The five Beethoven piano concertos

WEDNESDAY, February 19, 2020

Beethoven wrote five concertos for piano…

Opus numbers are generally a good indication of the order in which he wrote compositions, but there are some problems.

  1. In some cases it is impossible to tell when he began composing each composition.
  2. He worked on several things at the same time.
  3. He took breaks.
  4. His music changed radically from his first sketches to his final versions.

Useful markers…

His symphonies are arguably more famous than any of the rest of his music, so using these nine symphonies as chronological markers is a good way of keeping track of how old he was when he began work on other music. I would suggest listening to the concertos and symphonies in pairs or groups of threes, because they are related that way.

The first piano concerto, Op. 18 (1787-1889), Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb…

Note that the first concerto written is marked as No. 2, and it has a later opus number than the second piano concerto, but it was written earlier, and much earlier than Op. 21, (1795), Symphony No. 1 in C major. This first concerto has fewer instruments – no trumpets or clarinets.

I would suggest listening to this first, before any symphonies, because it is an earlier work – and a very fine one.

The second piano concerto, Op. 15 (1795), Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 in C…

It’s pretty obvious that the second piano concerto came later than the first, and that’s why I renumber it mentally, It was started as early as 1795, and I’m marking when things were started, if we know, because that determines a lot of things such as style and orchestration. Both the opus number and the official number are wrong, but it’s too late to change them.

Basically it is good to link together the real second piano concerto, whose official number is No. 1, with the first symphony.

The second symphony – Op. 36 (1801-1802), Symphony No. 2 in D major – was written about two years before the third piano concerto, and to my ears there is a very big change in style, so I would put the second symphony stylistically somewhere between the second and third piano concertos. Because of the overlap, it’s always impossible to know for sure when Beethoven started each concerto or symphony. We only know for sure when his compositions were first performed and published. Often instinct and a knowledge of style are more accurate than opus numbers.

Try listening to the first symphony, then this concerto, then the second symphony. Both the first symphony and the second piano concerto are in C major, and officially they share the same number, No. 1. These three belong together in style and feel.

Op. 37 (1801-1802), Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor…

The third symphony – Op. 55, (1803-1804), Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major – shares a newer style and increased emotional expression with the third piano concerto. The opus number is much higher, but most likely this is highly misleading because the timeline for creation only differs by a couple years, and there may be an overlap that we don’t know about. For me the number three is powerfully linked between both, not because of the number, but because of the feeling. Also, C minor and Eb major are related and share the same key signature, three flats.

Try listening to the these two together, both officially and chronologically number three. Remember “three and three”, relative major and minor.

Op. 58 (1806-1808), Piano Concerto No. 4 in G…

This is where it starts getting very difficult, and very confusing. The fourth symphony – Op. 60, (1806),  Symphony No. 4 in B♭ major – is in my mind a lighter and less serious symphony, true also of the eighth symphony. The fourth piano concerto, in contrast, is in all ways one of the most amazing things ever written, light and airy in places, but as serious as a heart attack in others – for instance in the 2nd movement – and is unique in a whole number of ways. It was premiered in a massive program that included both the fifth and sixth symphonies, and in all ways I would link it to the sixth symphony – Op. 67 (1804-1808), Symphony No. 5 in C minor – and Op. 68( 1808), Symphony No. 6 in F major.

Try listening to all four together, perhaps  in this order: The fourth symphony, the fourth concerto, then the fifth and sixth symphonies.

Op. 73 (1809–11), Piano Concerto No. 5 in E♭…

The last piano concerto came a bit before the seventh symphony – Op. 92 (1811-1812), Symphony No. 7 in A major. It’s not a bad idea to link these two together, although the fifth concerto came a bit later. Note that the eighth symphony – Op. 93 (1812), Symphony No. 8 in F major – was composed so closely together with the seventh symphony that it is quite possible he was working on both symphonies at the same time.

Try listening to the fifth (and last) piano concerto, then the seventh symphony.

Now the last two symphonies…

The final symphony – Op. 125 (1822-1824), Symphony No. 9 in D minor – came much later, and we all know the story. Beethoven could not hear the applause at the premiere. This came after his last piano sonata, Op. 111, and the last symphony was in all ways a final large statement because he died in 1827.

Try listening to the last two symphonies starting with the eighth – because it is a bit shorter and lighter – then move to the last, and arguably the greatest symphony ever written, the ninth.

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