Ludwig van Beethoven – The five piano concertos

Beethoven’s five completed piano concertos – the C major op. 15, the B flat op. 19, the C minor op. 37, the G major op. 58 and the “Emperor”, in E flat major, op 73 – were composed between about 1793 to 1809. In this respect they differ from the quartets or symphonies or piano sonatas, all of which span the entirety of his compositional career. With his increasingly debilitating deafness, as well as changes in public taste and his own position in the complex musical world that was Vienna in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Beethoven seems to have turned away not only from the genre but also from self-representation as a soloist on the concert stage. Nevertheless, the concertos were recognized early on as among his most important works.

That is less true, perhaps, of his earliest works in the genre, which underwent significant revision during the 1790s. In fact, it is probably the case that the second was composed first: early sketches show that the work was initially conceived before 1793, that a version survives from 1794-5, and that it was revised again in 1798. Beethoven himself gave the first performance on 29 March 1795. The C major concerto, on the other hand, was probably not started until 1795 and Beethoven’s first performance on 18 December 1795 postdated the first performance of the B flat; like op. 19, op. 15 was also revised later, probably about 1800. Irrespective of their order of composition, however, the two concertos were among Beethoven’s first attempts to make a grand impact on the public stage, a different circumstance altogether from the noble salons for which his earliest sonatas were composed. And there was a certain pugnaciousness to Beethoven’s motivation. In describing his variations for violin and piano on Mozart’s “Se vulo ballare” from Le nozze di Figaro, he wrote that “I should never have written down this kind of piece had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize one evening would next day note down several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. . . But there was another reason, too: my desire to embarrass those Viennese pianists, some of whom are my sworn enemies. I wanted to revenge myself on them in this way because I knew beforehand that my variations would here and there be put before the said gentlemen and that they would cut a sorry figure with them.” No doubt the desire to get back at his competitors, and to show them up, was an important motivation for the concertos as well.

Yet Beethoven was not entirely successful in this, especially with the C major. Not only did contemporaries compare it – often unfavourably – with a recently-composed concerto by Anton Eberl (possibly a pupil of Mozart’s) but a review of a performance given at Berlin in December 1804 reads, “A new fortepiano concerto by Beethoven, provided with chromatic passages and enharmonic changes, occasionally to the point of being bizarre, concluded the first part. The solo part was very difficult. . . The first movement was splendidly worked out, but the modulations were far too excessive; the Adagio in A flat major was an extremely pleasant piece, richly melodic, and was greatly embellished by the obbligato clarinet. The last movement, All’Inglese, distinguished itself only by its unusual rhythms and also was well executed.” It may be that Beethoven tried too hard here to graft his own idiosyncratic style on to the prevailing concerto model, that of Mozart. For whatever Beethoven may have felt about his living contemporaries, a chief stumbling block to his peace of mind was the shadow of Mozart whose absent presence, in the ten years following his death in 1791, was a significant part of Viennese musical life. The two concertos were not, in any case, Beethoven’s only attempts to co-opt or even outdo Mozart: the quintet for piano and winds op. 16 is closely modeled on the similarly-scored quintet K452 and the A major quartet op. 18 nr. 5 clearly takes as its point of departure Mozart’s quartet in the same key, K464.

It was only with his third concerto, the C minor op. 37, possibly started as early as 1800 but not finished until early 1803, that Beethoven found his own concerto “voice” – a voice that was almost immediately recognized by his contemporaries as unique and different. First performed by the composer himself at his concerto of 5 April 1803 (together with the first and second symphonies and the oratorio Christus am Oelberge), an early review described it as belonging “to the most significant works that have appeared from this ingenious master for several years and in several respects it might distinguish itself from all the rest to its advantage. In addition to such a total sum of beautiful and noble ideas, the reviewer finds, at the very least, in none of his newest works such a thorough working out yet without becoming turgid or overly learned, a character so solidly maintained without excess, and such unity in workmanship. It will and must have the greatest and most beautiful effect everywhere that it can be well performed. . . . In regard to its intended spirit and effect, this concerto is one of the most outstanding of all that have ever been written.”

