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Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1798)

Portrait of composer Beethoven, Ludwig van

Beethoven, Ludwig van

Dec 16, 1770 - Mar 26, 1827


In this noble work, Beethoven both looks backward to the world of Mozart in music of refined elegance and ahead to the romantic drama of the nineteenth century.   Learn more


Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770;
died in Vienna, March 26, 1827

German classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven is often considered one of the bridge composers, and the evolution of the classical music period into the romantic era can be seen in his many compositions. Living and working primarily in Vienna, Austria during his life Beethoven is often considered one of the greatest composers in history, producing work even after a devastating hearing loss. His catalogue of musical work has inspired and intimidated composers that came after him.

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany on December 16, 1770, although his birthday is often celebrated on December 17, the day of his baptism. Like many composers before him, his first music teacher was his father, himself a court musician in Bonn, and without success attempted to show him off as a child prodigy, much as Mozart's father had. Beethoven's childhood was difficult, and his father, an abusive alcoholic, beat him often when he did not perform up to his standards. Still, others soon recognized his great musical abilities, and in 1787 while in Vienna he got the opportunity to play for Mozart. He was given a job and music lessons by Christian Gottlob Neefe and sponsorship by the German court to play and study music. His career was halted slightly when he was 17, and his mother died, forcing him to care for two younger brothers.

In 1792, Beethoven moved to Vienna, intending to train with Joseph Haydn. Unfortunately, Haydn did not appreciate Beethoven's unconventional musical ideas and playing style and stopped lessons. Despite this minor set-back, Beethoven quickly became known in Vienna for being a piano genius as well as a composer, though the composing came much more slowly. In the 1790's, Beethoven decided upon the career of a freelance musician, rejecting the idea of working for a church or a court, and supported himself through public performances, sales of his compositions and grants and stipends from noblemen willing to support his work and talent.

Typically Beethoven's musical life is separated into three periods: Early; Middle; and Late. In his Early period, his compositions and playing style reflected the greats of classical music, including his former teacher Haydn and Mozart, while he simultaneously experimented with new stylistic avenues and finding his own voice. It was during this time that he composed his first and second symphonies, along with the first six string quartets, two piano concertos and twenty piano sonatas, including two of his most famous, "Pathetique" and "Moonlight."

Beethoven's Middle period started after he lost his hearing and is recognized as being the period during which his most dramatic and large-scale music works were composed. It was during this time that Beethoven composed many famous works, including symphonies numbers three through eight, the last three piano concertos, the triple concerto and his only violin concerto. He also composed five string quartets, seven more piano sonatas and his only opera, Fidelio.

Beethoven's Late period started in 1816 and continued until his death. Compositions during this time are typically categorized as being Beethoven's most intellectual, intense and personal works. They also are the most experimental in his library. For example, his Ninth Symphony was the first symphony to add a choral part to the final movement.

Beethoven's most well-known works include his Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth symphonies, Piano Concerto No. 5 , a Violin concerto, the "Pathétique," "Moonlight," and "Appassionata" piano sonatas and the "Für Elise". "Ode to Joy," the recognizable final choral movement of the Ninth Symphony is the National Anthem of the European Union and was played by Leonard Bernstein during the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events commemorate the universal nature of Beethoven's music works. Because of the breadth of Beethoven's artistic experimentation and his success at creating works that could be understood and enjoyed by the entire world, many have called Beethoven, not only the greatest composer in history, but one of the greatest minds in history.

Beethoven's personal life was very difficult, and when he began to lose his hearing at age 28 he thought seriously about suicide. He was not easy to get along with, and often fought with relatives and friends, a trait that potentially was the reason he never married. Because of his freelance lifestyle, he often was in financial distress. Many note the influence of Beethoven's troubled life in his music; his compositions have themes that center around great struggle that is resolved with victory.

Perhaps Beethoven's greatest contribution to music was his transformation of the sonata form, although rivaling that was his re-envisioning of the symphony into a freer and more expressive form. Often in poor health, he died on March 26, 1827, legend has it during a wild thunderstorm, angry. His last piece of music was a string quintet in C Major, unfinished.

