So here we are at Beethoven’s second piano concerto. The analysis of his works up to this point has been at once incredibly enlightening, enjoyable, fulfilling, and exhausting. There’s nothing, even in his earliest opus numbers, that can be dismissed as insignificant or token. It all demands attention, and we’re going to have to get around to the rest of those at some point.
For now, we’re at the largest piano work of his we will discuss in this series, his second piano concerto. As many people will be eager to mention, it is, in fact not his second, and not even really his first. There is an incomplete E-flat work written for piano and orchestra that preceded it, but this B-flat concerto is actually his first piano concerto to be completed, coming after the C major concerto no. 1 we discussed here. It was chosen for publication first for its greater potential for success, one of the works Beethoven had written in his hometown of Bonn, but pulled out for publication, after some reworkings, in Vienna.
As we’ve talked about in previous articles, Beethoven had a delicate balance to strike in his early works between making a name for himself, that is to say getting out of the enormous shadows cast by Mozart and Haydn, and paying his respects to and honoring their legacy. It is perhaps a reason his first published work, as previously mentioned, was a series of three piano trios, a form he could more easily put his mark on. This concerto then, not by order of publication, but order of composition, was Beethoven’s first major orchestral work.
Interestingly, in contrast with his forward thinking ops. 1 and 2, he takes a more traditional approach to the first complete piano concerto he wrote (not published). The concerto was perhaps less a chance to show compositional chops as it was an opportunity to show off respect for tradition and pianistic virtuosity. It is suggested that Beethoven spent lots of time studying Mozart’s K271, the ninth piano concerto (which we didn’t get around to this time), and this may have informed his composition of these more traditional works. The orchestration for the second is also quite like that of Mozart’s works: solo flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns; strings. Quite a classical, almost chamber-y approach. It was finished and premiered in Vienna in 1795, but not published until 1801, and Beethoven wrote a cadenza for the first movement much later, in 1809.
The piece was a success in its premiere, a very good thing for a young composer recently relocated to Vienna, but Beethoven was less than impressed, and sold it to his publisher for half the usual fee, stating (in various paraphrased quotes) that it is “not one of his best” but that it “will not harm [embarrass?] you in any way to publish it.” And published it was.
The first of the three movements is, as would be expected, a sonata-allegro form, but perhaps unsurprisingly with some adjustments and interesting ways of treating the content. The piece opens with orchestra, introducing two themes. There is a dramatic passage leading into the second theme, but when the piano enters, it starts with its own thing, only tenuously related to the content presented by the orchestra. This is almost perplexing, even to me, who doesn’t necessarily always notice the underpinnings of sonata form. The opening passage of the orchestra was good enough, wasn’t it? And yet the piano does something else, and shows off a little bit in the process before
referencing the opening. It’s more a continuation than a restatement.
I’m not going to lie: the sonata form, restatement of the exposition and all the rest is a bit hard for me to follow here. Themes and music reappear, but it is not as plainly cut-and-dry as you might expect it to be based on the Classical nature of its content. Aside from the maybe slightly perplexing layout and overt virtuosity of the piano part (including the much later-written cadenza), the first movement gives the impression that this piece is as safe a safe card as we’ll get from early Beethoven, perhaps easily overshadowed by the C major and C minor first and third concertos, not to mention the fifth. It’s not bad, but the first I really came to love. This one I might at some point, but so far it’s just ‘nice.’
The second movement is really beautiful and simple-sounding. It’s lyrical, very free-flowing, dramatic… lyrical not just in the musical, expressive sense, but in an actual kind of operatic vocal singing sense. It’s in E major, a four-sharps key that Mozart would likely not have used, and is in a ternary form, typical for middle adagio movements. There are recitative-like passages toward the end, and the orchestra comes in to round out the movement, literally, very roundly.
After a peaceful middle bit, we have the molto allegro rondo of the ending, and the shortest movement of the piece. This is easily my favorite. It’s richly, crisply orchestral, with bouncy, fun melodies, pianistic virtuosity that all make for a celebratory, light, but richly musical movement. The two themes of the rondo are very playful, but we dramatically get a middle section in a minor key that contrasts nicely with what we’ve enjoyed so far. One of Beethoven’s favorite jokes is to introduce wrong or false keys, and it shows up here, with the piano entering toward the end in G major before ‘fixing’ itself, and it ends crisply and energetically.
Perhaps you’ve noticed from my discussion here, but I haven’t come to love this piece. Much of the value of the piece, well, let’s not say value, but rather significance of the piece is, it seems, lies in its history, its place in Beethoven’s career and canon. It’s interesting to see how the young composer played his cards, showed off, but also was careful, managed his talent (publishing this work second to the more impressive C major concerto), but had enough confidence in himself to know that this piece wasn’t unworthy of publication and could still earn him a buck. That’s respectable, but I’ve asked around to a few musician friends about this piece, and many of them also communicate its ‘okayness,’ at least relative to his others. It’s not the fault of this piece, let’s say, but the grandness and success of the other four. In short, though, the piece could be no better expressed than here in this article, program notes from the San Francisco Symphony, a large chunk of which I quote directly:
Modest it may be both in dimensions and demeanor when we compare it to the expansive and original Concerto in C, but the B-flat Concerto is a delight nonetheless. Of charm and good humor there is plenty, and such details as the pianissimo sneak into distant D-flat when Beethoven has just deposited us so ostentatiously on the doorstep of F major must have served notice to the alert Viennese that the slender young man with the coal-black thatch and the rough complexion had some distinctly original things to say. The much later cadenza is hugely irruptive, forward-looking even for its presumed date of 1809, and wonderful: Certainly Beethoven was on this occasion utterly free of scruples when it came to mixing vintages. The slow movement offers us a glimpse of Beethoven the great adagio player, and one can imagine the effect he must have made with that first eloquent and surprising solo entrance as well as with the hushed exit, declaimed quietly but con gran espressione and bathed in a delicately mysterious wash of pedal. The bouncy finale is a captivating, high-spirited comedy. The rhythmic double-dealing in the very first phrase is well taken, and Beethoven nicely exploits the comic potential of that ambiguity concerning where the accent falls.
Could anyone express it any better than that?
This marks the end of our stretch of Beethoven piano works, but not of Beethoven. Perhaps as you are reading this, I am sitting in an audience enjoying a Beethoven work about which I will write tomorrow. See you then.
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