Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, bassoon; 2 horns; strings; percussion
Performance time: 28 minutes
Down through the generations, the popular conception of Beethoven has almost become a caricature of the brooding, obsessive artist. In fact, we may owe this image as much to a modern-day comic strip as to anything else: Charles Schultz’s Schroeder, the child prodigy with the striped tee-shirt and glassy stare, oblivious of the world and its social conventions, hunched over his tiny piano channeling Beethoven — always Beethoven.
Schultz's wonderful conception of the laser-focused Schroeder is based at least in part on our time-honored notions about the grumpy composer who supposedly couldn't be bothered with niceties such as personal grooming or good manners. In recent years, musicologists have been pushing back a bit against these clichés; after all, during Beethoven's lifetime, musicians were dependent even more than other artists upon the patronage of aristocrats and politicos. Social grace and flattery were orders of the day when seeking their favors, and Beethoven had his share of well-connected patrons and pupils. In Mozart's letters to his father, we can see how he chafed under this burden, and we can be sure that Beethoven did not simply ignore it.
But neither did he take it in stride, and the real Beethoven seems to have had something of the ill-tempered and ill-groomed egotist in him — enough to inspire Goethe to some shocking humor when he described their meeting to friends. The myth puts distance between us and the real Beethoven, but the music brings us closer to him, especially the piano music. By the time he was in his late twenties, Beethoven was already gaining a wide reputation among cognoscenti as a virtuoso pianist and improviser. His five great piano concertos take us from this early period of composition, when he most clearly showed the influences of Mozart and Haydn and gained mastery of classical forms, through the late middle period, when he stretched forms and grappled with philosophical themes and historic ideas. The piano continued to be a touchstone of Beethoven’s musical thought throughout his life. His late piano sonatas stand among his boldest and most experimental works.
Even with a scorecard, the chronology of Beethoven’s compositions is difficult to follow. With the piano concertos, as with the romances for violin, he wrote No. 2 earlier than No. 1, though even the opus numbers don’t clarify this fact. Music historians tell us that Beethoven was sketching musical ideas for his concertos while he was still in his teens, and that the first version of his Piano Concerto No. 2 dates from 1795, when he was 25, though he did not finalize it until 1798. It was published three years later.
What to Listen For
Many listeners take the dates of Beethoven's piano concertos as guideposts to navigate the composer's stylistic periods, which are generally divided into early, middle and late; they identify his Piano Concerto No. 2 as the earliest of the early concertos, the most reminiscent of Mozart and Haydn. But the delay also reflects the seriousness of his intent regarding the concerto form. In his first three piano concertos, but especially in Nos. 1 and 2, we hear Beethoven strongly influenced by Mozart and Haydn, but with Beethoven’s flair for the elemental, dramatic statement already in evidence.
Beautiful? Yes, and it met with immediate success after its premiere in 1795. Yet Beethoven expressed dissatisfaction with it, noting that it did not represent his best work. He submitted it for publication only with reluctance. Part of its success was surely as a showcase for Beethoven’s impressive technique (he was soloist at the premiere). From the first movement’s triumphant opening statement, the concerto requires dazzling fingerwork in both hands. For the first movement cadenza — an unaccompanied passage that was often improvised in the classical era — most pianists choose the very challenging, almost fugal version that Beethoven wrote much later, in 1809. This is followed by a slow (adagio) movement of great tenderness, Listeners who think they don’t know this concerto may experience a jolt of recognition as soon as the joyful third movement begins, a romp that is melodic and playful. Even during its occasional modulations into minor, it never loses its sunny disposition.