17 March 1795: a leonine 24-year-old pianist and composer from the Rhineland named Ludwig van Beethoven is taking Vienna by storm. In his first public concert in the city, he is performing his own Piano Concerto No. 1. The finale has been complete for barely two days: later, his friend Franz Wegeler will recall him racing against the clock to finish it, handing over the sheets of manuscript page by fresh page to four copyists waiting outside. Tonight, what’s more, the piano is a semitone flat, so Beethoven is transposing his solo part into C sharp major.
Beethoven had once made the lengthy journey from Bonn aged 16 to audition for Mozart, with whom he longed to study; but the news that his mother was dying sent him hurrying home again. He spent five years thereafter trying to hold his remaining family together. By the time he returned to Vienna Mozart was dead. The young man became, instead, a student of Joseph Haydn – receiving “the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn”, as his Bonn patron Count Waldstein encouraged him. He lived in Vienna for the rest of his life, even though he loathed the place and its society.
He soon made his name there – at first primarily for his playing and especially his improvisations, which astonished all who heard them. After hearing him play in Prague in 1798, the pianist and composer Václav Tomášek felt so overwhelmed that he could not touch the instrument for several days. Beethoven’s improvisatory powers may be reflected in his piano concertos, 32 piano sonatas and plethora of variations by the remarkable fact that his capacity for invention seems limitless: scarcely, if ever, does he repeat himself.
The five piano concertos in circulation today reflect his development over a period of around 22 years. The earliest, No. 2, was first drafted in the late 1780s; No. 5 was completed in 1809-10, by which time the world of his youth was being swept away by the Napoleonic wars. As his times changed, so did his musical approach. The first three concertos show him as the ambitious young rising star, the fourth as the mature genius seeking to be worthy of his own gifts (of which he was well aware); and in No. 5 he let the scale of his imagination shine out, while someone else did the heavy lifting of actually playing the piano.
Technically, neither No. 1 nor No. 2 was really the first: he had written another (Wo04) aged 14, which is occasionally restored. Sketches also survived for an unfinished sixth, dating from 1815-16, but abandoned on the backburner. If some of the dates around the concertos seem slightly vague, that is probably because Beethoven often wrote slowly, habitually working on several different pieces at the same time. Occasionally, however, he scribbled so fast that the ink scarcely had time to dry; later he would go back and rewrite.
The C major concerto – the official No. 1, with its seat-of-the-pants premiere – was among the latter. It was not published in its final, revised form until March 1801. Even after that he continued to return to it, and ultimately he left three very different, alternative cadenzas for the first movement: the first a simple, straightforward affair, the second more substantial, and the last, much later, probably the longest and most virtuosic that he ever wrote.
Of No. 2 in B flat major, Beethoven wrote self-deprecatingly to his publisher: ‘This concerto I only value at 10 ducats… I do not give it out as one of my best.’ Yet even if he had written no more, chances are we would still love him for this work. Genial, warm, sometimes ridiculously funny it seems to cast a special spotlight upon the youthful Beethoven who was melding together the pure classicism of Mozart with his own rebellious inclinations. It is clear now that he is going to be the ultimate musical disruptor.
"I would have put an end to my life — only Art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I have brought forth all that is within me "
The first performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor was given by the composer on 5 April 1803 – and if there’s a key in Beethoven associated with high drama, it is C minor. Only six months earlier, he had experienced a terrible crisis as he faced up in earnest to the onset of his hearing loss. At that point he wrote his so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, a document intended as a will and addressed to his two brothers, revealing that he had considered taking his own life, but felt a responsibility not to leave the world ‘until I have brought forth all that is within me’.
His answer to that episode was a decision to jettison his earlier methods and find a ‘new path’. In the Piano Concerto No. 3 he pushes the genre further and deeper than he had formerly attempted.
In the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Beethoven inhabits new worlds that are both brave and breathtaking. It was unprecedented, for one thing, to begin a concerto with the soloist playing alone, very quietly. The piano’s initial phrase – a soft G major chord that pulses, then expands towards an open-ended question – poses a challenge to the orchestra, which responds from faraway B major, adding to the impression that this music comes from a remote sphere with a touch of otherworldly magic to it. The mood is inward-looking, peculiarly visionary: a long way from the humour, dazzle and storms of the earlier works.
This concerto dates from 1805-6 and was first given a private performance at the palace of Beethoven’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz (whose mezzanine music room had also hosted the world premiere of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony). Its first public hearing was on 22 December 1808 in a now legendary concert that Beethoven staged at the Theater an der Wien, which also included the premieres of the symphonies nos. 5 and 6 plus the Choral Fantasia – an evening so long, demanding and freezing cold that much of the audience left before the end.
"It shall not wholly overcome me. Oh, how beautiful it is to live – to live a thousand times"
Unlike Beethoven’s earlier piano concertos, No. 5, the ‘Emperor’, was published before being performed; and it is the only one that did not serve as a vehicle for Beethoven himself. The composer, whose deafness had gradually worsened over the past decade, had long been aware that someday he would no longer be able to perform his own piano works; now that time had come. The Archduke Rudolph, to whom the concerto is dedicated, was soloist for the first private performance on 13 January 1811, at Prince Lobkowitz’s. Ten months later it was played at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, with Friedrich Schneider as soloist. The January 1812 Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reported: ‘It is without doubt one of the most original, imaginative and effective, but also one of the most difficult of all existing concertos.’
Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s protégé and later the teacher of Liszt, gave the official Viennese premiere early in 1812 – during a variety event staged by the Society of Noble Ladies for Charity, in which it immediately preceded a ‘tableau vivant’ (a popular trend at the time), entitled ‘Esther Fainting Before King Ahasuerus’.
From the magnificent opening flourishes, through the sublime slow movement to the irrepressible finale it is as if Beethoven’s last piano concerto sets out to prove its indomitable composer’s tireless capacity for reinventing himself. In the end, many of his works are odes to joy. ‘I shall seize fate by the throat,’ he once wrote to Franz Wegeler. ‘It shall not wholly overcome me. Oh, how beautiful it is to live – to live a thousand times.’
Jessica Duchen is a music critic, author and librettist whose work appears in The Sunday Times, the I News and BBC Music Magazine. Her recent novel Immortal explores Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’.
This blog is an abridged version of an article in the concert programme for Sir Andras Schiff Plays Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (6 – 9 June 2022)