Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

Everything you need to know about Beethoven's piano concertos

Of Beethoven's five piano concertos, the "Emperor" stands out in particular. Triumphant, belligerent yet subtle, it is the most accomplished. However, the fact remains that the 4 previous concertos each have their own character and demonstrate a clear evolution from Classicism towards Romanticism.

Shortly after having moved to Vienna in the 1790s, Ludwig van Beethoven began quickly making a name for himself. Before establishing his reputation as a composer however, he was primarily known as a virtuoso pianist. His first concertos were composed precisely in order to showcase his talent and the ease with which he could perform such works.

"He established himself as the first true pianist of his time , even to the ears of those familiar with Mozart. », Jean Massin (Histoire de la Musique Occidentale).

It is therefore far from a coincidence that five of Beethoven's seven concertos were written for the piano. Furthermore, Beethoven himself was at the piano for every first performance, except for his final concerto: having lost almost entirely his hearing, he feared making mistakes and playing too many wrong notes. His student Carl Czerny was therefore asked to take the composer's place. However, Beethoven was adament that one follow his music to the letter (or rather, to the note): he even composed his own cadenzas in case other pianists dared to perform their own.

Concerto no.1: In the Classical style

The Concerto no.1 in C major is in reality Beethoven's second concerto. Composed between 1795 and 1796, alongside the Concerto in B flat major (the current no.2), it was only completed in 1798 following numerous revisions, and first performed in 1800, five years after the "second" concerto.

In its final version, the work struggled to set itself apart from the music of contemporaries such as Haydn and Mozart. Despite its classical form, its tender and playful spirit, and a richer instrumental ensemble than Mozart (adding clarinets, trumpets and timpani), his influence is nonetheless felt throughout the concerto.

At the time, Beethoven regularly gave piano lessons to various young women of noble descent. Amongst his various  pupils was the young princess Odeschali, born Barbara de Keglevics. The precise nature of their relationship sparked numerous rumours, given that the composer dedicated no less than fours works to the princess, including the Concerto no.1 for piano. Though there was no indication of a romantic attachment, the two were neighbours and Beethoven would allegedly often come to give his lessons in a dressing gown and slippers! (Michel Lecompte, La Musique Symphonique de Beethoven).

Concerto no.2: Mozart is never far away...

Composed in 1795 and premiered that same year, this concerto is in reality Beethoven's first work of the genre (if one ignores the various sketches during his youth). Unconvincing and "unloved", it is today the least-performed of Beethoven's five piano concertos (François-René Tranchefort). Beethoven himself was scathing about his own creation when he wrote to his editor: "this concerto I only value at 10 ducats, because, as I have already written, I do not give it out as one of my best".

Michel Lecompte notes that it is «the least Beethovenien" and "the most Mozartian of Beethoven's concertos". Its key of B flat major and its orchestration are indeed reminiscent of the Austrian composer's final piano concerto, no.27. Furthermore, the characteristic irregularity of Mozart's first movement is also found in the first movement of Beethoven's work. Finally, the orchestral and solo expositions also differ, as in Mozart's concerto.

Concerto no.3: The first steps towards Romanticism

The Concerto for piano no.3 marked a radical change for the composer. Firstly, it is the only one written in a minor key: c minor, a personal favourite for the composer. A somber and tormented key, it is also found in the Sonate pathétique (1799), the Coriolan overture (1807) and the Symphony no.5 (1808).

Again, Beethoven includes a reference to the music of Mozart, though it is now used to distance himself from the Austrian composer: "His passionate pathos [...] is inspired by the "demonic" tone of Mozart's Concerto in d minor. However, nowhere more than here is the essential difference between the two musical personalities made perfectly clear. Beethoven is not another Mozart." (Beethoven : les Concertos pour piano, Harry Goldschmidt).

The distinction is indeed clear: the structure of the first movement is regular and the second movement creates a sharp distinction through its use of the bright tonality of E major. In contrast with his first works, Beethoven no longer sought to please the listener but rather to dramatise the musical discourse (Christian Wasselin). Composers of the Romantic period, Liszt primarily, were seduced by the work, drawing inspiration from it for their own works.

Interestingly, it is said that Beethoven did not have enough time to finalise his Concerto before its first performance on 5 April 1803 in Vienna. So little time in fact that he allegedly walked on stage with a half-empty score! Somewhat thrown off, Beethoven's page-turner Ignaz von Seyfried later recalled: "I could see nothing but blank pages, or at most, here and there a few completely incomprehensible Egyptian hieroglyphics [...]; he played the entire main section almost from memory".

Le compositeur allemand Ludwig van Beethoven
Le compositeur allemand Ludwig van Beethoven © Getty  /  Three Lions / Collection Hulton Archive

Concerto no.4: Honest dialogue

More supple, free, and lyrical, the Concerto for piano no.4 in G major has since come to be regarded as one of Beethoven's greatest concertos. "I now want to compose as I improvise", he once declared to the composer Antonin Reicha (Gérard Condé). Started in 1805, the work comes from a period of intense musical creativity, composed alongside the Concerto for violin, the Appassionata Sonata and the Léonore overture.  

From its very first notes, the Concerto for piano no.4  catches the audience's attention. The soloist opens the work for only five delicate bars, contrary to the tradition where the soloist's entrance is firstly prepared by the orchestra. This idea had already been used once by Mozart in his Concerto for piano no.9, "Jeunehomme", though put aside for the following 18 concertos.

Similar to the Concerto no.3, the orchestra is no longer reduced to the role of simple accompanist, its relationship with soloist finally carefully balanced: the two confront one another, and engage in an expressive dialogue. The road to the romantic concerto was now well and truly cleared.

Concerto no.5: "Emperor" or "Anti-Emperor"?

Beethoven's final piano concerto was born under the constant bombardment of an incoming invasion. At the time of its composition in 1809, Vienna was attacked and occupied by Napoleonic forces. Perceived before his coronnation in 1804 as a hero liberator whose glory was sung in the "Heroic" Symphony no.3, Napoleon was now a usurper, a traitor to the revolutionary ideals (Harry Goldschmidt). Profoundly disappointed, Beethoven allegedly declared: "It is a pity I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music. I would conquer him!"

The Concerto no.5 was named the "Emperor" following the death of Beethoven. To the eyes of its composer, however, it was the "Great Concerto". From its opening, it demonstrates an aggressive, frank, and affirmed tone. The composer himself added a series of bellicose annotations in the sketches of the work ("victory", combat", "attack"...).

This dazzling aspect is consolidated by the bright tonality of E flat major (similar to Heroic Symphony), and its imposing first movement, almost twenty minutes in length. First performed on 28 November 1811, the concerto was ultimately deemed a success, even if the public at the time considered it too complex. Following the Emperor, Beethoven began work on a sixth concerto, but unfortunately this work remained unfinished.