LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. The Fourth Piano Concerto was composed in 1805 and early 1806 (it was probably completed by spring, for the composer’s brother offered it to a publisher on March 27). The first performance was a private one, in March 1807, in the home of Prince Lobkowitz, and the public premiere took place in Vienna on December 22, 1808, with the composer as soloist. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for one flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings; two trumpets and timpani are added in the final movement.

During the years immediately following the composition and private first performance of the Eroica Symphony ideas for new compositions crowded the composer's sketchbooks, and he completed one important work after another in rapid succession. Normally he sketched several pieces at a time during this fruitful period and assigned opus numbers as they were completed. He composed the Eroica (Opus 55) in 1803, though final touches were added early the following year. From 1804 to 1806, Beethoven was deeply engrossed in the composition and first revision of his opera Leonore (ultimately known as Fidelio), but he also completed three piano sonatas (including the Waldstein, Opus 53, and the Appassionata, Opus 57), the Triple Concerto (Opus 56), the Fourth Piano Concerto (Opus 58), and the Razumovsky string quartets (Opus 59). By the end of 1806 he had added the Fourth Symphony (Opus 60) and the Violin Concerto (Opus 61), and he had undertaken a good deal of work already on the piece that became the Fifth Symphony. It is truly a heady outpouring of extraordinary music—and of these the Piano Concerto No. 4 is among the most original.

The beginning is one of the most memorable of any concerto. Rather than allowing the orchestra to have its extended say during a lengthy ritornello, Beethoven establishes the presence of the soloist at once—not with brilliant self-assertion as he would in the Emperor Concerto, but with gentle insinuation, a quiet phrase ending on a half cadence—and the orchestra must respond in some way. That response is also quiet but startling, because it seems to come in an entirely unexpected key, though it turns out simply to be a momentarily bright harmonization of the first melody note. This produces a moment of rich poetry that echoes in the mind through the rest of the movement.

That remarkable opening is only the first of many fresh, surprising, and treasurable ideas that Beethoven offers in the concerto. Surprises abound throughout, particularly when Beethoven seems to set up any kind of customary formal expectation. At the end of the first movement exposition, for example, the soloist works up to an extended trill which, from long conditioning, we expect will lead to a fortissimo orchestral close to the section. That close comes, to be sure, but not before the pianist coyly inserts a sweetly expressive version of a theme that is otherwise grand and overpowering. And immediately after that, an unexpected pitch (reiterating the ubiquitous rhythmic pattern which this concerto shares with the Fifth Symphony) marks the beginning of the development.

In some ways the middle movement is the biggest surprise of all. Its strict segregation of soloist and orchestral strings (the remainder of the orchestra is silent) is so striking that it seems to demand an explanation. Musicologist Owen Jander proposed that Beethoven created this movement as the most thoroughgoing program music he ever wrote, inspired by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: he apparently aims to express the “power of song” by depicting the great singer Orpheus pleading with the Furies to allow him to pass to the netherworld, then continuing with the ascent of husband and wife almost to the surface of the upper world before Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice again. The movement is so extraordinary that something quite atypical is clearly going on. The orchestral strings, with their perpetual unison and sharp staccatos until the last few bars avoid any feeling of softness or even humanity, while the piano (as Orpheus) pleads with increasing urgency, finally overcoming the opposition of the strings sufficiently to end their hard unison, persuading them to melt into harmony.

If the first movement opened with a harmonic surprise at the orchestra’s entrance, the last movement plays similar games, first by seeming to start in the “wrong” key, by way of a link from the closing chord of the second movement. And Beethoven uses this unexpected harmony to play many tricks during the course of the finale. Many of the thematic ideas grow from four tiny melodic and rhythmic figures contained in the rondo theme itself. Most of the movement rushes along at a great pace, but Beethoven also pauses sometimes for moments of delicate and even romantic coloring, then returns to the fundamental high spirits that close the concerto with some last prankish echoes.

The Concerto received its first performance in one of two private concerts held in March 1807 at the home of Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s strongest supporters. For performance before a general audience, it had to wait until December 22, 1808, in Beethoven’s famous concert at the Theater an der Wien which included the first public performances of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Concerto, the concert aria Ah! perfido, movements from the Mass in C, and the Choral Fantasy. Despite its historical significance, the event was not as musically satisfying as Beethoven could have hoped. The weather was bitterly cold, and the audience sat for four hours in discomfort, listening to a long series of new and difficult compositions, during which there was more than one musical catastrophe. Though the audience generally applauded in the end, the event left hard feelings. During the rehearsals the orchestra refused to play if Beethoven was in the same room. He needed to listen as best he could from the foyer of the hall and transmit his wishes to the concertmaster, who would in turn transmit them to the players. His increasing deafness made his active participation in the performance continually more difficult. Indeed, the evening of the concerto’s public premiere was the last time that Beethoven ever appeared before the public as a piano soloist.  —© Steven Ledbetter