The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard Freed

Beethoven composed his Concerto in G major in 1805-06, and performed it in a private concert at Prince Lobkowitz's residence in Vienna before giving the public premiere at the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808. Guiomar Novaes was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, with Hans Kindler conducting, on November 4, 1936; in the most recent ones, on February 1, 2, and 3, 2001, Radu Lupu was the pianist and Alan Gilbert conducted.

In addition to the solo piano, the score, dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, calls for a flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration, 34 minutes.

The G major Concerto was the last such work Beethoven composed for his own use. The public premiere was part of the famous concert in which he made his last appearance as soloist with an orchestra, both in this concerto and in the newly composed Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra (Op. 80). Among the other works that were given their premieres that evening were the Fifth and Sixth symphonies (whose numbers were reversed on that occasion); also performed were the concert aria Ah! Perfido, two sections of the Mass in C major, the Fantasia in G major for piano alone, and still other earlier works. Rehearsal for that long program was inadequate, as on all such occasions, and Beethoven managed to antagonize the orchestra. At the concert itself everyone on stage and in the audience complained about the cold; there were "incidents" all through the evening, and the final work, the unusual Choral Fantasy in which Beethoven made his valedictory appearance as a soloist, was a shambles. The visiting composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who sat with Prince Lobkowitz in his box for the four hours and more required for that exhausting program, left a detailed report in which he noted that Beethoven realized almost nothing from the concert in the way of financial return.

According to Reichardt, the audience did not care for much of the new music. The Fourth Concerto made an especially weak impression, and in fact was almost totally ignored until after Beethoven's death. While both the ill-prepared performance and the general discomfort in the unheated hall during that long concert probably worked against all the music heard that evening, the Concerto's innovative break with the traditional concerto format and content must have been a stronger negative factor. In this score the display element is largely displaced by depth of content, just as assertive gestures are replaced by an unforced intimacy and lyricism. The innovative features of the work's construction are of secondary performance, as they were determined in large part by the poetic, seemingly improvisatory nature of the material.

The prodigiously active young Felix Mendelssohn, who performed similar rescue service for various other neglected masterworks, rescued the G-major Concerto from its undeserved oblivion and established it in its rightful place when he performed it in Leipzig in 1836. The 26-year-old Robert Schumann, who was present, reported being so transfixed by the work that "I sat in my place without moving a muscle or even breathing." (Three years later Schumann himself discovered the score of Schubert's big Symphony in C major and gave it to Mendelssohn, who gave the belated premiere in Leipzig, and in 1844 Mendelssohn played a part in establishing Beethoven's Violin Concerto in the repertory, when he conducted that work in London with his twelve-year-old protégé Joseph Joachim as soloist.)

If brilliance is the keynote of Beethoven's three earlier piano concertos, and grandeur in the last (the "Emperor"), in this one, we might say, the keynote is serenity. The intimate character that is to prevail throughout the work makes itself felt in the very opening, stated by the piano alone in a mood of serene, contemplative self-confidence. The gesture is just long enough to announce that this is to be a different sort of concerto, with a conspicuously less "public" character than audiences were accustomed to in 1806 -- and from Beethoven's own earlier concertos in particular. The orchestra enters reservedly at first, and once the tutti swells to its peak the piano is gracefully acknowledged as the dominant partner. Only once in the entire opening movement does the piano assert its authority by raising its voice, however (when it imperiously reiterates the principal theme to initiate the recapitulation), and almost at once this fortissimo dissolves to piano, dolce.

Unison strings, gruff and restless, open the slow movement, to be met with a flowing and calming response on the part of the soloist. This contrast is to characterize the dialogue until the movement's final pages, in an exchange carried on in shadows and half-light, on the level of chamber music, the piano gently entreating, the orchestra remaining stern and obdurate. Franz Liszt likened the soloist's role here to the legend of Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre, and eventually the piano's calm lyricism does prevail. Only at the very end of the movement, its conciliatory task accomplished, is the piano heard without the soft pedal, and only after its long exhalation in the form of a sustained trill do the strings abandon their restrictive unison mold for a poignant but restrained closing statement more in line with the lyric quality of the preceding movement.

That quality returns, with an abundance of energy, in the concluding rondo. The theme is stated briefly by the strings, quietly but with a hint of mischief, and then is taken up in sparkling fashion by the piano, which also introduces the sparkling second theme. High spirits are stressed here in terms of wit rather than boisterousness. Although the brief coda exudes an exhilarating rumbustiousness, Beethoven shows his power more in the way of subtle suggestions of limitless resources judiciously held in reserve than through overt display.

This concerto is one of the several major works Beethoven dedicated to his friend, pupil, and patron the Archduke Rudolph. Among the others are the Missa solemnis (composed to celebrate Rudolph's installation as Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820), the Fifth Concerto, two of the late piano sonatas, and one from the middle period with a program about Rudolph (the one in E-flat, Op. 81a, called Les Adieux, or, in greater detail, Das Lebewohl, Abwesenheit und Wiedersehn), and of course the splendid Piano Trio in B-flat, Op. 97, which is known by the sobriquet "Archduke."