Bold and Beautiful: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1

Bold and Beautiful: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1

On November 15, 16, and 17, world-renowned pianist Emanuel Ax joins the Houston Symphony for Ax Plays Beethoven, featuring Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. In this post, discover the musical twists and turns of this bold and daring masterpiece.

Though Beethoven’s C major piano concerto is known today as his first, it was actually the second piano concerto he composed; it was, however, the first one that he published—hence the mix-up. Beethoven began composing it in 1794, two years after he had arrived in Vienna, intending it to be a virtuoso showcase for his own piano playing. He seems to have completed an initial version of the concerto sometime in the following year shortly before premiering it himself. Indeed, Beethoven’s friend Franz Wegeler reports that he composed the finale “only on the afternoon two days before the performance […] Four copyists sat in the hallway working from the manuscript sheets he handed over to them one at a time.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beethoven would continue to refine the concerto until it reached its final form in 1800. Unlike his earlier concerto in B-flat major, in which he consciously imitated the styles of Mozart and Haydn, this piece shows the emergence of Beethoven’s own unmistakable voice with its bold melodic ideas and daring harmonies.

I. Allegro con brio

The concerto’s opening is a case in point:

The traditional orchestral introduction begins with perhaps the simplest musical idea possible: a long C major chord followed by three short ones an octave higher. The ornamentation and melodic elaboration of Beethoven’s forebears has been stripped away, leaving only the most basic musical building blocks. It is as if Beethoven is daring his audience to doubt him; his imagination is such that he can construct a brilliant masterpiece even from the simplest materials. Indeed, each of the movement’s main themes contains a trace of the opening’s pulsing repeated notes.

On another level, some have heard the influence of French Revolutionary music in the opening theme’s martial staccato and upward flourishes, especially when it is repeated fortissimo. It bears keeping in mind that Beethoven’s stay in Vienna was originally only supposed to last a few years, after which he would return to his hometown of Bonn in the Rhineland. The French, however, had other ideas; after the battle of Fleurus in June 1794, the Revolutionary Army would occupy much of the Rhineland. Instead of returning home, Beethoven thought it best to stay in Vienna and write this concerto instead.

Ludwig van Beethoven as depicted by Johann Josef Neidl in 1796.

A transitional passage then builds to a grand pause; a lyrical second theme then begins, but in the distant and somewhat disorienting key of E-flat major (hinting at C minor, the relative minor of E-flat major and the parallel minor of the home key of the movement, C major). Sure enough, the theme begins to fragment after a single phrase, rising by step through F minor and G minor and ultimately leading to C minor. A variant of the simple opening motif then leads to one final theme, a tune for woodwinds in a more popular—perhaps even martial—style.

Beethoven scholar Leon Plantinga describes the entrance of the soloist as “a seeming irrelevancy—as if this leading character has stepped onto the stage with thoughts left over from some other proceedings.” The piano’s reverie is soon cut short by the insistent return of the opening motif, to which the soloist responds with cascading arpeggios, developing the motif with irreverent grace notes. After drifting back to E-flat major and G minor, the soloist’s passagework leads to the return of the lyrical second theme in the violins and flute, now as a complete, unbroken melody in the traditional key of G major. The piano plays its own version of the theme, but the music once again strays toward C minor. The cheerful third theme brings the music back to G major, but then the harmonies wander even further down the flat side of the circle of fifths, touching on A-flat major—a hint of what lies ahead. G major reasserts itself in an orchestral passage based on the opening motif that brings the music to a momentary pause parallel to the one that preceded the entrance of the soloist.

This time however, the opening motif returns in the orchestra pianissimo, quickly plunging into E-flat major as the soloist reenters. Passing through a series of ever darker keys, the music dies away as it develops fragments of the opening theme. At last, the soloist plays ghostly chromatic scales above the quietly oscillating C minor harmonies of the orchestra. Soft, harmonically unstable diminished chords prepare a brilliant surprise: with a sweeping downward flourish, the soloist changes C minor to C major, and the movement’s main themes reappear, now in the home key of C major, albeit with a few traces of the shadowy flat keys from before. A cadenza—an extended passage for the soloist alone—follows. Beethoven would have improvised the cadenza when he performed the concerto himself, but he later wrote down three different cadenzas from which other performers may choose. Emanuel Ax has indicated that he plans to perform the third and longest of the cadenzas. Written significantly later than the rest of the concerto, this cadenza is stylistically much more advanced–a wild ride that shows why some of Beethoven’s contemporaries thought he had gone insane (in the best possible way). Beethoven ends the cadenza with a hilarious musical joke. Because cadenzas were traditionally improvised, a tradition arose that the soloist would signal the end of a cadenza with a final trill so that the orchestra would know when to come back in (like so). That is not what Beethoven does. The orchestra then concludes the movement with the third and first themes.

