- Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, written in 1806 and first played in March 1807, was the last that he was able to perform himself. Within a few years, his career as a performer was stymied by advancing deafness.
- Still, Beethoven was in a period of rapid development and extraordinary creativity, producing many landmark works. The first public performance of this Concerto also introduced the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Mass in C, and the Choral Fantasy.
- The Fourth Concerto, though the biggest and most expansive so far, is in some ways the most reserved. It does not use the full orchestra until the last movement, with each movement scored differently.
- The first movement is for strings, woodwinds, and horns (no trumpets or timpani). Its opening is unusual in that the piano begins alone. In the second movement, brusque octaves in the strings alone are answered by gentle chords from the piano.
- The rondo finale begins quietly, with a little fanfare figure in the strings. Only after it has been heard twice do the trumpets and drums, at long last, make their entrance in a frenetic explosion of sound.
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 22, 1924, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with pianist Ernst von Dohnányi
The Concerto in G was premiered in March 1807 at a private concert in the Vienna palace of Prince Lobkowitz. The first public performance, with the composer as soloist, took place on December 22, 1808, part of another Beethoven marathon in the Theater an der Wien that also included the first public performances of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy, the concert aria Ah, perfido!, and portions of the Mass in C. Beethoven was the piano soloist in the Choral Fantasy as well as in the concerto.
The monster concert had all the earmarks of a disaster, what with near-freezing temperatures in the hall, an understandably recalcitrant, under-rehearsed orchestra, and an audience faced with four hours of unfamiliar music. Still, the concerto and Beethoven’s playing seem to have made a huge impression, as witness the report by composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who was in the audience: “[Beethoven] played with astounding cleverness and skill and at the fastest possible tempi. The Adagio [sic], a masterly movement of beautifully developed song, he sang on the instrument with a profound, thrilling melancholy.”
If each of Beethoven’s piano concertos is unique, the Fourth is the most unique of all, opening as it does with a foretaste of the idea – long simmering in the composer’s mind – of the knocking-at-the-door rhythmic motif that would announce the Fifth Symphony, composed a few months later. Here, however, it appears not in ominous C minor, but in benign G major, and with much gentler scoring. Furthermore, the theme is presented at the very outset by the piano alone – hardly common procedure at the time – whereupon the orchestra’s hushed entry is in the unexpected key of B major.
If this Allegro moderato movement is all grace, the subsequent Andante con moto is downright threatening. Arthur Rubinstein once described it as having been “written by a man in mortal fear.”
A particularly imaginative reaction to the slow movement came from the great English novelist and Beethoven admirer E.M. Forster, who in his 1935 essay Wordmaking and Sound-taking observes: “It strikes and strokes immediately, and elderly gentlemen before myself have called it ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ What about Orpheus and the Furies, though? When the movement begins I always repair to the entrance of Hell and descend under the guidance of Gluck through diminishing opposition to the Elysian Fields…. The piano turns into Orpheus, and the strings, waving less and less their snaky locks, sink at last into acquiescence with true love.”
What must have sounded particularly bold in its time was Beethoven’s refusal here to conform to the Classical notion of “concerto” as a cooperative venture. The composer has piano and orchestra not embracing but facing off against each other, the orchestra bellowing its anger at the seeming adversary, the piano, which responds more beseechingly than defiantly.
In the final measures, the orchestra’s energy – and anger – is spent, allowing the piano to depart quietly, before whispering strings launch the vivacious rondo-finale, joined by the now boisterously energetic piano, here finally given the opportunity for virtuoso display.
Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.