Beethoven: The First Romantic Pianist

This article was published in the Musical Heritage Review, a booklet accompanying Musical Heritage Society’s Release 308 (Beethoven’s piano concertos) in 1983.  I wrote it while I was a student at Manhattan School of Music. 

Copyright © 1983 Musical Heritage Society

MHS Beethoven coverLudwig van Beethoven was the foremost piano virtuoso of his time, a virtuoso who captured the attention of the Viennese public like no other pianist before him, and like no pianist would until Franz Liszt.

Beethoven’s playing was so revolutionary that accounts of his improvisations are almost embarrassing in their superlative language with talk of audible gasps, weeping, and sobbing throughout the performance.  Beethoven generally was unimpressed with such profound emoting, and scolded his audience for letting their feeling take hold so easily.  He often would take advantage of their vulnerability by intentionally juxtaposing quiet, sensitive moments with startling passages of savage power that obliterated the preceding tranquil section.

So many surviving accounts of his playing tell of broken hammers and snapped strings as a result of his overwhelming power and intensity that we must assume that most of it is true, particularly in light of the rather fragile nature of the instruments when compared to the modern piano.

It is impossible to describe what a Beethoven improvisation was like, but the opening of the Choral Fantasy and several of the cadenzas that he wrote for his own concerti can serve as reasonable clues.  J. B. Cramer told his pupils that nobody could say  he had ever heard improvisation if he had not heard Beethoven.  Czerny said “apart from the beauty and originality of his ideas, and his ingenious manner of expressing them, there was something magical about his playing.”  To Ignaz von Seyfried they were “a cataract, elemental, a force of nature.”

In almost all writings about Beethoven’s improvisation, the term “fiery” is used.  Many stories abound, but to put it most succinctly, in the words of Harold C. Schoenberg, “In many things, Beethoven was ahead of his time, and so was his piano playing.  It had unprecedented power, personality, and emotional appeal.  In many respects he can be considered the first romantic pianist: the one who broke all of the laws in the name of expression; the one who thought orchestrally and achieved orchestral effects on the piano.”

As a pianist, Beethoven was largely self-taught.  As a child, his teachers were not professional pianists who would instill in him an extreme reverence for the instrument itself.  His principal teacher in Bonn was Christian Gottlob Neefe, the court organist, who as it tuned out, was to have more influence on Beethoven than any of his other teachers.  Neefe insisted that the study of harmony, counterpoint, and composition be combined with the study of the organ.  His chief textbook was the Well-Tempered Clavier by J. S. Bach.  Keeping in mind that Bach had been dead just over a quarter of a century when young Beethoven began his study with Neefe, it should be remembered that the study of Bach was by no means the staple of the piano teachers’ sources that it is today.

Beethoven’s early mastery of the 48 preludes and fugues in all of the keys explains in part his readiness to utilize keys and key relationships that were unfamiliar (or downright revolutionary) to the classical audience.  In addition he was a formidable sight reader and transposer.  In actuality, he was a true musician first, and a pianist second, although it was as a pianist that he gained an entrée into the musical life of Vienna.

In this milieu the stage is set for the composition of the piano concerti, which were essentially vehicles for Beethoven to use his already well-known abilities as virtuoso to stimulate interest in his compositions.  Taken as a whole the five concerti form an interesting stylistic asymmetry.  The first two exhibit the obvious influence of Haydn and Mozart, although it should never be suggested that Beethoven at any time–early, middle, or late–sounded like anything but Beethoven.  From his earliest works, his individuality was clearly evident.  However, the interest in the classical forms indicate his reluctance to make the complete break with convention.

It is by now a well-known fact that the Concerto in B-flat, published as Op. 19, actually was written before the Concerto in C major, Op. 15.  It was at the rehearsal of the B-flat Concerto that the famous story is told of Beethoven, suffering with colic, barely finishing the score in time, arriving a the rehearsal room to find the piano a half tone lower than the instruments.  Without any hesitation, Beethoven transposed his part into the correctly sounding key.

The Third Concerto in C minor stands alone in the symmetry, being much more individualistic than the two preceding ones, but not so prophetic and forward-looking as the last two.  While the same general forms were used in the C minor, they are laced with innovations, such as the use of the piano along with the orchestra following the cadenza in the first movement, and the unexpected key of E major for the slow movement.

Concerning this slow movement, a further query regarding Beethoven’s pianistic playing is raised by Czerny, who states that in 1803 (when Beethoven could still hear and was in practice) he held the sustain pedal through the entire slow movement of the C minor Concerto.  Schoenberg comments, “Granted that Beethoven was using a light Viennese piano, in which the sustaining tones dissipated quickly, this still sounds like an incredible statement.  Could Beethoven have forgotten his pianistic ABCs under the stress of public performance and left his foot on the pedal.  But we do know that he was lavish in the use of it, as witness his own pedal markings at the opening of the D minor Sonata (Op. 31, No. 2).  Czerny says that Beethoven used the pedal ‘far more than is indicated in his works.’ ”

In the last two concerti (No. 4 in G, Op. 58, and No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73) are forward-looking and firmly lay the foundation for the great tradition of the romantic piano concerti by Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms.  The music explores the limits of tonality as they were understood and the contrast of many contradictory keys is prominent.

In the second movement of the G major Concerto there occurs a dialogue between piano and orchestra made famous by Liszt’s fanciful description comparing it to Orpheus taming the beasts of the underworld.  Whether or not Beethoven had any literary inspiration is doubtful, although we are certain that Beethoven was well read, as evidenced by a request of his publishers for, in addition to music, complete editions fo Goethe and Schiller, adding that “these two poets are my favorites, as are also Ossian and Homer, though unfortunately I can read the latter only in translations.”  The interest of the romantics with literature as basis for musical thought is one of the identifying traits of the romantic era, and Beethoven clearly can be seen as working on the  threshold of this concept, particularly through his use of chorus in the Ninth Symphony.

Two of the most obvious characteristics of the last two piano concerti concern the elision of the slow movement with the last movement.  In the case of the G major, this is implied; in the E-flat it is written out clearly.  The gradual reducing of the strictures of the movement barriers also can be clearly chronicled in Beethoven’s works for other mediums as well.  The most curious and unique point in all of the concerti occurs with the cadenza at the end of the first movement of the E-flat Concerto where Beethoven has written following the orchestral fermata on the usual second inversion chord: “Do not play a cadenza, but immediately proceed to the following.”  What follows begins like a coda and gradually increases to a final glorified recapitulation for piano and orchestra.  It is curious to surmise what prompted Beethoven to include this innovation here, knowing of his own extraordinary talent as an improviser.

We also know that he encouraged his students to improvise or compose their own cadenzas, with only a few suggestions from him.  The whole purpose of a cadenza was to provide the soloist with an opportunity to show his prowess unhindered by the orchestra.  It was expected that the cadenzas would vary in style, quality, and virtuosity according to the player.  Its is to be assumed that Beethoven was aiming for the ultimate goal of creating a vehicle for expression that emphasized the wholeness of piano and orchestra, as opposed to soloist-virtuoso versus orchestra.  As Marx wrote in his biography of Beethoven: “It is the composer’s secret task to overcome the ‘difficulty’ of the concerto form in the form itself through importance of the content.  The difficulty is that the task–to treat one instrument and its performance as the main issue and the incomparably richer and more important orchestra as a mere auxiliary–is really an artistic anomaly.”


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