The success of the C minor concerto notwithstanding, Beethoven waited nearly four years before composing the G major, which was substantially completed by the end of 1806 and first performed privately at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz in March 1807. The first public performance, however, did not take place until 22 December 1808, when it was featured on an all-Beethoven programme that Joseph Kerman describes as typically “injudicious”: in addition to op. 58, the four-hour concert also included the first performances of the fifth and sixth symphonies, portions of the C major Mass, the scena and aria Ah! perfido op. 65, an improvisation and, to top things off, the Choral Fantasy op. 80 – altogether some four hours worth of mostly new music. Not surprisingly, the concert was something of a disaster: because the fantasy had been written at last minute it was under-rehearsed and performance broke down; Beethoven had a quarrel with the soprano, who had to be replaced; and the theatre was under-heated.

It is unlikely that the less than ideal circumstances of the first performance of the G major concerto contributed to its relative scarcity on the concert platform in later years for the fifth concerto, the “Emperor” op. 73, composed in 1809 and first performed in November 1811, was similarly under-performed. Instead, it is probable that as Beethoven more or less gave up his performing career there were fewer opportunities to have the works played. Most virtuosos of the time performed their own concertos, or concertos composed especially for them. And with few exceptions, the public demanded new, not “old” music. By 1825, the music critic Adolph Bernhard Marx was lamenting the lack of Beethoven performances and the cult of the “new”: “When so many operas in many cities obtain fifty, a hundred performances, should not a Beethoven concerto deserve ten performances? A few of those attending the concerts will be in the situation to understand such a work completely for the first time, and a few will hear it for the tenth time without finding new pleasure in it. . . . This writer has spoken to many musicians and friends of art who misjudged the sense of [Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony] after the first performance, taking in nothing, trying to see much foolishness in the comical parts, who then after the second performance became conscious of many individual beautiful parts, and finally reached the idea and the magnificence of the whole. Why shouldn’t this happen with good concert pieces? What can be more simple than the immortal Adagio of Beethoven’s G-Major Concerto?”

Not only “immortal” but innovative too. For from the third concerto on, Beethoven not only expanded the proportions of his works, making them truly symphonic, but successfully managed to forge a new relationship between piano and orchestra. Whereas in Mozart’s concertos soloist and ensemble work in tandem, in Beethoven’s the soloist is clearly the hero. And this is already clear from the different ways in which the soloist makes his first entrance. In the C minor concerto, for example, with its long modulating tutti, the piano begins with an imposing scalar passage, leading to a four octave presentation of the main theme; the symphonic proportions of the orchestral part notwithstanding, it is clear who is in charge here. As for the G major concerto, here the piano begins alone, then remains silent for the rest of the orchestral exposition – in this way it is a “present absence”, having already established its dominant role in the proceedings. Most striking of all, perhaps, is the “Emperor”, where three orchestral chords punctuate a series of almost improvisatory phrases: the “hero” of the piece could not be more obvious, nor the monumental scope of the work more clearly marked out.

These novel openings are not isolated features of the concertos – in virtually every respect Beethoven’s last three concertos break the mould of the Mozartean concerto by including larger numbers of themes, more substantial orchestral sections, movements that run into each other and distant tonal relations (the slow movement of the C minor concerto, for example, is in the unrelated key of E major and the first movement of the “Emperor” modulates from E flat major via B minor to C flat major). In short, they increasingly cast the composer, not the performer, as the works’ “hero”. The bond between composer and performer is definitively broken, as Leon Plantinga notes, in the “Emperor”, the only one of Beethoven’s piano concertos not to be premiered by the composer himself. Perhaps it is for this reason that Beethoven was unable to complete even the first movement of a sixth concerto that he started in 1815, long after he had given up his performing career.
Cliff Eisen