The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 1

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795)

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born December 16, 1770 in Bonn.

Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna.


"His genius, his magnetic personality were acknowledged by all, and there was, besides, a gaiety and animation about the young Beethoven that people found immensely attractive. The troubles of boyhood were behind him: his father had died very shortly after his departure from Bonn, and by 1795 his brothers were established in Vienna, Caspar Karl as a musician, Johann as an apothecary. During his first few months in the capital, he had indeed been desperately poor, depending very largely on the small salary allowed him by the Elector of Bonn. But that was all over now. He had no responsibilities, and his music was bringing in enough to keep him in something like affluence. He had a servant, for a short time he even had a horse; he bought smart clothes, he learned to dance (though not with much success), and there is even mention of his wearing a wig! We must not allow our picture of the later Beethoven to throw its dark colors over these years of his early triumphs. He was a young giant exulting in his strength and his success, and a youthful confidence gave him a buoyancy that was both attractive and infectious. Even in 1791, before he left Bonn, Carl Junker could describe him as ‘this amiable, lighthearted man.' And in Vienna he had much to raise his spirits and nothing (at first) to depress them."

Peter Latham painted this cheerful picture of the young Beethoven as Vienna knew him during his twenties, the years before his deafness, his recurring illnesses and his titanic struggles with his mature compositions had produced the familiar, dour figure of his later years. Beethoven came to Vienna for good in 1792, having made an unsuccessful foray in 1787, and he quickly attracted attention for his piano playing, at which he bested such local keyboard luminaries as Daniel Steibelt and Joseph Wölffl to become the rage of the music-mad Austrian capital. His appeal was in an almost untamed, passionate, novel quality in both his manner of performance and his personality, characteristics that first intrigued and then captivated those who heard him. Václav Tomášek, an important Czech composer who heard Beethoven play the C major Concerto in Prague in 1798, wrote, "His grand style of playing had an extraordinary effect on me. I felt so shaken that for several days I could not bring myself to touch the piano."

Beethoven, largely self-taught as a pianist, did not follow in the model of sparkling technical perfection for which Mozart, who died only a few months before Beethoven's arrival, was well remembered in Vienna. He was vastly more impetuous and less precise at the keyboard, as Harold Schonberg described him in his fascinating study of The Great Pianists: "[His playing] was overwhelming not so much because Beethoven was a great virtuoso (which he probably wasn't), but because he had an ocean-like surge and depth that made all other playing sound like the trickle of a rivulet.... No piano was safe with Beethoven. There is plenty of evidence that Beethoven was a most lively figure at the keyboard, just as he was on the podium.... Czerny, who hailed Beethoven's ‘titanic execution,' apologizes for his messiness [i.e., snapping strings and breaking hammers] by saying that he demanded too much from the pianos then being made. Which is very true; and which is also a polite way of saying that Beethoven banged the hell out of the piano."

Beethoven composed the first four of his five mature piano concertos for his own concerts. (Two juvenile essays in the genre are discounted in the numbering.) Both the Concerto No. 1 in C major and the Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major were composed in 1795, the Second probably premiered at the Burgtheater on March 29th and the First at a concert under Joseph Haydn's direction on December 18th; both works were revised before their publication in 1801. Beethoven's C major Concerto sprang from the rich Viennese musical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, with which he was intimately acquainted: he had taken some composition lessons with Haydn soon after his arrival, and he had profound affection for and knowledge of Mozart's work. At a performance of Mozart's C minor Piano Concerto (K. 491), he whispered to his companion, John Cramer, "Cramer, Cramer! We shall never be able to do anything like that!"

The opening movement of the First Piano Concerto is indebted to Mozart for its handling of the concerto-sonata form, for its technique of orchestration, and for the manner in which piano and orchestra are integrated. Beethoven added to these quintessential qualities of the Classical concerto a wider-ranging harmony, a more openly virtuosic role for the soloist, and a certain emotional weight characteristic of his large works. The second movement is a richly colored song with an important part for the solo clarinet. The rondo-finale is written in an infectious manner reminiscent of Haydn, brimming with high spirits and good humor.