Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Opus 15

Concerto No. 1 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
BORN
: Beethoven’s baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770. Bonn, then an independent electorate
DIED: March 26, 1827, Vienna

COMPOSED: The most recent research on the hard-to-pin-down Piano Concerto No. 1 suggests that Beethoven wrote it in 1795

WORLD PREMIERE: December 18, 1795. Beethoven played it in Vienna at a concert organized by Haydn for the primary purpose of presenting three of the symphonies he had composed for his recent visit to London. It also seems likely that Beethoven revised the work considerably before its publication by the Viennese firm of T. Mollo & Co. in 1801

NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: March 19, 1857. Franz Werner was pianist, with Frédéric Ritter conducting the Philharmonic Society at the Cincinnati Music Hall

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1934. Ruth Slenczynska was soloist, Bernardino Molinari conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2013. Leif Ove Andsnes was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 36 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Virtually every program note on Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto begins by explaining that it is not really his first piano concerto. This note is no exception. The C major Concerto is actually Beethoven’s third, having been preceded by a faceless though competent work in E-flat, written in Bonn in 1784 (it survives only in piano score, but with enough orchestral cues to make a reasonable reconstruction possible), and by the work in B-flat known as the Concerto No. 2, Opus 19. Beethoven probably forgot about his E-flat concerto, though in his early years in Vienna, when new scores from him were much in demand, he occasionally dipped into the stack of music he had brought with him from Bonn. As for the B-flat and C major concertos, he did not number them himself, and he certainly intended no deception. At that time, opus numbers usually reflected dates of publication, not composition, and the C major work was selected to be Beethoven’s first concerto to go into print precisely because it was the stronger and more impressive of the two.

Beethoven had been in Vienna since November 1792. Mozart had died the year before, and the object of Beethoven’s pilgrimage, not then imagined as the permanent move it turned out to be, was, in the words that his friend Count Waldstein wrote in his album, “through unremitting diligence to receive the spirit of Mozart at the hands of Haydn.” The lessons with Haydn, however, were not a success. Beethoven learned profoundly from Haydn’s scores, but when it came to formal instruction, he found himself better off with an experienced theater composer like Johann Schenk, the famous Antonio Salieri, and that outstanding pedagogue Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, all of them more attentive than Haydn and less apt to be put off by the unconcerned religious views, the left-wing politics, and the rough manners of the young Rhinelander. Relations between Beethoven and Haydn remained in a state of delicate balance between the cordial and the edgy until Haydn’s death in 1809.

Beethoven was making an enviable name as a composer and an exciting pianist. Even at twelve, his playing had been praised for its power, and in later reports we find again and again phrases like “tremendous . . . character, unheard of bravura and facility . . . great velocity of finger, united with extreme delicacy of touch and intense feeling.” It sounds like the prescription for the ideal performer of the C major Concerto. He played connoisseurs’ music like the preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach as well as more recent repertory like Mozart’s D minor Concerto, for which he wrote cadenzas that are still current, and he raised goosebumps with his fantastic improvisations.

All in all, the slender young man with the coal-black thatch had conquered the musical capital of Europe, he commanded good fees from publishers, and he lived like a gentleman. Brilliant concertos were a likely road to success, and in this C major work, with its grand scale (it would have been the longest composition of its kind his audience had ever heard), splendid orchestral style, and impressive and difficult piano writing, Beethoven gave the Viennese a humdinger.

THE MUSIC  He scored the work in the festive trumpets-and-drums manner of Mozart’s C major concertos, and its first movement shares something of their marchlike character. Beethoven thinks and plans broadly. The initial exposition for the orchestra covers an astonishing lot of territory. After the first theme, which we hear both in conspiratorial pianissimo and in lights-on fortissimo, we meet a lyric contrasting theme. Actually—and this is typical for the bigness of Beethoven’s design—we hear only its first half; for its complete form we have to be patient for more than 100 measures and the presence of the piano. But this beginning leads us on quite a tour before returning to C major, thus ushering in the last theme (for the time being), a captivating march in what Donald Tovey calls “Beethoven’s best British Grenadiers style.” From Mozart, Beethoven learned the effectiveness of having the soloist enter with an entirely new idea, but unlike Mozart, he never returns to the pianist’s first tune. Much of the development is in an excitingly held-in pianissimo and involves a strikingly original combination of pathos with wit. The triumphant return to C major and the first theme is effected by way of a big right-hand scale in octaves, the most explicit instance of the bravura style so characteristic of this concerto.

Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny points out that the second movement, though marked Largo, is notated such that it should be taken “as a tranquil Andante,” not too slowly. Its pathetic inflections set an expressive tone that was quite new in 1795. The Adagio of the Pathétique Sonata (circa 1798) mines the same vein. The scoring is delicate, and the orchestra’s solo clarinet is an important secondary hero.

The finale is full of rambunctious humor, just on the edge of acceptable manners. The ending, with the soloist seeming to want to sidle off the stage unnoticed, is quite a surprise. Czerny mentions that Beethoven showed him his own way of rearranging the main theme so as to make it sound more brilliant; unfortunately he does not pass the secret on.

Michael Steinberg

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 and sfsymphony.org/store.

More About the Music
Recordings: Garrick Ohlsson with Michael Palmer conducting the American Sinfonietta (Natural Soundfields Limited)  |  Leif Ove Andsnes as soloist and leader, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Sony)  |  Murray Perahia with Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (CBS)  |  Stephen Kovacevich with Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony (Philips Duo)  |  Alfred Brendel with Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips) 

Reading: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer)  |  Beethoven, by William Kinderman (University of California Press)  |  Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (Norton)  |  Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in its most recent revision by Elliott Forbes (Princeton University Press)  

(June 2017)