Concert Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven: Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827

Beethoven made his first venture into the concerto genre in 1784 at the age of 14, with a Piano Concerto in E-flat (WoO 4), which survives as a complete solo part with piano reduction of the orchestral preludes and interludes. His first completed piano concerto was the one we now call No. 2 in B-flat, written in 1795, but due to order of publication, the Concerto in C major was called No. 1. Beethoven himself, known at the time more as a pianist than as a composer, gave the first performance, probably in Prague in 1798 (history is sketchy on this point; some sources indicate the premiere took place in 1795).

Already possessing the magnetic personality that riveted attention at every performance, he was described by the contemporary Czech composer Vaclav Tomasek, who attended the Concerto’s premiere, as follows: “His magnificent playing and particularly the daring flights in his improvisation stirred me to the depths of my soul; indeed, I found myself so profoundly shaken that for several days I could not bring myself to touch the piano.”

The C-major Concerto is a Janus-faced work, looking both backwards to the Classical era and forward to the Romantic. Compared to the Concerto in B-flat (written earlier, remember), it is a bigger work - larger in scale, fuller in its sonorities, broader in emotional range. The score calls for additional instruments absent in the B-flat concerto - pairs of clarinets, trumpets and timpani - and contains the longest slow movement of any Beethoven piano concerto. At the same time, Beethoven adheres to the Mozartian principle of the soloist as primus inter pares (first among equals) in its relation with the orchestra - a balanced opposition of forces (in contradistinction to soloist and accompaniment).

The Concerto opens quietly with the first movement’s main theme, which corresponds closely to Alfred Einstein’s characterization of the “ideal march” in the opening movements of Mozart’s piano concertos. Soon this is expanded to presentation in full orchestral garb, its grandeur revealing a composer already straining at the shackles of classicism. A contrasting, lyrical theme soon presents itself in the violins, but this too has its unorthodox element, for it is heard sequentially in three different keys (E-flat major, F minor, G minor), none of them the tonic key of C major that a more traditional composer would almost certainly have employed here. An additional idea in the form of a military fanfare for horns, trumpets and drums brings the orchestral exposition to a close. The wide range of contrasts found in this exposition serves as the catalyst for a wide-ranging drama that now unfolds. Among the more memorable events are the sunny, smiling manner in which the soloist gently makes his entrance and the tension-laden dialogue for horns and piano leading into the recapitulation. 

The second movement explores a mood of sustained expressiveness and emotional depth. The principal theme is a Beethoven trademark - a bare, simple, but sublimely beautiful hymn-like melody. The key is A-flat major, the key Beethoven used also for the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata, written about the same time. Beethoven proceeds to decorate this theme with the finest pianistic filigree.

The rollicking third movement, a rondo, is full of folk-like melodies, rhythmic syncopations, irregular phrases and other musical surprises, including an episode of “Turkish” music in A minor.

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1798

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • A new fur trading company is formed to compete with the North West Company. Confusingly called the New North West Company, it is nicknamed the XY Company to differentiate its bales from those of its competitor.
  • English-Canadian fur trader and explorer David Thompson travels to Mandan villages and charts the headwaters of Mississippi River.
  • Irish Rebellion of 1798 begins, led by the United Irishmen against British rule.
  • Louis Alexandre Berthier invades Rome and takes Pope Pius VI as a prisoner. The city is proclaimed a Roman Republic.
  • Napoleon annexes Egypt.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • Eli Whitney pioneers the "American system" of mass production with jigs - metal patterns that guide machine tools to make exact replicas of any part.
  • Henry Cavendish, English chemist, comes up with a reliable measure of the gravitational constant, G. The value he calculates is 0.000000000067 cubic meters per kilogram per second squared.
  • The replacement of beaver hats with silk hats during the next half century will produce a rise in U.S. and Canadian beaver populations.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • In Montréal, Jeanne-Charlotte Allamand is one of the first women on record as an art teacher.
  • Ferdinand Eugène Delacroix, French painter and lithographer, is born. He is famous for Freedom Leading the People, The Barque of Dante and his portrait of Chopin.
  • Alois Senefelder invents lithography, a method for printing using a stone or a metal plate with a completely smooth surface.
  • Franz Xaver Niemetschek’s biography of Mozart is published.