Beethoven: Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 19

Ludwig van Beethoven

BORN: Probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th). Bonn, then an independent electorate (now Germany)

DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERE: Beethoven made his first sketches in about 1788, brought the score to provisional completion in 1794–95, and probably played and conducted its premiere on March 29, 1795, in Vienna. He made extensive revisions for a 1798 performance in Prague, and that revised text, along with refinements prepared just prior to the work’s initial publication in 1801, represents the piece as we know it today

US PREMIERE: January 1865. The soloist was J.N. Pattison with Theodor Eisfeld conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings. Lang Lang performs Beethoven’s cadenzas

DURATION: About 29 mins

THE BACKSTORY At thirteen, Beethoven was already an adept keyboard player, and enough of a composer to start work on his first piano concerto. That effort from 1784 survives only in piano score. Ten years later, however, he was finishing a piano concerto in B-flat major; and in 1792, when Beethoven moved to Vienna, he carried with him the preliminary work he had done on this concerto. (Though the B-flat major was the first concerto Beethoven completed, we know it as his Piano Concerto No. 2 because it was published after the second piano concerto he finished, the one in C major, which we call No. 1.) 

Within weeks of arriving in the Austrian capital, Beethoven signed on as a pupil of Haydn’s. The relationship was cordial but not particularly fruitful, and when Haydn left Vienna for his second English residency, in 1794, Beethoven seized the opportunity to become a student of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, the Capellmeister of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. A more thorough academician than Haydn had been, Albrechtsberger put Beethoven through his paces in contrapuntal writing at various levels of complexity, from simple note-against-note exercises through double fugue, triple counterpoint, and strict canon. Beethoven also set about cultivating a circle of potential patrons during his early Vienna years. He had reasonable success in gaining access to influential aristocrats, and quite a few sponsored him in piano recitals at their impressive homes. These represented the principal outlet for a performer’s talents, since public concerts were still rare in Vienna during the 1790s.

One less exclusive, high-profile event did come Beethoven’s way on March 29, 1795, when he was featured as both composer and pianist at a charity concert at Vienna’s Burgtheater, held for the benefit of the Vienna Composers Society, which looked after the welfare of musicians’ widows and orphans. It is widely assumed that he seized this occasion to premiere his B-flat major Concerto (although it is conceivable that the “new concerto of his invention” included on the program was the C major).

Anyone writing a piano concerto in Vienna in the 1790s did so in the shadow of Mozart. Beethoven had met him on a 1787 trip to Vienna and may even have taken some piano lessons from him at that time. Beethoven knew some of Mozart’s concertos intimately, and in the B-flat Concerto he employs an orchestra of conservative mid-Classical dimensions, identical to that required in several of Mozart’s late piano concertos. In general structure he also sticks to a Mozartian norm: three movements, of which the first is a sonata form with an orchestral exposition, the second a lyrical slow movement, and the third a rondo. In addition, the texture is truly orchestral. Where many other composers of the day favored the sort of writing in which the virtuoso was given sparkling material against a subservient background of accompanying instruments, Beethoven followed the Mozartian ideal of a more integrated texture in which the piano plays the role of first among equals. Nonetheless, within this idealized scoring the soloist has plenty to keep him busy; and if the finger-work sounds not quite Mozartian, the fact remains that the apple has not fallen far from the tree

THE MUSIC Even in this early work—the first full-length orchestral piece Beethoven ever wrote—we find the fingerprints of a distinct talent. In the opening Allegro con brio the listener is struck by the rapid alternation of themes with starkly contrasting personalities, a chiaroscuro abetted by equally clear juxtapositions of dynamics. Although Beethoven does not engage here in the sort of harmonic questing that would soon mark his innovative musical architecture, he does reveal that such things already interest him through his unusually frequent references to the minor mode and, especially, the passage in the unanticipated key of D-flat major that surfaces not far into the orchestral exposition.

For his slow movement (Adagio), Beethoven offers a lyrical, rather solemn melody that becomes increasingly embroidered as the movement progresses. This would surely have provided him with an opportunity to show off his skill as an improviser. It seems unlikely that he would have constrained himself literally to the score as we have it, especially since he hadn’t gotten around to writing it down by the time of the premiere. In fact, he probably didn’t set much of the concerto down on the page for another six years after the first performance. Writing on April 22, 1801, to the concerto’s eventual publisher, the composer said, “As is usual with me, the pianoforte part in the concerto was not written out in the score, and only now have I done so, hence, because of the haste you will receive that part in my own illegible manuscript.” Still, if the details may originally have departed from what was published, the general contours were firmly in place, including the surprising simplicity of the soloist’s unharmonized melody in the closing pages of this movement. This would seem a supremely Mozartian touch, except that Mozart never did it quite the way Beethoven does here, preparing the listener for a cadenza (an improvisatory solo passage) by building up to a classic cadence and then foiling expectations by delivering scaled-down simplicity instead of technical intricacy.

Ironically, the last movement, the rollicking Rondo that Beethoven seems to have tossed off just days before the premiere, is the movement that remains most memorable. Both of the preceding movements are beautifully composed and filled with interesting ideas and imaginative working-out. But the Rondo theme, an infectious little tune in compound time, is blessed with Scotch-snappish, “short-fast” rhythms that have a way of sticking in the ear. The Rondo refrain appears four times in the course of the movement, and the interludes provide delightful contrast, including a foray in the direction of what late-eighteenth-century listeners would have taken to be “Gypsy” music.James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback.