Enigma PC1

Friday evening, November 3 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday evening, November 4 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday afternoon, November 5 at 3:00 p.m.

 Elgar, Enigma and Emanuel Ax

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Opus 15

Ludwig van Beethoven   (1770-1827)
composed circa 1797-98, or possibly 1793-95

At a Glance
Exactly when Beethoven wrote his C-major Piano Concerto is unknown. He may have started as early as 1793, although it is generally thought that he wrote most of it in 1797 and 1798, with extensive revisions prior to publication in 1801.  There is also continuing uncertainty as to when the concerto was first performed. Several possibilities are most likely, beginning with a handful of concert dates in 1798 in Prague. It is also possible that it was presented on one of three dates in 1795, although this would require that Beethoven had completed the work much earlier than some sources indicate. At each of these concerts, in 1795 and 1798, Beethoven played one of his own piano concertos. Contemporary documents (newspaper notices and reviews, letters, etc.) do not consistently distinguish between his C-major (No. 1) and B-flat major (No. 2) concertos, however.  The two concertos were not numbered until they were published in 1801. Concerto No. 1 was published with a dedication to one of Beethoven’s students, a Hungarian countess named Babette de Keglevics, who by 1801 had become Princess d’Erba-Odescalchi.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 runs about 35 minutes in performance. Beethoven scored it for flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings, in addition to the solo piano.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was first performed by The Cleveland Orchestra in March 1941 at an “All-Star Popular Concert” conducted by music director Artur Rodzinski and with Sergei Rachmaninoff as soloist.  The Orchestra’s most recent performances were at Severance Hall in April 2014 and at Blossom in August 2013.

About the Music
During this Centennial Season, we are occasionally choosing to reprint historical commentary from early decades of the Orchestra’s history. The following program note about Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto was written by George H.L. Smith and originally appeared in The Cleveland Orch­estra’s program books in the 1940s and early ’50s. Smith’s views about Beethoven’s musical creativity vs. Mozart’s — and of Beethoven’s youthful lack of intentional direction — were typical of early 20th century thinking:

 ALTHOUGH the Concerto in C major is designated as “No. 1” of Beethoven’s five well-known piano concertos, it is actually the second of the series, and was composed after the Concerto in B-flat major, the “No. 2,” which was published first.

Beethoven actually wrote or worked on as many as eight piano concertos. There is an early Concerto in E-flat major, written at Bonn when he was a boy of fourteen. The first movement of a Concerto in D major, perhaps composed a few years later, was discovered by Guido Adler at Vienna in 1888; it may or may not be authentic. The eighth of this list of concertos is an arrangement of the Violin Concerto for piano and orchestra.

Very little is known about the early concertos, except that Beethoven unquestionably wrote them for his own use in playing with orchestras and for advancing his rising reputation as pianist and composer. The exact date of composition or of the first performance of the Concerto in C major is not known. Johann Wenzel Tomaschek, a Bohemian pianist, composer, and teacher, tells in his autobiography of a concert at Prague in 1798 (probably before October) in which Beethoven played the concerto with orchestra: “In the year 1798, in which I was continuing my law studies, Beethoven, that giant among players, came to Prague. At a crowded concert in the Convict Hall he played his Concerto in C Major, Opus 15, and the Adagio and Rondo Grazioso from the Sonata in A, Opus 2, and concluded with an improvisation on a theme given him by Countess Sch . . . , ‘Ah to fosti il primo oggetto,’ from Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito. His magnificent playing and particularly the daring flights in his improvisation stirred me to the depths of my soul; indeed, I found myself so profoundly shaken that for several days I could not bring myself to touch the piano. It was only my inextinguishable love for the art that, after much reasoning with myself, drove me back to the instrument with ever increasing industry.”

The young Beethoven had the greatest admiration for the piano concertos of Mozart, and it is not surprising that he took these works as models for his own, using Mozart’s orchestra and Mozart’s concerto-form with enthusiasm. His admiration for the work of his mighty predecessor was so great — and his own genius so strong — that he apparently felt no need to depart from the model or to try to show his originality by varying it; he simply accepted the form as he found it, and filled it with the best ideas he could command.

Much has been written about the Mozartian influence — and the influence of Haydn — in Beethoven’s C major Concerto; much more might be written about the unmistakable stamp of Beethoven that appears on every page. If he does not quite capture the full subtlety of Mozart’s first-movement form, this was to be as true of his later concertos as of the early ones. Indeed, no composer, not even the contriving Brahms, has been able to improve upon — or to equal — Mozart’s constructive mastery.

The concerto’s opening movement begins with an orchestral exposition in which the main themes of the movement are set forth. Strings first give out the principal theme, which is vigorously repeated by the full orchestra, and they also announce the second subject in the remote key of E-flat major. The closing theme is given to oboes and horns over the soft accompaniment of strings.

Beethoven follows Mozart in giving the piano a new theme for its entry. A dialogue for piano and orchestra ensues on the material of the main theme, and the second subject is reintroduced, now in the expected key of G major, first by the orchestra, and then by the piano. The closing theme is heard again, and brilliant passage work introduces the development section, which the piano opens with another new theme.

The movement’s development is episodic, as is customary in concertos, but the hand of Beethoven is clearly in evidence, particularly in the dramatic return to the first theme at the beginning of the recapitulation, which follows in traditional fashion. There is a short coda after the cadenza, written by Beethoven.

The piano sings the opening strain of the theme of the slow movement; the second part belongs to the orchestra. This melody is varied and then restated with new ornamentations and fresh scoring — the clarinet being given unusual prominence. (Only pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns are used with the strings.) There is a long and eventful coda.

The piano alone announces the witty theme of the concluding finale rondo, whose irregular rhythms and “unexpectedness” have often called up the name of Haydn. The second theme in the dominant, with its curious accents, has been compared to the Austrian folksong known as the “Andreas-Hofer Song.” After the return to the rondo theme, there is a fresh episode with two engaging subjects, the second of which is notable for its chromatic and polyphonic treatment. The coda is full of original quirks and surprises that call to mind both the high-spirited Haydn and the Beethoven of the First Symphony soon to come. All is handled with a boldness and sureness of touch, an effortless ease that are remarkable in so young and comparatively inexperienced a composer. —George H.L. Smith

Copyright © Musical Arts Association
G.H.L. Smith served as program annotator for The Cleveland Orchestra, 1941-57.