Piano Concerto No. 1

Composed by BEETHOVEN

It was November of 1792 when 21-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven left his hometown of Bonn, Germany to move to Vienna. He left behind his alcoholic father and his two younger brothers, in addition to a job as organist at the Court of Maximillian Franz, the Elector of Cologne, a position he had held since he was 14. The goal of the move was to further his musical education, specifically to study with Franz Joseph Haydn. While Beethoven had already made a mark in the music world with his extraordinary skills at the keyboard, he wanted to improve his compositional technique, and there was no one more famous or important than the 60-year-old Haydn. Over the next three years, Beethoven’s father would die, and his brothers would eventually join him in Vienna. He would study with Haydn, as well as Albrechtsberger and Salieri, and on March 29, 1795, the 24-year-old would make his official Viennese debut in a concert performing his own works. The performance not only gained him additional public recognition as a phenomenal pianist, but as an accomplished composer as well.

Among the pieces he performed on that March program was a piano concerto, the first one that he had completed in 1793. It was not, however, the work we know today as his Piano Concerto No. 1. Rather it was the concerto in B-flat major, today known as the Concerto No. 2. The Concerto No. 1 in C major, although written two years later, was actually published before the B-flat major work. Beethoven considered the C-major concerto to be a more substantial piece and wanted to designate it as his first. So, although the work we hear on this program is titled Piano Concerto No.1, it is actually the second major piano concerto Beethoven wrote. (He had also composed a piano concerto in E-flat major when he was 14, but that work was not published during his lifetime).

Both the C major and B-flat major concertos date from what musicologists call Beethoven’s “early period,” meaning the phase of his career where he was still writing in a style more reminiscent of Mozart and Haydn and only beginning to develop the more dramatic, explosive style that would become his trademark. Still, the C-major concerto already begins pushing boundaries, utilizing a larger orchestra, including clarinets, trumpets, and timpani, and incorporating unexpected, syncopated accents and insistent rhythms.

The first movement is written in “sonata form,” which is a set of strict compositional rules that Beethoven would have mastered during his study with Haydn. There is an extended orchestral introduction in which almost all of the musical material for the entire movement is presented, followed by the piano’s entrance. The movement vacillates between the gentility of a tea party and occasional raucous outbursts, as if one of the guests is laughing just a little too loudly. The solo part is virtuosic, written for Beethoven himself to show off his technical prowess, and culminates in a cadenza for the soloist. In 1809, some eight years after the work was published, Beethoven actually took the somewhat unusual step of putting down on paper not one, but three possible cadenzas for the first movement—a clear sign that the concerto and its themes still held great interest for him.

The “Largo” movement showcases Beethoven’s extraordinary ability to craft a slow and leisurely melody, but spin it out in a way that never seems to drag or become lethargic. Beethoven is in no hurry here, allowing the silences to breathe as he takes the movement’s simple theme, exquisitely decorates it, and passes it back and forth between the soloist and the orchestra with a kind of genteel, drawing room decorum. Even in the louder passages, there are no sharp edges, only a delicate dialogue between piano and orchestra, almost hypnotic in its serenity.

The finale, marked “Rondo: Allegro scherzando,” is the best harbinger of the Beethoven we know will eventually take Europe by storm. The movement is a zany cat-and-mouse game between soloist and orchestra, in which each seems to be enjoying trying to outdo the other. Off-kilter accented notes and unexpected, sudden changes of tempo and mood abound as the game of musical one-upmanship unfolds. Good-natured humor is the order of the day, and soloists, orchestras and audiences have been enjoying the spectacle for over 200 years.

Program Notes written by Betsy Hudson Traba © 2021