Beethoven was a newcomer to Vienna when, in 1795, he completed the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. It is bold music which was designed to showcase the young composer’s skills as one of the preeminent virtuoso pianists of the time. Although the C major Concerto was the first to be published (in 1801), its composition was preceded by the piece we now know as Piano Concerto No. 2. While the Second Concerto is charming and intimate chamber music, the First rises to the decidedly grander scale of the concert hall, with the addition of horns, trumpets, and timpani.
The influence of Mozart, who died only four years earlier, is apparent. Yet, there are already hints of the dynamic energy and thrilling drama of Beethoven’s later works. This is music filled with daring surprises in the form of sudden jarring sforzandos and adventurous excursions into unexpected keys. Early listeners who were accustomed to the conventions of elegant classicism were taken aback. Following a 1798 performance in Prague, the pianist and composer, Václav Tomášek, wrote,
I admired his powerful, brilliant playing, but his frequent daring changes from one melody to another, putting aside the organic, gradual development of ideas, did not escape me. Evils of this nature frequently weaken his greatest compositions, those which sprang from a too exuberant conception. The listener is often rudely awakened…The singular and original seemed to be his chief aim…
The first movement’s introduction begins quietly with a spirited statement of the principal motif (“long, short, short, short”). All of the movement’s themes spring from this rhythmic motif and embellish it in different ways. Consisting of a single note (“C”) which rises an octave, it is the simplest of musical building blocks. The first theme takes the form of a march, with echoes of the fanfare and drum-infused military music of the French Revolution. The second theme delivers a jarring surprise. It begins in the “wrong” key of E-flat major and, through a series of interjections by the winds, works its way to the “correct” key of G major. With its first entrance, the solo piano emerges as a remarkably unassuming protagonist. It is content to wander off freely in a new direction until the orchestra interrupts with a boisterous restatement of the principal motif. In the recording below, pianist Paul Lewis performs an adventurous and expansive alternate cadenza, written by Beethoven years after the Concerto’s initial performances. The final bars of the development section lead to the recapitulation with a sense of quiet, tense anticipation. The cadenza closes the movement with a similar dramatic moment. This time, it comes in the form of a sneaky musical joke.
Moving to the remote key of A-flat major, the second movement (Largo) is a tender cantilena (a lyrical, singing melody). The serene, shimmering first measures open the door to a drama which encompasses haunting mystery and lament. Occasional “short, short, short, long” rhythms suggest an inversion of the first movement’s rhythmic seed. As the movement unfolds, the clarinet emerges as an increasingly prominent voice. In the final bars, the clarinet and piano converse in a soulful duet.
The final movement is a joyful, frolicking seven-part rondo. With the marking, Allegro scherzando, Beethoven reinforces the unabashed humor of this music. According to the composer’s friend, Franz Wegeler, the final movement was completed “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.” Following a series of far-flung and sometimes exotic adventures, the coda section drifts off into a moment of repose. In the piano, we hear the distant open fifth of hunting horns, followed by a nostalgic statement in the oboe. A final musical joke brings the Concerto to a rollicking conclusion.
I. Allegro con brio:
III. Rondo. Allegro scherzando:
Five Great Recordings
- Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15, Paul Lewis, Jiri Belohlavek, BBC Symphony Orchestra Amazon
- Maurizio Pollini with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic
- Pierre-Laurent Aimard with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
- Krystian Zimerman and the Vienna Philharmonic
- Martha Argerich with Gábor Takács-Nagy and the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music (concert performance)