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Beethoven and the Big Change

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4, Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor,” and Choral Fantasy Choir

fortepiano Robert Levin. the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and the Monteverdi, directed by John Eliot Gardiner
Deutsche Grammophon Archiv, three CDs, $17.99 each


In 1791 a listing was made of the several dozen musicians in the employ of the episcopal court of Bonn. “Herr Ludwig van Beethoven plays clavier concertos” is the extent of the entry on the young man who was to become Bonn’s and perhaps Germany’s most celebrated citizen. At the age of twenty his output included three concertos for piano (one arranged from a violin concerto, as was not uncommon at the time), as well as a concerto for piano with two other instruments, and possibly a fourth piano concerto, if some extant early sketches were ever completed. A young pianist-virtuoso-composer needed concertos to make his way—indeed, the encounter between the concerto’s solo instrument and orchestra can stand as a metaphor for the freelance musician and his support system of audience and patrons. Before Beethoven found himself as a symphonist, the concerto was the public genre that marked the stages of his march to success and, as the nineteenth century saw it, greatness.

Around 1801, when he published the first two of his canonical piano concertos, Beethoven knew he was becoming deaf; by 1809, when he composed the fifth of them, the so-called “Emperor,” he could no longer play in public. So in the eighteen years remaining to him he no longer wrote concertos. The story of Beethoven’s concertos is a story of the obligatory and no doubt painful relinquishment of a favorite genre. (In later years he began work on more than one concerto, only to leave them unfinished. The Eighth Symphony was first sketched as a concerto.) Yet in this arrested development Leon Plantinga can trace a grand panorama of change in the very concept of Western music and in the model of a composer. It is a transition from music as performance to music as text, from the performer-composer known to the eighteenth century to the genius-creator postulated by the nineteenth. In the sphere of the concerto, Beethoven’s deafness was both cause and symbol of this transition.

This historical process has been the subject of much discussion (as well as complaint) in recent years. It is bound up with the issue of “absolute” music, music thought to be autonomous irrespective of verbal texts, social contexts, and even performance considerations. It is the subject of an entire book by the late, much translated musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, and the subject of a full half of a book on the ontology of music by the English philosopher Lydia Goehr.1 When did European music change over from a fluid performance activity, passed on from master to student over the ages, as it was and is in other cultures, and become a written, read, and (eventually) digitally recorded artifact to be contemplated as well as—as much as, one sometimes feels—heard?

Over a period of roughly a thousand years, according to historians of the longue durée. Somewhat abruptly around the year 1800, according to Goehr, and it is easy for Plantinga in one of his argumentative footnotes to show her case to be “overdrawn.” Yet it contains “a kernel of truth”; no one doubts that the process accelerated decisively in Beethoven’s lifetime. It accelerated as a response to his extraordinary music but also as a response to Romantic musical speculation.

I am reminded here of another recent study, also overdrawn, by a sociologist who attributes Beethoven’s early success in Vienna—exactly in the years he was making his way with concertos—to a need felt by his essential patrons for a new elevated musical ideal in the face of social change.2 If the Viennese aristocracy had a historic need for Beethoven, the philosophers of Jena needed him even more. Though Beethoven’s Vienna was certainly no hotbed of Romanticism, Maynard Solomon, for one, whose classic biography of Beethoven now appears in a revised edition, has always patiently searched out Romantic traits and resonances in the composer’s thought and in his music.3 And only Beethoven could have steered the conception of music from Kant’s “pleasurable stimulation” to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s revelation of the “spirit realm.” The Romantics from Tieck and Schlegel all the way up to Adorno saw the musical masterwork as an autonomous product of the free “subject.” Beethoven’s metaphysical freedom with the musical tradition he inherited from Haydn and Mozart was as evident as the secular freedoms he assumed in daily life, already the subject of myth in his own day.

A great strength of Plantinga’s book is the light he throws on this topic from the perhaps unexpected special standpoint of Beethoven’s concertos. He draws on an enviable control of the historical record and from detailed analysis of the music itself. His scrutiny of the sources of the music—Beethoven’s complicated, overwritten autograph scores and his even more complicated musical sketches—is especially thorough. Here is a case where the musicologist’s typical preoccupation with sources results in broad historical understanding.


The earliest of the well-known concertos, the irregularly numbered Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, exemplifies very well the fluidity of the concept “concerto” when Beethoven first took it up. This was his first warhorse, and every time he was called on to play it it seems he rewrote or rejected parts of the score and substituted others. The partition du jour served as a basis for improvising the piano part as well as the cadenzas.

Of four different versions that can be identified, dating from Bonn in the late 1780s to Vienna in the late 1790s, the earliest survives in a single loose page from the score (just enough to show that the first movement that we know was present in some form) and also in the draft of a melody for an early finale for the piece, later replaced, and now known as the Rondo in B-flat for Piano and Orchestra. On the basis of sketches that can be dated for revisions, musicologists have distinguished two further versions in the mid-1790s, which can be matched up with concerts by the composer for which we have notices and dates but no programs. Only for a fourth version in 1798 has the score survived—and even here the piano part Beethoven “entered only in fits and starts, leaving much to his celebrated powers of improvisation,” as Plantinga puts it.

