Ludwig van Beethoven’s second piano concerto is in reality his first. Beethoven was 25 years old when he composed it for himself to perform at his Viennese concert debut in 1795. Since Beethoven intended the piece merely as a vehicle for his own virtuosity he clearly did not find it necessary to write the piano part out in full, as he could then make alterations later without attracting undue attention. And so it was: the definitive version of the piece was finally only published in 1801, by which time he had already published another piano concerto.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 follows the rules for such works that were valid at the time: it had a balanced structure, so that the work would delight its audiences and not alarm them. The first performance of the concerto was a triumph: Beethoven was regarded then and for the following years as one of Vienna’s leading pianists and as a result had to perform the concerto on many other occasions. He had, however, not a particularly high opinion of the piece, as he offered it to his publisher for half the price that he received for a piano sonata, stating that it was ‘a pianoforte concerto that I do not consider to be one of my best works’, although he added knowingly that ‘it will certainly not be a disaster for you if you publish it.’
The premiere of the concerto marked not only Beethoven’s debut in Vienna, but was also the first time that Beethoven had appeared in a public concert hall before a paying audience. Up until then he had only appeared in the salons and palaces of the nobility. The arrival of the public concert was a sign of the times: all sorts of ancient privileges had either been swept away by the French Revolution or were hanging in the balance. The ordinary citizen, even in Austria, had been emancipated. Instrumental music had previously been a privilege of the nobility, but now it had become a source of refreshment available to all.
Beethoven himself served as a model for a new generation of musicians who were no longer in the service of a prince but who were independent and free to compose what they wished. Under these circumstances public concerts became great events, virtuoso players became superstars and composers became demigods. Although Beethoven’s works were not always understood, the man himself was nonetheless venerated almost as a messiah during his lifetime.
Translation: Peter Lockwood