Composed: 1795; 1800
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, timpani, strings, and solo piano
When the 21-year-old Beethoven left his hometown of Bonn for Vienna, his patron sent him with this blessing: “May you receive Mozart’s spirit from the hands of Haydn.” Like his hero Mozart (whose own life in Vienna had ended just a year earlier), Beethoven initially made his mark as a composer-performer, establishing himself as the ranking keyboard virtuoso in the capital. His early compositions showcased his performing talents, with 21 of his first 27 published works involving piano, culminating with the Piano Concerto No. 1.
Despite its numbering, the Piano Concerto in C major was not Beethoven’s first. After an early attempt that failed to reach fruition, his first real concerto was the one in B-flat (now known as No. 2), initiated in 1788 and completed in 1795. The C-major concerto followed later that year, and Beethoven introduced it that December at a concert in Vienna presented by Haydn. It was also likely this same concerto, in its new revised version, that appeared on Beethoven’s breakout concert in 1800 at the Burgtheater, the same venue where Mozart made history with his piano concertos in the 1780s. After undertaking that revision, Beethoven sent the C-major concerto to his publisher, followed a few months later by its older B-flat sibling, which is how their catalog sequence came to be reversed.
One sign of Beethoven’s distinctive voice, even in this early work, is the prevalence in the first movement of a unifying motive, recognizable by its rhythmic pattern of long-short-short-long. This approach points the way toward some of Beethoven’s most memorable orchestral constructions, like the Fifth Symphony’s pervasive “fate” motive or the unflinching Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony.
The central Largo opens with a slow variant of that same long-short-short-long rhythm in the accompaniment, establishing continuity across the movements – another Beethoven hallmark. The orchestration excludes the brighter tones of flute, oboes, trumpets, and timpani, and instead features prominent clarinet lines to play off the sweet, melodious phrases from the piano.
The tempo marking of Allegro scherzando indicates a joking, playful aspect to the fast finale. The rondo structure incorporates colorful antics (including mischievous detours to minor-key harmonies) between returns of the perky main theme.
Notes provided by Columbia Artists Management. © 2016 Aaron Grad