Beethoven Exits Stage Left: The Archduke Trio

On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate. It is a great misfortune for anyone to be deaf, but how can a musician endure it without giving way to despair? From now on Beethoven’s continual melancholy was no longer a riddle to me .

Ludwig Spohr, on the premiere of the Archduke Trio

The singular relationship in Beethoven’s life was with the Archduke Rudolf, the youngest son of the Emperor Leopold II. Beethoven’s student, benefactor and friend for more than 20 years, the Archduke was an avid patron of the arts and Beethoven dedicated no less than 14 compositions to him, including the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Missa Solemnis, which was written to celebrate the Archduke’s elevation to Archbishop, and the Grosse Fugue. This is not to say that Beethoven’s views on the aristocracy had waned in his maturity–he was still very much the revolutionary firebrand who penned the Eroica in hopes that Napoleon would bring French liberty to all of Europe. His views on the aristocracy can be summed up thusly:

Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am of myself. There are and will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Perhaps it was the Archduke’s admiration for Beethoven, or more likely the fact that the Archduke treated Beethoven as a peer and not as a servant, but the Archduke Trio isn’t about those great subjects of liberté, égalité, fraternité — it is clearly about the true nobility of his friend.

While the Seventh Symphony is the culmination of his “heroic” or middle period style, the contemporaneously composed Archduke Trio is the first clue as to Beethoven’s next evolution. Here, Beethoven begins to truly explore the outer realms of harmony. Beneath the lyricism lies some remarkable bits of compositional daring. There is so much strangeness in the first movement, which for me recalls this Beatles’ masterpiece of dissonance:

The Beatles, I Am The Walrus

For example, there is this moment (1:44 of the first movement in the below), which is a cadence where Beethoven notates V7-I. This is as basic as white bread. But as musicologist Bruce Adolphe points out, Beethoven’s spacing of the chord is unique: He removes the dissonant tone from the bass and makes it the leading tone in the violin. So instead of an ordinary V7-I cadance, we get something distinctly modern–as Adolphe notes, something that immediately recalls Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. During this period, Stravinsky’s music centered on rhythmic and harmonic displacement–taking up where Beethoven left off more than 100 years earlier.

Many trios have performed the Archduke, including the so-called Million Dollar Trio, compirsed of Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky. But for my money, this early Beaux Arts Trio performance is truly definitive. The audio quality is terrible, so I’ve linked to Spotify as well (in which case the chord mentioned above happens at 1:41).

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 97, Archduke:

Beethoven premiered the Archduke Trio at a concert given on April 11, 1814. It would be the last time that Beethoven would play in public. The ensuing years were not kind to the great composer. Having overcome thoughts of suicide a decade earlier, Beethoven produced a remarkable series of works in his middle period that form the core of the classical repertorie. But as his deafness finally overcame him, Beethoven retreated into solitude and despair.

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