II. Largo

The slow second movement continues Beethoven’s move toward keys in the flat direction of the circle of fifths; unlike the dark C minor shadows that passed over the first movement, the Largo’s A-flat major tonality provides respite with a profound tranquility. Throughout, the clarinet almost acts as a second soloist in dialogue with the piano (the flute and oboes, interestingly, are tacit). The form of the movement is also notable. After the soloist and orchestra introduce the main theme, a transitional passage leads to a contrasting theme in E-flat major. This second theme, however, is much less melodically defined—Beethoven seems more interested in delicate sonorities. Indeed, after a brief but trenchant development that turns to A-flat minor (much as the C major first movement turned to C minor), when the themes are reprised, the second theme is omitted; instead, it is replaced by a long, lingering coda featuring duets for the piano and clarinet.

III. Rondo. Allegro scherzando

Though Beethoven may have composed the finale at the last minute, it nevertheless contains some of his most ingenious ideas. Like most concerto finales of the period, it takes the form of a Rondo, a movement in which a main theme alternates with contrasting episodes. Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries remarked that Beethoven “performed this particular Rondo with a very special expressiveness […] At times he restrained the tempo in his crescendo with a ritardando, which had a beautiful and most striking effect.”

Throughout the concerto, Beethoven often assumes the role of a musical trickster, confounding listeners’ expectations with surprising turns of harmony, phrasing and rhythm. This is particularly true in the finale (as Beethoven indicates with his “Allegro scherzando–“fast and joking”–marking). It begins with a seemingly simple contredanse (a kind of dance in duple meter associated with both England and life in the countryside) for the piano in the expected home key of C major. There is something slightly off-kilter about this theme, however; each phrase is of a different length (the first is six measures, the second four, and the third five), giving this rustic contredanse a subtle, sophisticated unpredictability.

After the orchestra plays this main theme itself, a transitional passage leads to a second contredanse theme in the expected key of G major. Introduced by oboe and violins, this theme has a more regular phrase structure than the first, but it features an unexpected jolt on the last note of each measure. After the piano completes the theme with playful syncopations, the orchestra redirects the music to the distant key of E-flat major. Paralleling the second theme of the first movement, the music turns to C minor, but this time the effect is more zany than serious as the pianist develops fragments of the second theme, contrasting high and low notes. At last the music lands in F minor as the piano begins a variant of the main theme complete with “Turkish” style grace notes. By way of a harmonic pun, this segues seamlessly into a return of the actual main theme in C major.

The music turns to A minor for the following episode, another mischievous contredanse that alternates with graceful counterpoint (this theme’s subtle emphasis on the off-beats–one-and-two-and–is similar to many styles of 20th century popular music, causing some to hear this theme as a sort of proto-samba). The “Turkish” variant of the main theme reappears as the music transitions back to the main theme, which now appears in the highest register of Beethoven’s piano. A reprise of the second theme in the home key (along with all its accompanying mayhem) leads to a grand pause in the orchestra and a cadenza for the soloist.

This cadenza, however, turns out to be merely a brief set up for Beethoven’s next musical joke. The soloist ends it with a traditional trill (ironically accompanied by the orchestra), but the trill slips up a half step, and the pianist begins the main theme in the wrong key: a bright, remote B major. Whereas most of the surprise key changes throughout the concerto have been in the flat direction on the circle of fifths, this turn to B major is in the sharp direction, balancing them out. The piano wends its way back to C major just in time for the orchestra to play the main theme one last time. A dialogue with the woodwinds and virtuoso solo passagework lead to a new theme for the soloist—an unusual occurrence so near the end of a work. This sweet, nostalgic theme morphs imperceptibly into reminiscences of the main theme in the style of pastoral horn calls. The movement seems to be fading away to a slow, quiet ending—but after all of Beethoven’s surprises, we ought to know better by now.

Don’t miss Emanuel Ax’s performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on November 15, 16, and 17! Learn more & get tickets.

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