Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 96, “Archduke”

Program note written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

For most of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven relied on noble patronage to make his living. From the time he moved to Vienna in 1792, he never had a full-time job in service of a court or church, as many composers did, but made his way as a freelancer with support from a collection of admiring princes. These relationships were often complicated, as Beethoven was deeply indignant at the very idea of noble birth. The son of a town musician, he resented those of higher class, at times even promoting the misconception that the “van” in his name—simply a mark of Flemish ancestry—was really the “von” of German aristocracy. At other times, he angrily claimed a kind of artistic nobility for himself, superior to that of princes.

Still, he needed their support, and they recognized that his artistry warranted some leeway in his behavior. The most gracious aristocrat was the brother of the reigning Emperor Leopold II, the young Archduke Rudolf, to whom Beethoven taught piano and composition. Their relationship had many dimensions: teacher and student, artist and patron, and perhaps even friends. According to the early biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Beethoven “often caused great embarrassment in the household of the Archduke…finally one day…[he] flatly declared that while he had the greatest reverence for his person, he could not trouble himself to observe all the regulations which were daily forced upon him. The Archduke laughed good-naturedly and commanded that Beethoven be permitted to go his own gait undisturbed—it was his nature and could not be altered.”

Rudolph’s reward was the dedications of several major Beethoven works: the Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, and Missa Solemnis. But only the B-flat–major trio has absorbed the dedication into its title, probably in connection with the piece’s grandness. The cello predominates through the first movement, warm with melody. An extended pizzicato section in the second half brings a sneaky color change. The cheerful scherzo comes next, followed by a reverent slow movement with a theme and its four glowing variations. The theme returns in an echo, and then transitions with a jolt directly into the quick rondo finale.

Beethoven finished the “Archduke” in 1811, but its first performance was put off until 1814. By this time he had mostly given up performing due to his hearing loss, but he tried to play the trio at a pair of charity concerts. The violinist and composer Louis Spohr recounted, “the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of tones were omitted… I felt moved with the deepest sorrow at so hard a fate.”

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.