Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1

When Ludwig van Beethoven left his native Bonn and moved to Vienna in 1792 he had achieved very little as a composer, being primarily known as a pianist. He had already played all of Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier at the age of twelve and his teachers at that time predicted a great future for him as a solo pianist. His playing soon attracted attention within Viennese aristocratic circles; the pianist, composer and theorist Abbé Vogler (1749-1814) praised Beethoven’s ‘splendid power and bravura’ as well as his ‘fluent finger work, subtlety and intense sensitivity’. Beethoven succeeded in earning his living simply as a pianist and piano teacher; it goes without saying that the piano, his own instrument, would take the leading role in all of the works he composed until the age of twenty-five. It was natural enough that the first musical genre in which his compositorial voice was fully heard was the piano concerto.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major is actually his third such work. Beethoven was thirteen when he first embarked on a work for piano and orchestra, although only a piano score with indications of orchestrations has survived. He was close to his twentieth birthday when he composed a piano concerto in B flat; this has become known as the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19. It is so catalogued because he only allowed it to be published after the Piano Concerto in C major Op. 15 had first been published as his Piano Concerto No. 1. The fact that Beethoven initially delayed the publication of his piano works was due to his own career as concert pianist; copyright simply did not exist at that time and this was one way of preventing other pianists from making free with his music.

Beethoven was able to reveal the full extent of his exuberant pianism in the C major concerto and filled it with musical surprises: the opening theme initially conceals its martial character through its pianissimo entry, whilst the solo piano somewhat unusually ignores this theme when it enters, presenting a flowing melody instead that seems to turn the music in a completely different direction. Beethoven’s use of sharp contrasts in combination with an often spectacular manner of writing for the piano contributes greatly to the highly imaginative character of the first movement. The Largo possesses a breadth that would later return in several of Beethoven’s mature works. According to Beethoven’s biographer and contemporary Franz Wegeler (1765-1848), the concluding Rondo, whose somewhat broad humour is reminiscent of Haydn’s, had still not been finished two days before its premiere. A team of four copyists seized the finished sheets of manuscript one by one from the composer’s hands in order to have the work ready for performance.

Translation: Peter Lockwood