1795: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 (#2) in C major

SUNDAY, November 8, 2020 – 9:21 AM

Piano Concerto No. 1 (#2), age 34

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is actually the 2nd concerto he wrote. It was written in 1795, then revised in 1800.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, was published in 1801 but sketches of the finale were found to be from 1795, and since the “first symphony” was really the 2nd – it was written a bit later – it is probably useful to link Symphony No. 1 with Concerto No. 1.


  • flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani
  • strings

The clarinet part is prominent in the 2nd movement.

Krystian Zimerman…

He’s also conducting, which I always find impressive. His playing always seems rock solid. He almost never makes mistakes in public. He is using the standard cadenza in the 1st movement.

1st movement

There is the typical orchestral intro, then the piano comes in. It’s standard sonata form, so there are no big surprises in the form. The sound is much more typical for Beethoven than his first concerto, marked as #2 but composed earlier. The most striking thing is the cadenza, because at the time this was written it was still common for people to improvise their own. Beethoven later standardized his own cadenza, but others often write their own right up until today. By the 3rd concerto that changed. Beethoven wrote his cadenza, and everyone plays that because any other is simply inferior.

It’s easy to miss the fact that this is a very long movement, and in fact if Beethoven had made the 2nd and 3rd movements equally long this concerto would be around 60 minutes long. It would seem that the 1st movement is too long and overbalances the rest of the concerto, but this is clearly not so.

Two other cadenzas

Glenn Gould

He is known most of all for his Bach performances. This is from very close to the start of the stereo age, 1958. I’m setting the time for the cadenza which is wild and very controversial. By all means roll it back to the beginning if you like this. It is also very fast, maybe too fast, but the whole performance is unique and therefore fascinating.

Wilhelm Kempff

German pianist Wilhelm Kempff wrote his own cadenzas for both the first and last movements and played these in his various recordings of the work. I’m also setting this recording to start at the cadenza, but roll it back if you like it. The point is that when you get to the cadenzas, it’s like hearing three different pieces of music, all using the same themes.

2nd movement

The second movement is in Ab major. Sources say that this key is “remote”, but this is absolutely ridiculous. Ab major to C major, using those chords, is a double morph, meaning that Ab goes down to G and Eb goes up to E natural. Beethoven was not the first to use such chromatic movements, and they are extremely logical and effective. Moving from C major to F# major would be a remote modulation, but not from C major to Ab major. The thing about Beethoven’s slow movements is that often they are extremely slow, meaning there is nothing light about them, or superficial. Even when they are in major, they have weight, and they stop time. His themes are not as good as Mozart’s or Haydn’s, but you don’t notice because of what he does with those themes. They tend to be more harmonic than melodic, meaning that it’s the structure rather than the individual lines that are most striking. The other thing is that in the middle of this major feel there is almost always some important move to minor, for drama and contrast

3rd movement

Rondos were popular for last movements, and they are catchy for listeners because there is always a theme that keeps coming back. Never forget that Für Elise is a rondo, and that’s why beginning players love it. Once they get the theme learned, they get to play it again and again. Beethoven was a master at contrast and building both tension and great endings, so after the very long and powerful 1st movement and the slow, thoughtful 2nd one this 3rd movement is a perfect contrast and completely satisfies most listeners. Perhaps no other composer was so successful at expressing his own personal world while connecting with his audiences.

He had just turned 25…

The first performance took place on 18 December 1795, which is quite interesting because his birthday was the 17th of December, so he was almost exactly 25 years old at the time.

It took six more years to be published…

It was first published in 1801 in Vienna with dedication to his pupil Princess Anna Louise Barbara Odescalchi.

There was another concerto, but it was never published…

There was an unpublished piano concerto in E-flat major of 1784. I have never heard this concerto, but if it had survived, the original conception would have dated back to when Beethoven was only 13 years old.



7 thoughts on “1795: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 (#2) in C major

  1. It always fascinates me how composers in the romantic period managed to compose probably the most recognizable pieces in the world today on almost every instrument and the ones they didn’t even play . Beethoven one of my favorite examples of this.

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