BEAUTY of music | Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1

American Pianists Awards finalist Steven Lin will play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in his Premiere Series concert November 6. APA Artistic Administrator Milner Fuller explores that piece in this month's Beauty of Music.

How fortunate we are this season to hear Steven Lin play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, op. 15, immediately after Henry Kramer gave such an affective interpretation of Mozart’s K. 503. Both works are in C major and feature trumpets and drums (Beethoven augments Mozart’s wind section with a pair of clarinets). Beethoven’s op. 15 was composed in 1796-7, 10 years after K. 503 and two years after his final version of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B♭, op. 19.

Beethoven’s output is often described using the “Three Periods” analysis: early (through 1802), middle (1803-1812), and late (1813-1827). While the reality is far more complicated and these dates vary depending on whom you ask, the Three Period analysis is nevertheless a useful tool and has been widely accepted among Beethoven scholars and performers since soon after Beethoven died.

Beethoven’s first two piano concerti typify his early period. While many of his works from this period show the obvious influence of Haydn, with whom Beethoven studied when he first came to Vienna, Mozart serves at Beethoven’s point of departure when he began writing for piano and orchestra. The C-major concerto is not an innovative work, but rather it demonstrates Beethoven’s mastery of the form as inherited from Mozart. While composition of the B-flat concerto began in Bonn and was later revised, the C-major concerto was written wholly within Beethoven’s time in Vienna.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the C-major concerto is in the second movement which omits the flute and oboes, leaving the first clarinet as the highest wind. Mozart, too, would occasionally omit the higher winds when he wanted a darker or more somber color, like in his Requiem and Sorastro’s music from The Magic Flute. Beethoven, however, uses the first clarinet as a duet partner with the piano. I also wouldn’t describe the second movement as particularly somber, but rather lyrical with a dose of melancholy.

Beethoven’s writing for trumpet represents a slight departure from Mozart. Trumpet writing in late 18th-century orchestral music had become rather uninspired since its Baroque heyday of Handel and Bach (like in the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto). Mozart and Haydn used them almost exclusively to reinforce tonic and dominant harmony with the timpani. Beethoven would begin to use the trumpet more melodically, and there are moments in his First Piano Concerto that point towards that new style.

When Steven plays the C-major concerto in November, you will notice one major departure from the style of Mozart. It was not until 1809 that Beethoven wrote down the massive cadenza you will hear from Steven. We explored the history and structure of the classical cadenza previously in this series.

Beethoven patron Archduke Rudolf
Archduke Rudolf

At the urging of his patron, the Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven wrote down cadenzas for his earlier concerti, including three for the C major concerto. It was around this time that Beethoven was working on his 5th Piano Concerto, the so-called Emperor Concerto, and the cadenza is unlike anything 1796 Beethoven could have imagined, full of distant key changes and chromaticism. In fact, the keyboard range did not exist on Beethoven’s 1796 instrument. Beethoven indulges in some musical humor in this cadenza, as the “final trill” leads off into another tangent. The cadenza concludes not with a trill, but a quiet, short, rolled dominant chord that then explodes fortississimo when the orchestra returns.

American Pianists Awards finalist Steven Lin will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, op. 15, on November 6, 2016, with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. He will use Beethoven’s third cadenza written in 1809. Tickets for this concert are available here!




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