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
Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, written in 1806 and first played at the palace of his patron and friend Prince Lobkowitz 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, and he abandoned concerto writing altogether.
The piano was in a state of rapid development in Beethoven’s day, and the Fourth Concerto, like most of his piano works, reflects the latest changes in the instrument. The newest piano available to Beethoven had additional high notes. It was louder, with three strings for each note, and a new pedal mechanism that shifted the hammers so as to hit only one, only two, or all three strings, with a remarkable change not only in loudness, but in tone color (an effect largely lost on the modern piano). In the Fourth Piano Concerto Beethoven, for the first time, writes instructions for use of these new pedals into the music.
Beethoven himself was in a period of rapid development, and extraordinary creativity, producing many of his landmark works. The first public performance of this Concerto was an astonishing concert that also introduced the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Mass in C, and the Choral Fantasy.
The Fourth Concerto, though the biggest and most expansive he had so far composed, is in some ways the most reserved. It does not use the full orchestra until the last movement; indeed, each movement is scored differently. The first movement is for strings, woodwinds, and horns, without trumpets or timpani. Its opening is unusual, if not unique, in that the piano begins alone, introducing a stately, reflective theme built on the short-short-short-long rhythm that characterizes much of Beethoven’s “middle period” music (not only the entire Fifth Symphony, but also such works as the scherzo of the “Harp” Quartet). The orchestra enters immediately with the same theme, but in the surprising key of B major. Beethoven often uses this sort of tonal ambiguity, or “wrong-key” entrances, and achieves a variety of effects with them. Here, it works an instant change in mood a few seconds into the piece, as if stage lights have turned a different color. A related trait is the use of themes that change key, as does the minor-key second subject. Indeed, the first time we hear it, it begins in A minor and goes through five more keys.
The first movement, like the last, shows Beethoven’s knack for writing piano figurations that actually mean something and stick in the memory. Much of what the piano does in any concerto will display the fleetness of the player’s fingers and impart motion to the music. But Beethoven, particularly in the late concertos, wrote virtuoso passages that also make an impression as real melody.
Though all three movements are in duple time (4/4, 2/4, and 2/4, respectively) the piano’s figurations are often as not in triplets, which not only makes for cross-rhythms, but has an accelerating effect, since the piano plays three notes where it would otherwise have two.
In the second movement, brusque passages in octaves from the strings (the winds are silent) are answered by gentle chords from the piano. By movement’s end, the strings are playing soft harmonies under the piano, as if they have been charmed or subdued. The resemblance between this movement and the scene in Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice in which Orpheus calms the Furies with his song, so that they let him enter Hades (and bring his beloved Euridice back to the world), has been much remarked on, notably by Liszt. It is unlikely that the resemblance is entirely coincidence: Gluck’s operas were a powerful influence in Beethoven’s youth (Beethoven almost certainly heard Orfeo in Bonn in 1785, and likely played in the orchestra for it) and were as current in 1806 as Puccini’s are today. The scene with the Furies, perhaps the best-known in all of opera at the time, was a pervasive cliché, part of the musical language. Other operas about Orpheus contemporary with Beethoven dealt with the scene in a similar manner. Musicologist Owen Jander has even written that all three movements of the concerto are based on specific incidents in the Orpheus legend. It would certainly not have been strange for Beethoven to be taken with the legend of the musical demigod; indeed, it would have been odd had Beethoven not thought of himself as Orpheus once in a while.
The rondo finale begins quietly, with a little fanfare figure in the strings that begins in the “wrong” key of C major, before making its way around to G major. Only after it has been heard twice do the trumpets and drums, at long last, make their entrance in a frenetic explosion of sound. Like most of Beethoven’s rondos, this one behaves like a sonata-form movement, with secondary themes reappearing, being developed and looked at in new light.
— Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.