Beethoven: Concerto No.2 in B flat for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 19
When Beethoven set out at the end of 1792 to seek his fortune in Vienna, he left behind
a sorry existence in his native Bonn. His mother was dead, his father was about to die in
alcoholic decrepitude. He had a small income as church organist to the Elector of Cologne,
but war clouds were gathering over Bonn and there was no future there for the budding
22-year-old composer. Luckily, he had influential well-wishers, who probably noted that
the great Haydn, on passing through Bonn in July that year, had commented favourably on
the cantata that Beethoven showed him.
It was decided that the young composer should go to Vienna to study with Haydn, and
someone it may have been the Elector or Count Waldstein put up the money
needed. Armed with letters of introduction, Beethoven made the acquaintance of Viennese
high society, and, despite his rough tongue and manners, his forceful personality and
brilliant piano-playing soon won him high-placed admirers and well-to-do piano pupils. He
took his composition studies seriously, apparently too seriously for Haydn, who nicknamed
his impatient pupil The Great Mogul. But the two remained on good terms after
Beethoven moved to other teachers.
There were no regular public concerts in Vienna. A musician might organise a
subscription series, but Mozart had tried that and come to grief. The only public
orchestral concerts were presented several times a year in the Burgtheater for charity,
and it was at one of these in March 1795 in aid of musicians widows that Beethoven
made his Viennese debut as composer-pianist, playing his brand-new Concerto in B flat. It
was his first concerto, apart from a very early work that survives only incomplete, though
it was later labelled No.2 because it was published after the Concerto in C.
At this period Beethoven was composing in basically the classical style developed by
Haydn and Mozart; the form and vocabulary of this concerto were familiar to the audience.
But the young Beethovens innovatory ways with dynamic contrast, unexpected key
changes and displaced accents were unsettling. Juxtaposition of opposites is the salient
feature of this concerto; the abrupt gesture is set beside the conciliatory phrase,
liveliness is contrasted with contemplation, angularity with smoothness.
The two-sided character of the opening bars proposes the principle, and the rest of the
orchestral introduction confirms it. The pianist enters with a new theme developed from
the opening material. Then a run up the keyboard heralds belatedly the second subject
proper on violins and piano in turn. After a development concerned largely with the first
subject the themes are recapitulated in due order, leading to the soloists cadenza
and a brief coda.
A calm melody begins the Adagio, but there are fierce interruptions to come. The
piano elaborates the theme introduced by the orchestra, then piano and orchestra share a
second theme reminiscent of The Magic Flute, an opera which had greatly impressed
Beethoven. The orchestra insists on restoring the initial theme, but the piano relaxes the
tension with delicate tracery, and at the end offers a brief recitative marked with
For finale Beethoven offers a bouncing six-eight rondo with numerous accents in
unexpected places. Between the appearances of the rondo theme come two episodes, the first
a blithe little tune and the second a more insistent melody. Before the orchestra can get
in with the final statement of the rondo theme the piano anticipates it in the altogether
unexpected key of G major and in an altered rhythm. It is a joke worthy of a Haydn finale,
and so is the pretence of running out of steam just before the close.
© Eric Mason