Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn (then an independent electorate) probably on December 16, 1770 (he was baptized on the 17th), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827.
Beethoven composed the Fourth Piano Concerto, Opus 58, in 1805 and early 1806 (it was probably completed by spring, since his brother offered it to a publisher on March 27). The first performance was a private one, in March 1807, at the home of his friend and patron Prince Lobkowitz. The public premiere took place at Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien on December 22, 1808, with the composer as soloist, in the same famous concert that included, among many other things, the premieres of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for an orchestra of 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings, with 2 trumpets and timpani added in the finale. The Fourth Concerto is about 34 minutes long.
If the first three piano concertos have the spirit of the Mozart concertos in various degrees hanging over them, in the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, from 1805-6, that spirit lingers, but the sound and effect are unmistakably Beethoven in the heart of his maturity. This is a work innovative and bold, with a singular integration of introspection and bravura. Well before Beethoven, a prime issue of concertos had been the relationship of soloist and orchestra: are they cooperating or competing? The Fourth Concerto lifts that drama to an unprecedented intensity.
Rather than the usual orchestral introduction, it begins with piano alone, the soloist brooding in a phrase of inward and reverberant simplicity. After the piano soliloquy the orchestra begins a nominally normal orchestral exposition, but there are two odd things about that entrance: its version of the piano theme is different from the piano version, and in the wrong key: B major. (It soon makes its way to the right key.) So from the beginning there is rift between orchestra and soloist: they don’t agree on the main subject or even its key. For the rest of the concerto that divide will play out in a variety of modes and moods.
The air of brooding nobility that the soloist establishes in the beginning is not otherwise his persona in the first movement, where he is coltish, flighty, even mocking. The overall tone of the movement is stately and lyrical. During the development there are no particular hostilities, but at the recapitulation the soloist suddenly bursts out fortissimo with his original version of the main theme, which has not been heard since the opening. It is as if he were shouting: No! This is how it goes!
That rift between solo and orchestra comes to a head in the second movement. Beginning with the piano alone, it proceeds in alternating phrases, the orchestra insistent, the soloist oblivious and inward. At the beginning the strings answer the soloist with a quiet, dotted military figure. The soloist responds quietly, molto cantabile. He has returned to the brooding tone with which he opened the concerto. He is not interested in the military tread that the strings try to force on him in phrases of mounting belligerence. The soloist sighs, retreats, breaks out in roulades. The movement ends, if not in resolution, in some kind of truce.
The strings kick off the Vivace finale with a dashing rondo theme, but again in the wrong key, C major. It also happens to be a tune that the soloist cannot play: a piano is not capable of comfortably executing those fast repeating notes that are natural for a bowed instrument. Echoing the theme, all he can do is turn it into a pianistic version. So the original rivalry endures, but now played as comedy. After all the disputes and debates, near the end of an exuberant and vivacious finale, the resolution comes in a sublime stretch of singing E-flat major in divided violas, with piano garlands above. At the end all cheerily join the final chords together.
Jan Swafford is a prizewinning composer and writer whose most recent book, published in December 2020, is Mozart: The Reign of Love. His other acclaimed books include Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Johannes Brahms: A Biography, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, and Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music. He is an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, where he studied composition.
The American premiere of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 took place at the Boston Odeon on February 4, 1854, with soloist Robert Heller and the Germania Musical Society conducted by Carl Bergmann.
The first Boston Symphony performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 was conducted by Georg Henschel on December 17, 1881, during the orchestra’s first season, with soloist George W. Sumner.