Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and piano in C major, Op. 56

Composed 1803

Ludwig van Beethoven's Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C Major, Op. 56, more commonly known as the Triple Concerto, was composed in 1803 and later published in 1804 under Breitkopf & Hartel. The choice of the three solo instruments effectively makes this a concerto for piano trio and the only concerto Beethoven ever wrote for more than one solo instrument. A typical performance takes approximately thirty-seven minutes.

Beethoven's early biographer Anton Schindler claimed that the Triple Concerto was written for Beethoven's royal pupil, the Archduke Rudolf (Rudolf von Habsburg-Lothringen). The Archduke, who became an accomplished pianist and composer under Beethoven's tutelage, was only in his mid-teens at this time, and it seems plausible that Beethoven's strategy was to create a showy but relatively easy piano part that would be backed up by two more mature and skilled soloists. However, there is no record of Rudolf ever performing the work—it was not publicly premiered until 1808, at the summer "Augarten" concerts in Vienna – and when it came to be published, the concerto bore a dedication to a different patron: Prince Lobkowitz (Franz Joseph Maximilian Furst von Lobkowitz).


1. Allegro
2. Largo (attacca)
3. Rondo alla polacca

Mark Zeltser, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yo-Yo Ma, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan


The first movement is broadly scaled and cast in a moderate march tempo, and includes decorative solo passage-work and leisurely repetitions, variations, and extensions of assorted themes. A common feature of this, is a dotted rhythm (short-long, short-long) that lends an air of graciousness and pomp, that is not exactly "heroic" but would have conveyed a character of fashionable dignity to contemporary listeners; and perhaps a hint of the noble "chivalric" manner that was becoming a popular element of novels, plays, operas, and pictures. (The jogging triplets that figure in much of the accompaniment also contribute to this effect. In this movement, as in the other two movements, the cello enters solo with the first subject. Unusual for a concerto of this scale, the first movement begins quietly, with a gradual crescendo into the exposition, with the main theme later introduced by the soloists.

The slow movement, in A-flat major, is a large-scale introduction to the finale, which follows it without pause. The cello and violin share the melodic material of the movement between them while the piano provides a discreet accompaniment.

Dramatic repeated notes launch into the third movement, which is a polonaise (also called "polacca"), an emblem of aristocratic fashion during the Napoleonic era, which is, thus, in keeping with the character of "polite entertainment" that characterizes this concerto as a whole. The bolero-like rhythm also characteristic of the polonaise, can be heard in the central minor theme of the final movement.

In addition to the violin, cello, and piano soloists, the concerto is scored for one flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.


Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto is often treated as the less brilliant sibling of the more imposing works composed around the same time: Fidelio, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, and the Fourth Symphony. It is important to note that this work was written with an amateur pianist in mind: the relatively simple piano part was designed for Beethoven's patron, the Archduke Rudolf; nevertheless, professional musicians are required for the brutal cello part and the less difficult—but still quite challenging—violin part. The work was not premiered until 1808, failed to go over well, and has received limited attention ever since. The themes do tend to wander, their development is rather haphazard, and there are no showy cadenzas; in the work's favor, the subtle effects for the soloists and their imaginative interplay with the orchestra must be noted. The concerto follows all the expected patterns. The first movement, Allegro, is in sonata form, with the principal themes laid out by the orchestra before the soloists put in an appearance. The first theme is optimistic, elegant, mildly striving, but completely unpretentious: almost a German walking tune. The two string soloists come in with their version of the first theme, which is soon taken up by the piano with the strings playing a subsidiary role. The soloists develop this material sometimes individually, sometimes the strings alternating with the piano, and sometimes in conjunction with various components of the orchestra. In general, though, only one soloist takes the spotlight at a time, if only for a few bars. This polite turn-taking stretches the movement beyond the point its thematic material merits, the inventive dialogue among the instruments almost compensating for the thin content. The second movement, Largo, is far more compact. Written in A flat major, this movement is highly cantabile and poetic, with the cello first singing out the theme at some length. The piano offers some atmospheric support, while the two string soloists handle most of the lingering, effusive lyricism. Clouds pass over during a minor mode episode imposed by the orchestra near the end, but the soloists modulate back to the major for a seamless transition into the finale, a Rondo alla Polacca. The "Polish" designation has to do with the rhythm rather than any appropriations of folk tunes. The movement begins sweetly enough, though with some tough turns for the string players. Spirits rise through the remainder of the rondo, with a light but distinctly pulsing rhythm (there is nevertheless an obvious polonaise right in the middle of it all) and several instances of rapid passagework for the string soloists. The trio rushes through a penultimate breakneck episode, but slows down for its last, dance-like section while the orchestra keeps trying to cut in with a big, affirmative conclusion.

(All Music Guide)