1787-95: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 (#1) in Bb major

SUNDAY, November 8, 2020 – 7:59 AM

Piano Concerto No. 2 (#1) in Bb major, age 26-34

This is the first, not the second piano concerto that Beethoven wrote, and this problem with numbering happens a lot because often concertos, symphonies and sonatas are not numbered chronologically – which logically they should be – but by date of publication. Let’s keep in mind that Beethoven was born at the end of 1770, so he wrote this between the age of 26 and 34, if I’m getting the math right. He was born in December, so for most of 1787 he was only 26. However, it’s impossible to know how much Beethoven changed between the time he started writing this and when he finished it. The last movement came just before his next piano concerto, the 2nd, which is numbered as the 1st.

Orchestration

  • solo piano
  • flute, two oboes, two bassoons
  • two horns
  • strings

There are no clarinets, no trumpets and no trombones.

Krystian Zimerman playing and conducting

It is always indicative of special talent when a pianist also conducts a piano concerto, because then there is the opportunity to shape everything into one vision.

1st movement

There is a long orchestral intro, not at all unusual for concertos. The opening already has a very typical sound for Beethoven, but other parts sound very much like Mozart, and when you look at when he started writing this, the influence is logical as well as obvious. There will always be a similarity to Haydn too, and eventually I have to investigate more of his piano music.

The cadenza

The difficult cadenza composed by Beethoven himself much later than the concerto itself. This makes it stylistically every different from the rest of the concerto although the cadenza uses the opening theme in many forms, and cadenzas more than anything else show what composers did to totally cut loose and strut their stuff. Cadenzas supposedly were also improvised on the spot, but you can bet your life on the fact that totally made-up-on-the-spot cadenzas were far inferior to what got written down. In other words, cadenzas keep the feeling of something improvised, but they are also carefully written arrangements and so quite thought-out.

2nd movement

Note that in the time of Beethoven it was not common to write four movements for concertos, and in fact in all periods three movement concertos remained popular. In fact, it’s probably true that four movement concertos, such as Brahm’s 2nd piano concerto, are relative outliers.

3rd movement

Beethoven wrote the last movement in 1795 and premiered it in Vienna that year. While the rest of the concerto to me is more like Mozart than Haydn, the last movement is very much like Haydn and again shows how they all listened to each other and learned from each other. Beethoven – the “youngster” – had so much to gain from hearing and internalizing the skills of the other two, and if he had been any less his own man he might have turned out to be partially a copy of the others. But with his monumental genius, there was never any danger that Beethoven would become anything other than a titan.

It’s good to know the chronology.

If you are getting to know Beethoven, I think you want to know what comes first because that shows his development as a composer.

So, what was really the first of a set of five concertos was started at age 26, but most likely the form which we hear today was completed in around 1995, so around age 34. That’s an eight year span.

He wrote two different endings…

In fact, Beethoven wrote a second finale in 1798 for a performance in Prague, but that is not the that was published finale, and I have never heard it.

He started writing this at age 24…

This other finale was used by Beethoven as a showpiece for his own performances as a young virtuoso. It was finally published in 1801, when Beethoven was around 30. Always remember that Beethoven was born just before 1771, so it’s best to drop off an extra year when thinking about how old he was. The bottom line is that this first of the five concertos was started at age 26.

Revisions make it unclear when things are first conceived…

One again we are running into the interesting matter of polishing and revision. I suppose those two words pretty much mean the same thing, The important point is that no matter how much Beethoven changed this youthful composition – and Beethoven seemed never to be quite finished with anything for a long time – his ideas were in place while still in his early 20s.

I’m writing about this because I did not know most of this until today…

What this means is that Beethoven wrote his first concerto, again using chronological order, at least a couple years before Mozart wrote his last one, which is numbered as No. 27. Just remember that the numbering system for Mozart is pretty horrible, and to this moment no one absolutely agrees ob how many concertos he wrote.

Look at the similarity here…

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B♭ major, K. 595, was first performed early in 1791, the year of his death, about four years after Beethoven started his first one.

Beethoven heard very well until later in his life…

Beethoven was not born deaf, or even hearing-impaired, and although you would think that everyone knows that, or should know that, they don’t. Many people are amazed at how someone who never could hear could write such amazing music, but in fact Beethoven heard just fine until somewhere in his middle 20s and in fact slowly lost his hearing so that he did not become fully deaf until much later in his life.

A showpiece for Beethoven…

The B-flat major Piano Concerto became an important vehicle for young Beethoven. A performance at Vienna in 1795 marked his public debut. Always remember that at this time his hearing was still excellent, and he was still winning head to head competitions with other virtuosos when he was around age 30, so don’t underestimate his skill has a player. In his own time he was the king.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “1787-95: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 (#1) in Bb major

  1. This time I get to see / hear Zimmerman (not blocked). I seem to remember that there was a time when the person at the keyboard conducted, and then someone thought of having an actual conductor, maybe as music got more complicated?

  2. This piece is mostly light and lively. I especially enjoyed the third movement which was very playful. I’m amazed that Beethoven began composing this at the age of 16.

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