|John Sichel's Program Notes
January 6, 2001
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Trio in Bb, op. 97 (the Archduke)
Beethoven wrote this work in 1811, and dedicated it to the
Archduke Rudolph, brother of the emperor Franz, Beethoven’s pupil, benefactor
and-- as much as could be between a member of the royal family and a badly
shaven commoner almost completely devoid of social graces-- friend.
Rudolph was, by all accounts, a gentle and cultivated man, a good pianist and a
fair composer. A measure of Beethoven’s feelings for his illustrious
pupil (or, perhaps for the money and prestige he brought Beethoven) can be taken
by looking at some of the other works Beethoven dedicated to him: the 4th and
5th Piano Concerti, the “Farewell,” “Hammerklavier” and Opus 111 piano
sonatas and, upon Rudolph’s instillation as Archbishop of somewhere or other,
the great Missa Solemnis. These works all represent the ‘serene’ or
‘majestic’ sides of Beethoven’s complex musical personality, and are also,
of course, among his very finest.
The archduke trio was written towards the end of Beethovens ‘heroic’ period, the decade in which he wrote his 3rd through 8th symphonies, his violin concerto, and most of his other masterpieces. By 1811 the heroic aspect of Beethoven’s style was beginning to play itself out, and his life was sliding towards the series of crises from which he would forge his late style. His deafness was progressing; after 1814 when he took part in performances of the Archduke, he could no longer play in public. Indeed, descriptions of his public performances at this time are pathetic, in the true sense of the word: when playing softly he would miss whole passages, when playing loudly he would pound so hard he broke strings, and so on. By 1811 he was possibly embroiled in the final of his many love affairs with married noblewomen (the affair whose end is marked by his famous letter, one year later, to the “immortal beloved,” probably Antonie Brentano), the affair which marked the end of his romantic illusion. And a couple of years ahead lay the death of his younger brother and Beethoven’s bizarre and destructive attempt to adopt his nephew out of the clutches of his hated sister-in-law.
Out of this moment of impending crisis comes one of the all-time great chamber works. And don’t be deceived by the majestic and serene opening: It’s also a profoundly strange work, as are many of Beethoven’s great works. We hear them so often that we tend to forget how weird they are. That profound strangeness is, perhaps, the result of Beethoven’s wild and unconventional personality being combined with the depths of his compositional technique and his committent-- and flawless ability-- to represent his feelings in music.
Contributing to this particular work’s strangeness, perhaps, are his feelings towards the work’s dedicatee, the Archduke, as reflected in the wild and weird contrasts of the music. Beethoven was notoriously ambivalent about the nobility, given on the one hand to indiscreet republican tongue lashings which often attracted the attention of the Austrian secret police and, on the other, hobnobbing whenever he could with the rich and famous, amorously pursuing noble wives and even tacitly encouraging the then-prevalent misbelief that he himself was of the noble class. Given his unhappy childhood, some of this can be seen as a search for parent figures and the Archduke was the ultimate (or, perhaps, penultimate) father figure in the land. At the same time, as a pupil he was a filial figure, perhaps the son Beethoven never had. The desire for a son would soon take a more unpleasant turn with the above-mentioned custody battle.
So what makes the music so strange? As with other of Beethoven’s works, notably the 1st Rasumovsky Quartet, the Ninth Symphony and the late string Quartets, there is an incongruous mixture of styles: the calm exalted mood of the first movement, and the hymn-like beauty of the slow movement, rubbing elbows freely with the grotesque and the earthy as in the scherzo and finale. It must have seemed even more incongruous in Beethoven’s day, when the audience would have recognized the musical language of Italin opera mixing with Renaissance church music, music hall comedy, Handelian pomp and peasant merry making. This mixture of sacred and profane creates an ambiguity of meaning an irony, and an iconic quality that the music world would not hear again until the symphonies of Mahler 80 and 90 years later. Indeed the trio of the Archduke’s scherzo, a particularly grotesque moment, is reminiscent of one of Mahler’s most macabre ventures in that genre, that scherzo of the 6th symphony.
Another source of strangeness in Beethoven’s music is his love of violent contrast and extremes. His fasts have to be fastest, his slows slowest, louds loudest, softs softest, etc. He loved to contrast themes of extreme diatonic simplicity (even for their day) with wild chromatic modulations or overheated fugal developments-- to dress up the sentiments of nursery rhyme, metaphorically speaking, in the rhetoric of Alan Ginsburg or T.S. Eliot. This creates an effect of wild humor or demonic frenzy, bordering occasionally on derangement. The process works with equal effect in reverse, as in the Turkish episodes in the 9th symphony.
Textures in Beethoven’s music also have to be extreme: wide spaces or thick chords in the low register, for example-- in fact his ability to coax new sounds out of this by then already well-traveled ensemble was not surpassed until the advent of extended performance techniques in the 20th century.
Unearthly beauty and demented grotesqueness, majesty, melodrama, high tragedy low laughs and philosophic contemplation, all wrapped up in one-- it is this completeness, this all encompassing quality that makes Beethoven’s music so endlessly fascinating. Three generations later, Mahler would say that every symphony must be a world unto itself. So it is with each great work of Beethoven’s.