Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, op. 15

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the December 17), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. According to The New Grove he composed his C major Concerto in 1795 and gave the world premiere in Vienna on December 18; earlier sources hold that the Concerto was written probably in 1796–97, completed in 1798, and premiered during Beethoven’s visit to Prague that year. He evidently revised the score somewhat before its publication in 1801. In addition to solo piano, the score calls for flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings

What we know as Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto was sketched in 1795–96, completed in 1798 (three years after the work known as the Second Piano Concerto), and probably first performed by Beethoven that year. 

A composer who was also a virtuoso performer in the Classical era was much more likely to make a satisfactory income from concertos, which he played himself, than from any other musical genre. In the early part of his career, Beethoven composed more concertos than symphonies and became well-known to the musical public as a superbly dramatic and expressive pianist.

Actually Beethoven had already composed at least two piano concertos before writing “Number 1.” The first dates from 1784, while he was still in Bonn, and was never orchestrated or published. Then in about 1795 he composed a concerto in B-flat in Vienna and played it often. Probably because performances were a reasonable source of income (and perhaps also because he was not yet totally satisfied with the work) Beethoven did not publish it at the time. It finally came out as his Second Piano Concerto, Opus 19, although there is no doubt that it was composed before the so-called First Concerto, Opus 15.

The First Concerto, in C major, also proved financially remunerative to Beethoven. He sketched it as early as 1795 and played it several times, including a 1798 performance in Prague. It marks a significant advance over its predecessor and was published almost immediately after the Prague concert. Perhaps it was this success that induced Beethoven to rework and publish the earlier B-flat Concerto too, though it bears a higher opus number.

The Opus 15 Concerto follows closely in the classical mold with an extended orchestral exposition in the tonic key (though with surprising feints to foreign tonalities, the first of which is E-flat). The soloist enters and dominates the conversation, moving to the dominant for the first full statement of the lyrical second theme, only hinted at earlier. The development starts with a sudden upward sidestepping that leads to an extended passage in E-flat (an echo of the unexpected earlier appearance of that key). The Concerto opens with an unusual quiet statement of the main theme; when time comes for the recapitulation, the element of surprise is no longer relevant, so Beethoven hammers out the theme fortissimo in the full orchestra, after which the recapitulation deals mostly with the secondary material. Beethoven himself wrote no fewer than three cadenzas for the first movement, each more elaborate than the one that preceded it.

The Largo is the longest slow movement to be found in any Beethoven concerto, an extended lyrical song-form with increasingly elaborate ornamentation. The Rondo, built on a witty, bouncy tune that goes on just a bit longer than you think it will, is filled with all the standard rondo tricks: the suggestion of modulations to distant keys when it is in fact just about to settle on the tonic for a restatement, offbeat sforzandos and syncopations, rushing scales, and a breakneck pace. Though the movement is long in number of measures, the music doesn’t lose its smile for an instant.  —© Steven Ledbetter