LACO’s upcoming concert features “double concertos” by Mozart and Bach and a selection of Etudes for Piano by György Ligeti. The finale of the evening will be Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played by the incomparable Jeremy Denk and the talented musicians of LACO. Beethoven’s piano music is fascinating to me because I know he wrote most of it to show off his own talent as a pianist. To closely study these concertos, sonatas, and piano trios is to understand Beethoven the performer. And one cannot help but feel a little melancholy in looking at these pieces because we know that Beethoven had to give up his performing career sooner than he wanted to because of his hearing loss.
Beethoven (1770-1827) lived almost to the age of 57. His made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of seven, although his father—wanting to tout his very own musical prodigy—advertised him as a six-year-old. Music was his career from these early days, and he grew in fits and starts as a performer and a composer through a difficult childhood and early adulthood. He studied with local teachers and some relatives as well. Around the time Beethoven was about ten years old, he became the assistant to the new court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe. In a write-up in the Magazin der Musik in 1783 Beethoven is described as:
“a boy of eleven years and a most promising talent. He plays the piano very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well….[Neefe] is now training him in composition and for his encouragement has nine variations for the piano, written by him on a march, engraved at Mannheim. This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.”
When Beethoven was 18, he took it upon himself to become the head of the family when his mother’s death and his father’s subsequent alcoholism caused a shift in family dynamics. Beethoven petitioned for half of his father’s salary (his father was let go from his singing job) to support his younger brothers. In return, Beethoven sometimes played viola in the court and theater orchestras. This experience would be invaluable to him as a composer. His orchestral works show sensitivity to the roles of the instruments in the orchestra, something he witnessed firsthand from the string section.
Beethoven left Bonn behind for Vienna in 1792. He studied with Haydn for a time, but more importantly he was intent on establishing himself as a pianist and composer in the new city. His connections from Bonn helped him greatly in these endeavors. Also, the members of the Viennese aristocracy who recognized Beethoven’s talent were more than happy to provide him with accommodations and commissions. Beethoven excelled at displays of virtuosity in the salons and private performances held in the houses of these aristocrats. By 1795, he was showing off his talents in public concerts, playing his own piano trios, piano sonatas, and his first piano concertos.
Beethoven was about 26 when he began have troubles with his hearing. He continued to play throughout these struggles, and to compose as well. By 1801 he was finally ready to share the news of his infirmity, which he had kept secret for some time, with his close friends and his brothers. The enormity of this problem caused a crisis for Beethoven, who wondered what effect his encroaching deafness would have on both his professional life and his personal relationships. To his old friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, he wrote the following in a letter:
“For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. As for my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, what would they say?”
Beethoven’s skills would have to shift, and he would eventually concern himself entirely with composing because he could not continue as a performer. By 1814, when Beethoven was in his forties, he was almost totally deaf. It was in April of this year that Beethoven last appeared in public as a soloist. The concert was a benefit for the military, and it was organized by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, violinist and friend of Beethoven. Beethoven’s last public performance was of the Archduke Trio, op. 97. Louis Spohr, the composer and violinist, gave an ungenerous account of the rehearsals, saying, “on account of [Beethoven’s] deafness there was scarcely anything of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.” In truth, Spohr hadn’t heard Beethoven play in his prime and had no firsthand experience of this virtuosity. Friend and fellow pianist Ignaz Moscheles was far kinder, explaining that the piece was wonderful and new, and that the playing, although not as clear and precise as it could have been, still contained “traces of the grand style of playing which I had long recognized in his compositions.”
In addition to writing the large-scale works of his middle and late periods, Beethoven attempted to compose one final Piano Concerto, a sixth. We think he began sketches for it in 1814 or 1815. About seventy pages of music exist for the first movement, but the scoring peters out, and Beethoven left this work unfinished. Perhaps it was put on the back-burner as Beethoven knew he could not himself perform it. In 1987, Nicholas Cook reconstructed the work and provided a completion for this movement.
We can look at Beethoven’s deafness and consequent retirement from performance as a tragedy. It is possible, however, that we can think of this circumstance as nudging Beethoven into his maturity as a composer. One wonders what his output would have been like had he been able to play into his fifties. On the occasion of hearing Piano Concerto No. 1, it is an opportunity to look back at Beethoven at the beginning of his career in Vienna: full of hope, full of talent, and showing unlimited potential. No doubt his career didn’t end up as he planned, but his legacy as one of the greatest composers that ever lived was already in place before his death in 1827. That’s no small feat, considering that some of the most important composers in music history died in obscurity. Catch a glimpse of the young Beethoven in Piano Concerto No. 1, and see that limitless potential for yourself.