it is obvious that both are not lacking in surprising and brilliant passages of beauty. Less successful was the following Concerto in C minor which Hr. v. B., who is otherwise known as an excellent pianist, performed also not completely to the public’s satisfaction.”

The reviews might have been disappointing, but the box office was not. Beethoven walked away from that Akademie of April 5, 1803 with some serious coin: after his expenses were paid, he pocketed a profit of 1,800 florins: a bit over $32,000 in 2021 dollars.…

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