Those powers were exercised most spectacularly, of course, in cadenzas, the concerto’s moments of sanctioned carnival. Extended formal cadenzas come near the ends of many movements, while numerous other short ones, “run-ins” (Eingänge), and fermatas, or pauses, are scattered throughout. In addition, improvisation of a different kind continued throughout the score, improvisation carried out against a background of harmony, phrasing, and so on laid down by the orchestra, with the surface spun out extempore by the solo. Indeed the young Beethoven never wrote out—never really “composed”—concerto piano parts until he had to, because publication was in the offing. When the B-flat Concerto reached the printer in 1801, the orchestra part, too, was still in flux, subject to the composer’s last-minute tinkering.

At this point the long-bubbling soup of the B-flat Concerto became a text and the composer could put it behind him. Concertos were performing vehicles; they would not be published until they were no longer needed, when they had worn out their welcome with the public and a new one was ready. The autograph of the C-minor Concerto, No. 3, of 1803, about which Plantinga tells us more than we probably want to know, also started life as a “performance autograph.” That is, it contained the orchestral music with, at many places, no more than piano cues to guide Beethoven’s improvisation. The piano part was only fixed conclusively when it had to be, in this case for a performance in the next year by another pianist.

The evolution of Beethoven’s compositions can be traced in astonishing detail from his many sketchbooks and loose work sheets, none of which he seems ever to have thrown away. Just as sketchy piano parts served him as the basis for improvisation in the body of his concertos, so did actual sketches serve as aides-mémoires for his improvised cadenzas. That Beethovenian free fantasy did not leave overly much to chance is clear from the rather extensive notations for cadenza ideas preserved among his papers. (These indeed provide some of the evidence for the various versions of the early concertos.) The earliest sketch we have for Concerto No. 3, an isolated jotting from around 1796, is not for the body of the piece but marked for the cadenza, and its importance for Beethoven can be gauged from the fact that he returned to this very idea in 1809 when he wrote out cadenzas for all the piano concertos he had completed by that time.

It was at just around this time that Beethoven saw he would have to give up performing; he also, as he composed his last concerto, the “Emperor,” saw to it that all the constituent cadenzas were written out in full. By assuming control of the main sites of spontaneity the composer sharply attenuated the role of the performer—as composers have continued to do ever since. By also writing out cadenzas for the earlier concertos, was Beethoven proposing to give a full text for works that he would never himself control again? Or was he trying to pump some performative life back into frozen texts which he had not, after all, finally put behind him?

He did not publish those cadenzas—for lack of a market, no doubt, rather than for any qualms about such a project; in 1810-1811 he did publish the originally improvised Fantasy for Piano, Opus 77, and another extended improvisation at the beginning of Opus 80, the Choral Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra, and Chorus. (We do not know, of course, how closely the printed versions correspond to what he originally played; we do know that the music was worked over in sketchbooks before publication.) In any case, history’s decision about the cadenzas was never in doubt. They have now been safely absorbed into the primary texts. After they were first published in 1864 they at once found their way into performance scores; and few pianists ever since have played anything else. Some musicologists have analyzed these cadenzas, too, and claim to find in them an organic relation with the body of their hosts.

One who does not play Beethoven’s cadenzas is Robert Levin, the fortepianist and musicologist who has developed an impressive gift for improvisation in the styles of Mozart and Beethoven. His recent series of Beethoven concerto recordings with John Eliot Gardiner gives us a sense—sometimes a vivid sense—of what the concerto was like in its pretextual stage when it was dependent on personal performance. Flamboyant, powerful, and—the first time you hear them, at least—admirably unpredictable, Levin’s cadenzas make these recordings distinctive, indeed unique.

Of course all improvisation is part prestidigitation; the musician has his formulas, as the conjuror has his tricks. If a virtuoso is like an athlete in some ways, he is like an illusionist in other ways. Levin creates the magical illusion of a pocket of music history innocent of and prior to scores—though not of course innocent of cues and aides-mémoires. His art is built on internalizing historical documents like Opus 77 and Opus 80, which capture spontaneity and preserve it like a pinned butterfly. In his case this is accomplished through recording, and his recorded cadenzas and ornaments bring us closer to the actual experience of improvisation than any scores can. (The ontology of written-down and recorded improvisations would make a good new project for a musical philosopher like Lydia Goehr. If Levin spliced his recording takes—he does not—edited recorded improvisations would be something further for her to mull over.)

  1. 1

    Carl Dalhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, translated by Roger Lustig (University of Chicago Press, 1989); Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Clarendon Press/ Oxford University Press, 1992).

  2. 2

    Tia DeNora, Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803 (University of California Press, 1995). See the review by Charles Rosen, The New York Review, November 14, 1996, pp. 57-63.

  3. 3

    Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (second, revised edition, Schirmer Books, 1998); and “Some Romantic Images in Beethoven,” in Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven: Studies in the Music of the Classical Period: Essays in Honour of Alan Tyson, edited by Sieghard Brandenburg (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 253-282.

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