20 Feb 2020

Mark Lowther’s Programme Notes for Beethoven 250



2020 sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Van Beethoven. The Prometheus Orchestra has chosen to celebrate by performing all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos in three concerts, which will also include other music by Beethoven, some of it famous, much of it less familiar and ripe for exploration. The five piano concertos see Beethoven beginning in the classical world of Mozart and Haydn before moving into the world of romanticism. In the arts ‘romantic’ means much more than ‘sentimental’ and is more to do with finding artistic ways of expressing all kinds of personal feelings, from ecstasy to despair. The poet William Wordsworth was born in the same year as Beethoven, 1770,
the painter Caspar David Friedrich just four years later. They all had personal stories to tell through their art, Beethoven’s drawing in stormy contemporary politics, failed relationships and increasing deafness. And though he played the violin and the viola well enough to take part in orchestral concerts (and, of course, Beethoven’s String Quartets contain some of his most important music) it was the piano to which Beethoven committed his most intimate instrumental thoughts. The thirty-two piano sonatas span almost the whole of his composing career and he was a virtuoso performer. Knowing of the success of Mozart as a child-prodigy, Beethoven’s father tried to promote his son in the same way, organising a recital which claimed to be by his six-year-old son (Ludwig was actually seven!). Beethoven himself was the soloist in the premieres of the first four of the piano concertos but his deafness eventually prevented public appearances as an instrumentalist and the 5th concerto was left to others.

Beethoven’s most important composition teacher was Joseph Haydn. The two probably first met in Beethoven’s home city of Bonn but the relationship was really established when Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792. Haydn’s total mastery of the classical style and his love of pushing its boundaries in unexpected directions was a huge influence on the young Beethoven and the old master’s influence is plain to hear in the first two of Beethoven’s piano concertos. Just before Beethoven left Bonn he had received a letter from an influential nobleman, Count Waldstein, wishing him well and pronouncing that once he was in Vienna he would ‘….through uninterrupted diligence … receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands’. Once Beethoven had arrived in that most musical of cities Mozart’s name kept cropping up as a composer to aspire to and Beethoven made a special study of his music. Its influence, too, is clear in some aspects of Beethoven’s concertos.

The concertos that we call ‘No.1’ and ‘No.2’ were actually written the other way round – the numbers come from the order of their publication rather than their composition. Beethoven probably chose the order because he felt that the C Major concerto (our No.1) was more ambitious in its aims and had the more brilliant solo part – in fact it would probably have been the longest piano concerto that its first audience had ever heard. It begins with a whisper rather than a roar, though trumpets and drums soon give its opening theme a military air – and there’s a scurrying ascending scale that’s thrown around the orchestra. An unexpected change of key introduces the gentler second main theme. The trumpets and drums are soon back and contribute another theme that the music-writer Sir Donald Tovey once described as being in ‘Beethoven’s best ‘British Grenadiers’ style’. When the soloist enters he has a new, singing, theme all of his own before he takes on the main themes that we have already heard the orchestra play on its own. The central section of the movement is thoughtful and mostly either quiet or very quiet until the tension gradually builds and with a sparkling fast descending scale we reach the moment when the main themes are revisited once again. Eventually we arrive at the moment for the soloist to show us what he can really do – the cadenza. Originally Beethoven would have improvised it (his improvisation at the keyboard was very much admired) but a few years after writing the concerto he penned two cadenzas, one of which Nathan Williamson plays in our concert. It has great fun with both the opening notes of the movement and the lyrical second theme before the orchestra draws the movement to a close, ‘British Grenadiers’ style.

The central movement of the first piano concerto is slow – but not too slow. It is in A Flat Major – a way away from the concerto’s home key of C and it seems to breath a different kind of air. It also gives the orchestra’s principle clarinet some beautiful lyrical moments. The pervading mood is of gentle lyrical songfulness.

The final movement is full of fun (one music writer has said that it is ‘just on the edge of acceptable manners’) and you are very much allowed to smile! A couple of things are worth watching as well as listening to – the timpanist’s spectacular ‘cross-sticks’ playing at the end of the first main theme and another theme where the soloist has to play cross- handed – right hand over left. There are plenty of Beethovenian jokes. There is a minor- key episode that has a touch of The Muppets about it, a few bars where the cellos & basses seem to be out of sync. with the rest of the orchestra (they aren’t!) and a surprise at the very end, which seems to be heading for a peaceful conclusion. You may well jump!

The Concerto No.2 was first written when Beethoven was still a teenager, though he revised it a couple of times before it reached the form we know today. It sounds like a piece very much written under the influence of Haydn though Beethoven may have sketched out some of the themes before he left Bonn for Vienna. It has a smaller orchestra than the ‘Concerto No.1’, without trumpets, drums and clarinets, but it is full of wit and true originality. The orchestra’s opening theme bounces as well as sings and throughout the movement there are a number of little touches that would have made the first audiences sit up and listen – journeys to distant keys, subtle key-changes, one theme anticipating another and so on. Once again Beethoven supplied a cadenza some years after he wrote the concerto and it is in a quite different style to the bulk of the movement, more adventurous and daring. Its opening is almost a fugue and turns the main theme of the concerto upside down. Finally it seems to be drifting quietly away before the orchestra reappears to remind us that it is still there and has something that it still wants to say.

The central movement is a real adagio – that is to say a proper slow movement. The opening theme is hymn-like and very beautiful. The piano soon takes it up and continues singing, alternating its lyricism with the orchestra. There are moments when some of Beethoven’s very finest slow movements do not seem too far away, especially in the hushed dialogue between soloist and orchestra just before the movement’s close.
The finale bounces in with a theme that has an off-beat feel to it and Beethoven keeps up the rhythmic fun and games throughout the movement – lots happens just after the first beat of the bar. And, once again, Beethoven has a special way of making sure that we are ready and happy to applaud at the end.

