Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4
Notes by TŌN horn player Steven Harmon
The composition of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in late 1805 lies between a string of some of his most extraordinary works. This concerto was written off the back of the Eroica Symphony, three piano sonatas, and the Triple Concerto. By 1808, Beethoven finished his Violin Concerto, the Razumovsky string quartets, and his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. This is also the period where his deafness began to seriously impact his performance career, his solo on the Fourth Piano Concerto in the famous 1808 concert at the Theater an der Wien being his last public solo performance. An impressive event to go out on, though. In addition to this concerto, the all-Beethoven, four-hour marathon included the premieres of his Symphonies 5 and 6, as well as of the Choral Fantasy, the Vienna premieres of three movements from the C-major Mass and the concert scena “Ah, Perfido!”, and a solo keyboard improvisation by the composer.
Novelty in Adversity
Beethoven’s growing deafness didn’t stop his creativity, however. The Fourth Piano Concerto employs multiple innovations which, in true Beethovean manner, would pave the way for the later composers of the 19th century and beyond. The opening of the piece, for example, might not be striking at all to a listener today. But a concerto opened by the soloist alone, playing a relatively soft, simple tune, would have never before been heard by a Viennese audience. This opening would have baffled the crowd at the time, leaving them wondering if this was the right piece, the right movement, or maybe even a musical joke. Before this piece, a concerto might have been defined by an extended orchestral opening section which laid out all the material and the main keys of the work to follow. Not to Beethoven, though—and he was just beginning to throw curve balls. A few bars later, when the strings pick up the melody, it’s in a completely unexpected key, a third higher. This novel, yet pleasant shift, would go on to define the sounds of Schumann, Brahms, and Mendelssohn in the century to come.
Subversive Compositional Decisions
The middle movement contains more subversive compositional decisions, the first of which being to only involve the strings in the dialogue. Musicologist Owen Jander proposed that Beethoven wrote this movement inspired by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, depicting the exalted Greek musician Orpheus pleading with the Furies to allow him to pass to the netherworld, then ascending almost to the surface of the upper world before Orpheus sneaks one gaze back at Eurydice, sealing her fate in the underworld. This short movement transitions to a much more uplifting one, where Beethoven’s tricks are more surprising harmonic and thematic changes. Using just a few motifs, he weaves an elaborate exhibition of piano virtuosity.