Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent electorate. His baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770, and he died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He began work on his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1805 and completed the score early the next year. He made his last appearance as a concerto soloist in the first public performance of this music, which was part of the famous Akademie in the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, when the Fifth and Pastoral symphonies and the Choral Fantasy had their premieres along with the first hearings in Vienna of the Mass in C major and the concert aria “Ah! Perfido.” The first North American performance was given on February 4, 1854, at the Boston Odeon by Robert Heller with Carl Bergmann conducting the Germania Musical Society. The work did not appear at San Francisco Symphony concerts until January 1927, when the soloist was Ernö Dohnányi, with Alfred Hertz conducting. In the most recent performances, in December 2009, Emanuel Ax was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The orchestra consists of flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. The second movement is for strings only, and the trumpets and drums make their first appearance in the finale. Yuja Wang plays the cadenzas by Beethoven. Performance time: about thirty-four minutes.
Charles Rosen remarks in The Classical Style that “the most important fact about the concerto form is that the audience waits for the soloist to enter.” One or another person in the audience at the marathon concert in the freezing Theater an der Wien may have recalled hearing Mozart play his great Piano Concerto in E‑flat major, K.271, in which the soloist surprises us by interrupting the orchestra in the second bar. Most listeners would have expected Beethoven’s new concerto to begin like his previous ones and virtually all others they knew, that is, with an orchestral passage lasting a couple of minutes and introducing several themes, after which the soloist would make a suitably prepared entrance.
Concerto is a form of theater. Beethoven, an experienced and commanding pianist, had a keen feeling for that, and his first three piano concertos (not counting the one he wrote as a boy of thirteen) and his Violin Concerto, all of which had been heard in Vienna by the spring of 1807, make something striking of the first solo entrance. The older Beethoven grew, the more imaginative he became. In the Triple Concerto, a beautiful, problematic, and unpopular work that was completed a couple of years before the Fourth Piano Concerto, the cello enters with the first theme, but a breath later than you expect and with a magical transformation of character. In the Violin Concerto, the solo arises spaciously from the receding orchestra; after that comes the Emperor Concerto, where right at the beginning three plain chords provoke three grand fountains of broken chords, trills, and scales. But it is here, in this most gently spoken and poetic of all his concertos, that Beethoven offers his most radical response to Rosen's Law—to begin with the piano alone. It is a move without precedent. What is also remarkable is how rarely Beethoven has been copied in this stroke.
What the piano says is as remarkable as its saying anything at all at this point. The writer Donald Tovey recalled a colleague “happening to glance at a score of the Missa solemnis, open at its first page, putting his finger upon the first chord and saying, ‘Isn't it extraordinary how you can recognize any single common chord scored by Beethoven?’ ” The orchestra’s opening chord in the Emperor is an example, and so is the soft, densely voiced, dolce chord with which the piano begins the Concerto in G major. The whole brief phrase is arresting in its subtle rhythmic imbalance, but the still greater wonder is the orchestra's hushed, sensitive and far‑seeing, harmonically remote response. The persistent three‑note upbeat makes this music tender cousin to the Fifth Symphony (in progress at the same time though completed only two years later). The rhythmic elasticity of the first solo‑and‑orchestra statement‑and-response foreshadows an uncommon range of pace.
The second movement has become the concerto's most famous. Its comparison to Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music was for years attributed to Liszt, though more recently the musicologist Owen Jander has pointed out that it was Adolph Bernard Marx “who first began to bring the Orpheus program of the Fourth Piano Concerto into focus” in his Beethoven biography of 1859. Even earlier than that, in his book On the Proper Performance of All of Beethoven's Works for Piano (1842), Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny had suggested that “in this movement (which, like the entire concerto, belongs to the finest and most poetical of Beethoven's creations) one cannot help thinking of an antique dramatic and tragic scene, and the player must feel with what movingly lamenting expression his solo must be played in order to contrast with the powerful and austere orchestral passages.”
In this second movement, the orchestra is loud, staccato, in stark octaves. The piano is soft, flowing, songful, richly harmonized. At the end, after a truly Orphic cadenza—and Beethoven almost persuades us that he invented the trill expressly for this moment—the orchestra has learned the piano’s way. Only the cellos and basses remember their opening music, but just briefly, and their mutterings are whispered pianissimo.
Until the conclusion of this sublime movement, this is Beethoven's most quietly scored piano concerto. In the finale, which takes a charmingly Haydnesque, oblique approach to the question of how to resume the work after the evocative scene just played, trumpets and drums appear for the first time. Not that this movement is in any way grand; rather, it is lyrical and witty. It is also, with its two sections of violas, given to outrageously lush sounds—one more surprise in this most subtle, suggestive, and multi‑faceted of Beethoven’s concertos.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Emanuel Ax, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media) | Leon Fleisher, with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics | Murray Perahia, with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (CBS Masterworks)
Reading: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books) | Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton) | The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson) | Beethoven: His Life, Work, and World, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Thames and Hudson; reprinted by Collier Books)