When Beethoven made his special study of Mozart’s music (the piano concertos in particular) he reserved special praise for the Concerto in C Minor K491 – one of Mozart’s greatest and darkest compositions. On hearing it, Beethoven is reported to have said to a colleague that ‘we shall never be able to do anything like that’ but in the Piano Concerto No.3 he gave it his best shot. Though it still falls into the broad category of ‘early Beethoven’, written around the same time as his first string quartets and the First Symphony, it is a considerable advance on its predecessors. C Minor was always a special key for Beethoven – the key of the ‘Pathetique’ piano sonata, the 5th Symphony and his final piano sonata Op. 111. The very opening of the third concerto leaves us in no doubt that the cheeriness of the first two concertos is now a long way away.

Hushed unison strings are answered by harmonised wind, quiet timpani sound threatening, this is serious stuff. Beethoven marks the first movement ‘Allegro con brio’ – which means quick and with ….. well, translations vary but one dictionary gives a definition of ‘brio’ as ‘oomph’ and that seems very appropriate here. The first movement’s principle themes contrast the minor key opening with a lyrical melody in the relative major key but before the piano makes its first entry we are firmly back in the minor key. Three dramatic scales throw the soloist into the fray before he punches out the opening theme in octaves – drama is almost always uppermost in this movement. There is a wonderful example of dramatic tension at its very end. After the solo cadenza (another one written out by Beethoven) we would normally expect a reasonably straightforward restatement of one or other of the movement’s principle themes. Beethoven has an extra idea – to keep everything hushed, expectant and with the timpani making the most of just two notes from the first main theme. Only at the very end is there a crescendo and a terse wrapping up. The central movement is in a very distant key from the C minor home – E major. That means that the very first hushed solo piano chord sounds surprising – from a whole new world. This is another beautiful, reflective, song-filled inspiration and allows us a break after the darkness of the opening movement. The finale is a rondo – that is to say with opening music that returns several times with contrasting episodes in-between. The returning theme manages to be both perky and serious, with some unusual sharp accents where we don’t necessarily expect them. Eventually we reach a short solo cadenza and then there is one last surprise. The speed increases, the time signature changes to a sprightly 6/8, the key is C major and there is something of a sprint to the finish – which only makes us want to applaud the more!

The first three of Beethoven’s concertos begin, as pretty well every piano concerto up to this time had begun, with the orchestra stating the main themes before the soloist enters. It is now almost impossible to imagine what a surprise the opening of the Piano Concerto No.4 must have been to its first audience – four-and-a-bit bars played, quietly, by the pianist alone. To which the orchestral strings, equally quietly, respond in a totally different key. Though it was only written around five years after its predecessor, the fourth is a very different kind of concerto, more poetic, more (in the strict sense of the word) romantic, personal – it is telling a very different kind of story.

After that extraordinary start, the pianist then sits back and listens to the orchestra lay out the rest of the thematic material for the movement, making much of the four repeated notes that the piano included in its solo opening. And it is with those repeated notes that the piano re-enters. Dialogue is more important than challenge here, orchestra and piano sharing the material right up to the solo cadenza, though even it ends gently and the orchestra then catches that mood perfectly.

The movement that follows, however, is a very unusual conversation between orchestra and piano. The orchestra begins with loud, stern octaves. The piano replies gently with chords. Back come the orchestral octaves – back come the calming piano chords. What follows seems at first to be disagreement, with orchestra and piano in different worlds. The orchestra gradually quietens and there is a section when the piano does have to raise its voice a little but it does so with a lyrical song followed by some impassioned trills and finally piano and orchestra reach a rather uneasy truce. Then the key and mood change, trumpets and drums, silent up to this point, join in and the fun of the finale begins. The poetry is still present but now it is surrounded by wit and light-heartedness. Haydn would, I’m sure, have been proud!



At the end of the 18th-century any nobleman worthy of the name employed musicians. The wealthiest ones could commission a symphony or an opera to be performed for them. Archduke Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne, wasn’t quite in that category but he did have a group of wind players whose job was to entertain him and his guests at meal times. It was for this group that Beethoven wrote his Octet for Wind and it seems to have been finished just after the time that he composed the Piano Concerto No.2. It is unpretentious music, designed for background listening, but Beethoven was Beethoven and could not help himself being ingenious from time to time. In fact he was so pleased with what he had written that he reused the material for a string quintet a year or two later. There are four movements with the slowest coming second, and the third, though it is called a ‘minuet and trio’ being much faster than that title implies. The Archduke’s players must have been pretty good, especially the horns. Beethoven gave them parts with moments that challenge even modern players and were probably designed to make those 18th- century diners put their cutlery down for a moment!



It seems surprising to us nowadays that any piece of music by Beethoven should have been ignored but this sextet lay unperformed for almost ten years after its composition in, we think, 1796. It then formed part of a benefit concert that Beethoven gave for a violinist friend and was well-received. The critic of one of the leading Viennese music journals of the time reported that it was ‘a composition which shines resplendent by reason of its lively melodies, unconstrained harmonies, and a wealth of new and surprising ideas’. Yet it took another five years before it was published and even nowadays it is rarely heard. It is another example of Beethoven writing music for entertainment, both for his audience and for the players. The first clarinet has the bulk of the melodies, though is happy to share them from time to time with the first bassoon. The clarinet also has a few short bursts of virtuosity and there is a moment in the first movement when the first horn shows off too.

It is all good fun and, just as Beethoven intended, thoroughly entertaining.

The programme notes are by Mark Lowther written specially for Prometheus Orchestra’s Beethoven 250 Anniversary Celebrations.

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