Piano Trio in B-flat, Op. 97 ("Archduke")
Ludwig van Beethoven
Archduke Rudolph Johann Joseph Rainer Hapsburg was born into a position of privilege. His grandmother was Empress Maria Theresa, while the revered Joseph II was his uncle. His father Leopold and brother Franz went on to rule the empire, as well. Existing on the periphery of affairs of state as Leopold's youngest son, Rudolph was able to devote a good deal of his time to honing his musical talents. Around age 16, he dumped the official teacher of the imperial princes and chose the 34-year-old Beethoven to be his piano teacher instead. He went on to become Beethoven's only full-fledged composition student and, more importantly, the highest born and most devoted of the composer's patrons. Indeed, Rudolph and Beethoven remained good friends until the composer's death. Among the masterpieces Beethoven dedicated to his benefactor are the Missa solemnis, the Grosse Fuge, the Hammerklavier Sonata, and this Piano Trio.
It was in the summertime of 1810 that Beethoven began sketching what would become his final and finest piano trio. Earlier that year, he had harbored serious thoughts of marrying his doctor's lovely 18-year-old niece, Therese Malfatti. When his hopes were dashed, the composer slunk off to Baden for a few months, where he nursed his wounds and distracted himself by jotting down plans for a string quartet and a piano trio. On his return to Vienna in October, he completed the quartet – his striking Op. 95, “Serioso.” The piano trio itself was written in a flurry of inspiration from March 3 to 26 the following year. It completed a decade of awesome creativity which had begun with the “Eroica” Symphony. Coming at the end of this so-called “heroic” decade, the “Archduke” Trio represented the full bloom and the crowning achievement of the composer's Middle Period. It is music of sweeping grandeur for a trio of virtuosos.
The initial Allegro moderato shows a master completely at ease with large-scale sonata form. Its spacious opening theme flows along smoothly and serenely before moving on to the staccato second subject with its pairs of descending phrases. The relatively traditional formal approach, conversational development, lush string and luxuriant keyboard writing engender a warmly expressive essay of great nobility. An energetic Scherzo ensues, launched by a bouncy rhythmic figure played by the cello. The central Trio section is pure Beethoven, contrasting a veiled chromatic fugato with a dashing waltz. In the expansive Andante cantabile, with its hymnlike theme, one encounters what will become a hallmark of later Beethoven works – a rarefied set of variations which evolve by thematic metamorphosis from within, the harmonic structure always carefully preserved. The rather abrupt appearance of the jaunty rondo finale shatters the meditative spell. Its dancing Hungarian-flavored theme undergoes constant development. At the heart of this, yet another, texturally rich movement, the cello soars above keyboard tremolandos. Beethoven signs off with a presto coda.
The composer's own spirits were high at this time, for both his health and his hearing had temporarily improved. He became once again a frequent habitué of plays, concerts, and other social gatherings. He even enjoyed playing the “Archduke” Trio with his friends. In fact, it was with this very piece that Beethoven the performer made his farewell to the stage at a charity concert in 1814 at the Hotel Zum Ritter Romischen Kaiser in Vienna. Beethoven at the piano was joined by violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and cellist Joseph Linke. The deafness which made further public appearances impossible was about to send Beethoven on one of the most far-reaching inward odysseys ever traveled by man.
— Kathy Henkel