Program Notes

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15

By Ludwig van Beethoven

First hailed as a virtuoso pianist with remarkable skill in improvisation, Beethoven was enjoying life in the salons of Vienna, where the admiration of his high-born audience fed his ego. With so much adulation showered upon him, lessons with Joseph Haydn seem to have become a bore. Although Beethoven had much to learn, counterpoint sessions with the master did little to alter his style. In later life, so the story goes, Beethoven would tell his pupil, Ferdinand Ries, that he never learned anything from Haydn. On the other hand, Haydn, trained in youth to respect his betters, probably resented the brashness of an opinionated student. When Haydn left in January, 1794 for his second visit to England, Beethoven went to study on a three-timesper- week basis with the noted teacher, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. Records show that he also took lessons from the violinist, Ignaz Schuppanzigh and, when his course with Albrechtsberger came to an end, there were further lessons with the Imperial Kapellmeister, Antonio Salieri.

Beethoven had not as yet made a public appearance, but was planning to do so. In order to dazzle an audience, it was necessary to have works on hand that would show his virtuosity to advantage. So he composed two concertos, first one in B-flat and, sometime later, another in C. In order to keep the works for his own personal use, he made no effort to have them published. So when they finally came out, the chronological order of composition happened to be reversed: the C Major Concerto became Opus 15 (no. 1), and the B-flat Major work became Opus 19 (No. 2).

On March 29, 1795, Beethoven made his first appearance in public as a composer-virtuoso. Directed by Salieri, the concert took place at the Burgtheater as a benefit for the widows and orphans of musicians. It is recorded that Beethoven played “a concerto of his own composition,” but there is no reference as to which one. There were no critics in Vienna at the time to assess the success or failure of the work or to mention it by name, but it is generally agreed today that the Concerto in C was not yet finished and that it was the Concerto in B-flat that was played. Beethoven performed it again at a December concert, and it is interesting to note that this was a concert under the direction of Joseph Haydn, who was now back from London with three new, and rather experimental symphonies of his own. Beethoven’s place on the program indicates Hayden’s esteem for a rather difficult student.

The Concerto in C opens forcefully, with all the vigor of youthful inspiration, in a nice safe tonic-dominant tonality. This soon shifts to a second theme in E-flat, is then taken through distant keys, but not completed until the solo instrument gives it all its due. The cadenza, which Beethoven wrote out many years later when keyboards were larger, never could have been played on the light wooden-framed instrument of the 1790s with its limited spread of a little more than five octaves. The gentle Largo in A-flat Major comes as a sweet release from the bluster of the first movement. It also shows Beethoven’s fondness for unlikely keys between movements. The last movement, Allegro scherzando, is a vigorous rondo, allowing for many possibilities, with a delectable main theme that romps and frisks and receives a hearty welcome at each looked-for return.

Program notes by © Susan Halperin 2024