Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: “Three’s the Charm”

Ludwig/Louis/Luigi van Beethoven in 1803
Ludwig/Louis/Luigi van Beethoven (1770-1827) in 1803 at the time of the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 3, by Christian Horneman

We mark the premiere on April 5, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor at a public concert held at the Theater-an-der-Wien, in Vienna. Beethoven was the piano soloist and conducted the Theater-an-der-Wien Orchestra from the piano. The title of this post – “Three’s the Charm” – is meant in no way to diminish Beethoven’s piano concerti nos. 1 and 2. Rather, it would indicate that this third concerto, completed when Beethoven was 32 years old, is the first piano concerto of his compositional maturity and is thus packed with the sorts of modernity and expressive range that the phrase “Beethoven’s maturity” implies.

Beethoven’s “Akademies”

In the Vienna of Beethoven’s time, public concerts – to which anyone could “subscribe” (that is, buy a ticket in advance) – were called “Akademies”. When a composer staged an Akademie, the concert was additionally referred to as a “benefit” in that the profits went directly into the pocket of the composer. 

Staging a benefit concert was a big deal, though not without risk. It was a “big deal” because such concerts were usually the only way for a composer to put his music before the general public. (Just so: when Beethoven staged his first benefit concert in Vienna on April 2, 1800, he’d been living there for eight years, and while the aristocracy in whose homes he had been concertizing knew his music well, the Viennese general public was still almost entirely unfamiliar with it.) These concerts were a risk because while the profits might go into a composer’s pocket, so too the expenses came out of pocket and there was no guarantee a profit would be turned. That’s why advanced ticket sales were the key: if enough tickets were sold prior to a concert, it would go forward, with the composer reasonably confident of at least not losing money. If advanced ticket sales were not satisfactory, the concert would be cancelled.

There were times when, unfortunately, good advanced sales were not enough to fend off financial disappointment or even disaster. Beethoven held his final Akademie on May 7, 1824, at Vienna’s Karntnertor Theater. The all-Beethoven program featured the premiere of the Consecration of the House Overture, Op. 124; three sections from the recently premiered Missa Solemnis, Op. 123 (the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei); and lastly, the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. 

The pre-concert buzz was tremendous; it was the most eagerly anticipated Akademie in many years. The Viennese listening public was well aware that over 10 years had passed since the premiere of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and that his new symphony called for gargantuan performing forces. They knew that at roughly 75 minutes in length, it was three times as long as most other symphonies; and that its final movement featured a vocal setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem Lied an die Freude: “Song of Joy”. Voices in a symphony; can you imagine! Such a thing had never happened before!… continue reading only on Patreon!

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