Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 Op 58

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major Op. 58
Allegro moderato
Andante con moto
Rondo – Vivace

Archduke Rudolph

Archduke Rudolph

The Fourth Piano Concerto, dedicated Beethoven’s friend, student, and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, is introverted and thoughtful; a contrast to the Fifth, which is brash and heroic. Even now, the Fourth Concerto remains firmly in the shadow of its younger, more outgoing sibling. The showy display expected of virtuoso pianists is nowhere to be found as depth of content takes precedence along with unforced intimacy and lyricism. In many places, the thematic material seems improvisatory and poetic.

The difference is noticeable immediately at the beginning of the first movement. Traditionally, the orchestra outlines the initial thematic material and the soloist enters after a lengthy wait. In this case, the piano begins with material that sounds as if it is being made up on the spot before the orchestra gently takes over and develops it. In the second movement, the calm piano line is the counterfoil to the gruff and restless strings.

Franz Liszt likened the soloist’s role to the legend of Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre. Eventually, the piano’s serenity does prevail only to be overtaken by an energetic final-movement rondo. Wit rather than boisterousness is the name of the game although the brief coda does manage to break free and bring the piece to a rambunctious close.

Beethoven gave the premiere performance in a private concert at the palace of his patron Prince Lobkowitz in March of 1807. Acutely aware of his seriously diminished hearing, Beethoven scoured Vienna for a replacement to premiere the work in public. The first pianist he contacted said the piece was too difficult to learn quickly. The next soloist agreed to perform it but then, at the last minute, played another of Beethoven’s concertos. The composer was furious and despite his auditory difficulties, he took matters into his own hands and added the piece, with himself as soloist, to an already mammoth concert on 22 December, 1808.

The concert was put on at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna with his Fifth and Sixth symphonies and the Choral Fantasy being premiered along with the Concerto and some movements from the Mass in C major.

The ambitious concert ended up being a comedy of errors lasting over four hours. Even though the concert took place in the dead of winter, the hall was unheated and Beethoven’s difficult personality meant that the orchestra was fatally under rehearsed. The final piece on the programme, the Choral Fantasy, was acknowledged by all present to be a terrible mess. Predictably, the Concerto and most of the other premieres received lukewarm appreciation for the audience.

Op. 58 languished into obscurity until it was rescued by Felix Mendelssohn in 1836. A young Robert Schumann heard this performance and was so transfixed that he later reported, “I sat in my place without moving a muscle or even breathing.” Patrons at the premiere concert likely would have said the same thing although their reaction would more likely have been caused by hypothermia than musical ecstasy.

6 comments

  1. I think it’s interesting that you mentioned the word introverted to describe The Fourth Piano Concerto. I agree, and it’s something I’ve often mentioned to my friends, who are also into music. I’ve actually never really heard (well, at least online), someone else describe it in this fashion, so I’m happy I’m not alone in thinking this. I myself at times can be quite introverted (which is not the same as shy, in case anyone was curious, haha), so I think I relate to this quite a bit more than the next avid music lover. At the end of the day, I guess it just speaks to me more.

    Really loving your blog, by the way. I’m trying to dig my way through all the great stuff that’s been posted here throughout the years.

  2. I think Beethoven is a genre of its own. He expresses so much through his music. If you read about his life and associate his compositions with the periods they were produced, you’ll notice how much of his feelings are transcribed into his compositions. It’s remarkable how he could give such masterpieces to the world, although he lost the ability to hear towards the last chapter of his life.

  3. Pranay Rana

    Beethoven is one of my favorite composers, and the Piano Concerto No 4 is one of the pieces I’ve been practicing lately. Good to know more about this masterpiece. Thanks a lot for sharing :)

  4. RUSS HOBURG

    Franz Liszt likened the 4th Piano Concerto to his own tone poem “Orpheus Taming the Wild Beasts.” He probably had not heard Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” The second movement with its tentative, subservient piano and forceful, dominant strings represents to me the story teller Scheherazade begging for her life and the Sultan who would take it from her. Scheherazade eventually wins the Sultan to her side and begins her story telling. The Third Movement Rondo is her story.

  5. Russell Hoburg

    I really never create my own story for a piece of orchestral music. I love Beethoven as a composer and as a man. One day I was listening to the Fourth Piano Concerto which I am quite familiar with when the Second Movement began. The timid piano and gruff overpowering orchestra suddenly seemed to me to be telling the Shaharazade story and telling it better than Rimsky-Korsakov did fifty years later. To me, the Second Movement of the Fourth is threatening dialogue between Shaharazade and the Sultan. She prevails and earns the right to tell her story. The Third Movement is her story! Try listening to it that way once.

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