Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto number 4 in G major, Opus 58
Musicians learn pieces of music according to formulae. In music there has to be a pattern. If that can be found, then you have the key to playing a score; one that will also assist in technical mastery. Folk musicians will listen to a tune and then tell each other, for instance, that the first element is followed by the second repeated twice, then another and then the opening; using a classical formula they might say ‘so the melody is ABBCA’. Beethoven builds his giant structures on similar foundations. A classical sonata movement lays out its stall in a predictable way. It has a theme, A, followed by a second theme in another key, B, as an exposition; this is repeated and then developed, in a separate section, and then repeated again but with the B theme back in the home key: AB1AB1CAB2. A rondo is a chorus with verses that vary the music in between: ABACADAEA. Mozart and Haydn slow movements often follow the pattern of a slow rondo; a melody, a digression, the melody again in shortened form, another digression and then the full melody.
The first mention of the piano concerto in G major is in a letter from the composer to the publishers Breitkopf and Hartel, dated Vienna, July 6th 1806. It offers for sale a new concerto together with an arrangement of the Leonore overture for piano, the first Rasumovsky Quartet and the oratorio ‘Christ on the Mount of Olives’. Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto was written in 1805: the same year as the Triple Concerto and the first version of Fidelio, during a time therefore when he must have been thinking deeply on the relationship of melody to dramatic expression. You might argue two influences from this appear in the concerto: strong lyrical lines and the way in which the music follows its own way, as in a drama, unbound by the structures of classical form. Certainly, this is the most lyrical and the least predictable of Beethoven’s piano concertos. Yet, there is also form. But one built around a structure so difficult to master that Beethoven was forced, against his better judgment and despite increasing deafness, to play the first performances himself. No other pianist could tackle it. It was premiered in a private concert in March 1807. For a public performance the following year Beethoven did not want to play it, so he asked Ferdinand Ries. Given only five days to learn the score, and to play it from the music as was then the custom, Ries declined the task as impossible and offered to play the C minor concerto instead. Ries records:
Beethoven in a rage went to young Stein who was unwise enough to accept the offer; but as he could not prepare the concerto in time, he begged Beethoven, on the day before the concert… to [let him] play the C minor concerto. Beethoven had to acquiesce. Whether the fault was the theatre’s, the orchestra’s, or the player’s… the concerto made no effect. Beethoven was very angry.
He might have been more understanding. There were reasons why the G major concerto was, and is, more difficult to master than any of the others. Beethoven was forced to take the solo part in this concerto at a massive concert of his works that was celebrated in Vienna on the 22nd of December 1808. A contemporary listener described “a new forte-piano concerto of monstrous difficulty, which Beethoven played astonishingly well at the fastest possible tempos”.
Beethoven returned to classical formulae even at the end of his life, provided a structure suited his inspiration. The first and last of his five late quartets follow some aspect of classical models, as do sections of the Ninth Symphony and the piano sonatas opus 109 and 110. When he had first decided to depart from the models of Mozart and Haydn with the two piano sonatas opus 27 of 1801, he had announced this by calling each of them a ‘sonata quasi una fantasia’. There was a precedent for the title because Mozart’s C minor fantasia and sonata had been published together and called something similar. In his previous concertos, Beethoven had woven his material onto the form of his predecessors, even evoking their spirit. One can find parallels in the B flat concerto to those composed by Haydn and, similarly, the C major and the C minor concertos somewhat resemble the shape of those in the same key, numbers 25 and 24, by Mozart. The concerto in G is much different. It is completely original in the degree to which the soloist leads the orchestra to digress from the pattern of organisation that makes existing concerto forms readily penetrable. Donald Tovey made this comment:
The composer’s main difficulty in the classical concerto is concentrated in the opening tutti and solo exposition of the first movement. Beethoven recognised the errors in his first three concerti. The obvious stroke of genius by which the piano opens the G major concerto and gives the orchestra occasion to enter in a foreign key is not more wonderful than the art with which the sequel retains and enhances the processional character of the classical tutti; avoiding alike the dangerous symphonic action in which the [Third] C minor concerto threatens to make the [solo pianist] an intruder, and the no less dangerous discursiveness which in the [First and Second] concerti leaves the [orchestral] tutti at a loose end with matter more improvisational than that of the solo.
Shape is part of the structure of music. One expects the repeat with the piano of the orchestral exposition to be the same length: two equal parts before the development starts. Here, the soloist enters after seventy-one bars but the development begins one hundred and twenty-one bars later. It is easy to find the reason. Almost everything Beethoven wrote was more than a melody. His music is made up of extraordinary thoughts that both take time forward, through the compass of what they say, and influence the form of entire works in substitution of classical structure. Everything develops. It is almost never repeated as it was before. Improvisation on the ideas locked within a melody dominates the direction of his music and casts the light of that experience backwards on his material. By revealing what a musical idea can become, it takes on a new beauty. In the most extreme examples extraordinary things can be drawn from the almost commonplace, as in the Diabelli Variations.
Josef Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Piano Concerto in D major Hob XVIII:11
This piece is a perfect contrast to the Beethoven. It is almost exactly half the length, in terms of both bars and duration. In form, the classical model is obvious and not submerged by waves of improvisation and the continual development of the themes. We move through many feelings and we also dance and sing. But everything is held in check. Where, as in the slow movement, an extended melody emerges, it is disciplined by the five-measure triplet motive that marks its progress. This music draws us into a state of exultation, although it is an emotional state confined by variation form when the song line returns after an episode in E minor. The concerto is full of feeling confined by classical form, expressed within the walls of what we might imagine to be a castle where order and certainty reign. When it is announced that we are to move out for the final rondo on to the grounds, we do indeed meet the people. There they are, in the form of Hungarian and Croatian folk musicians. The first group play gypsy music. The rondo theme belongs to them and returns three times: the first and last in full form and for the middle bit as just a hint. For the second episode we get the Siri Kolo from the Croatians. However, it is only for a savage instant. After all, in the presence of the masters they must restrain themselves from the wildness that is the mark of true folk music. For the first movement we get a true sonata form. There are three groups of themes: a climbing third, a minor progression and a syncopated descent. Just as in the slow movement there are episodes of deep emotion, there are such movements here as well such as the piano briefly touching B minor in the development. In terms of the inner voice of this music, these key colours are different to the Beethoven. It is as if Haydn’s pupil Beethoven had no point of reference and had to carry an emotion to its inner source in order to deal with it. Here, certainty of faith, or social organization, or purity of form, order our thoughts in sublime taste.
This is the most popular of Haydn’s concertos. In his lifetime it was published twice officially and once unofficially. He is not known as a concerto composer. His extraordinary inventiveness of form is coupled with depths of soul that need contemplation to pass into their secrets. This is more apparent in his piano sonatas. There is no manuscript for the work. It probably dates from about 1780. The orchestration is for strings with oboes and horns. For the slow movement the strings accompany the piano aria alone. There are no authentic cadenzas but there are several sets from the time that testify to the piece being a big hit. Here Fou Ts’ong uses cadenzas attributed to Haydn, and adapted by the pianist, that were published in the Peters edition of the score.
© Peter Charleton Dec, 2004