Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (1795)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
When Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 he first established himself as a pianist and improviser. His trip was actually funded by his employer in Bonn, the Elector Maximilian Francis Habsburg. The Elector provided Beethoven a salary for his lodging, board, and tuition for lessons with Haydn, but with the expectation that Beethoven would send his compositions back to Bonn and remain in his employ. The aristocrats of Vienna, however, were musically sophisticated and recognized Beethoven’s talent almost immediately. One witness to his first public performance in March 1795 wrote that he “made everyone sit up and listen.” The wealthy Viennese aristocrats—most notably Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Lichnowsky— made arrangements for his permanent stay by means of various patrons, students, and subscription concert series.
Although the music of his early Viennese period (1792–1796) is firmly in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s unique voice is already clearly evident. The first piano concerto (which was written later than the second piano concerto, but published first) bears markers of its Mozartean pedigree. We do not know much about its debut, because the programs surviving from that time period do not list the keys of the works. Thus, most scholars assume that the concerto mentioned in a March 29, 1795 program is the second concerto in B-flat, which was begun at Bonn; others argue that that program indicates the C major concerto. The C major concerto was published in 1801, and may have been performed in 1800 in a revised form.
Despite the speculative chronology, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is an essay in the grand Mozart tradition of piano concertos—especially evident because of its key, C Major (like three of Mozart’s). The enlarged orchestra includes trumpets and timpani, instruments which would have been specially advertised in a concert announcement. The first movement begins with an orchestral introduction (ritornello), which was the tradition until Beethoven broke it with his fourth piano concerto. The strings and winds present all of the main musical themes before the piano enters, marking the soloist’s exposition. The two themes are carefully balanced in form and recall Mozart’s phrase structures; but the harmonic explorations are Beethoven’s own. The development section begins in E-flat major, quite distant from our start in C major. The recapitulation returns in C major, and a cadenza before the orchestral coda recalls most of the musical material. Beethoven would have improvised these cadenzas (and perhaps much of the rest of the piano part, as he rarely wrote down the music until it was published), but modern performers usually choose from among several composed cadenzas, some by Beethoven and some by later pianists and composers. The middle movement, marked Largo and in A-flat major, is in a large-scale ternary (ABA) form, contrasting a languorous main theme with several other themes; the absence of the flute, oboe, trumpets and percussion gives the music a restrained atmosphere which supports the lyrical piano melodies. The final rondo sets a recurring theme which mimics a horn call with other episodes featuring the piano. In the episodes the pianist’s virtuosity is on display as he explores the extreme registers of the instrument. Two short cadenzas from the soloist highlight the brilliant ending.
- Harrison Russin, Duke University Music Department