Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto

Continuing our celebration of Beethoven's 250th birthday.

Guest Artist
Phillip Bush, piano


February 22, 2020
7:30 PM
Koger Center for the Arts Get Tickets >

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, written during 1796 and 1797 isn't actually the first one he composed. Despite its relative conservatism, his Piano Concerto No. 1 did provoke quite a response in its day proving that, even when he was starting out, Beethoven was already challenging preconceived ideas as to what any given musical structure should contain. Join us for an evening, featuring guest artist Phillip Bush, as we celebrate Beethoven's remarkable musical genius.

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Program Notes


The Passing Sun
John Fitz Rogers
b. 1963

“Like most people, I'm fascinated by the duality of sunsets – how the passing light moves slowly, yet the sky's color is fleeting and ever-changing” writes the composer in his introductory notes. “As a child, I camped with my family along lakes in northern Wisconsin, and I remember many evenings watching the fading light reflect off the water as the sun descended below distant pines. To me, sunsets have always seemed both eternal and ephemeral.

“In The Passing Sun, I wanted to evoke that idea of stillness and of a slowly evolving sky. The opening section features various solo, long-lined melodies and pastel colors juxtaposed against an undulating but calm accompaniment. This gives way to a more restless middle section – brighter reds and yellows – that also features long horizontal lines, although these lines melt into the rhythms of the accompaniment. The final section returns to the quiet of the opening, but in somewhat more muted and dark hues – burnt orange to deepening blue – before finally fading away in high, sustained chords in the violins and violas.

“Although there are many solo passages and evocative instrumental combinations in The Passing Sun, there are rarely moments of overt virtuosity or rapid, dramatic change. Rather, I wanted to explore the beauty of simple, sustained melodies and harmonies, and how that stillness might be framed by colors in quiet repose. The Passing Sun is a meditation on light and the passage of time – on constancy and change.”

A few years ago, an NPR segment on today’s upcoming classical music stars at Curtis, Juilliard and other high-powered conservatories, remarked on the apparent disconnect between these students’ life goals and the music on their iPods. Fitz Rogers is not surprised. “I don’t think you can make the distinction anymore between high art and low art,” he says. A dedicated advocate for contemporary music, Rogers founded the Southern Exposure New Music Series, which received the 2007 Chamber Music America / ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. 

A Professor of Composition at the University of South Carolina School of Music, Rogers received his musical training at Cornell University, Yale School of Music and Oberlin College. He is the recipient of many fellowships, commissions and awards, and is Artistic Director of Southern Exposure New Music Series, which plays to standing-room-only audiences. Rogers counts among the important influences on his music: blues, jazz, reading and furniture making. He also delves into the great collection of folksongs collected by Alan Lomax.

Composed in 2014, The Passing Sun was commissioned by Morihiko Nakahara and the South Carolina Philharmonic to commemorate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
Ludwig van Beethoven

The Piano Concerto No. 1 is among the works the young Beethoven composed after he had moved in 1792 from his native Bonn to Vienna. Like Mozart when he left Salzburg, also for Vienna, Beethoven had outgrown the musical establishment of his patron in Bonn, the elector Maximilian Franz, but he traveled to the Imperial capital not so much as a master but rather to study composition with Franz Joseph Haydn. At the end of 1793 Haydn wrote to the elector on his student’s behalf for an advance in salary, enclosing five compositions “of my dear pupil Beethoven,” who he predicted would “in time fill the position of one of Europe’s greatest composers.” The parsimonious elector was unimpressed.

Nevertheless, Beethoven quickly acquired a glowing reputation as both a pianist and composer. He had come already provided with important aristocratic connections that greased the way into the highest social circles, where noblemen were in competition with each other for the best in-house musical establishment. The period between 1792 and 1795 was probably the happiest in the composer’s life. Signs of his deafness had not yet appeared, and his passionate nature – even affability – signaled a young lion, rather than the irascible, slovenly and sickly misanthrope of his middle and later years.

Originally composed in 1795, revised in 1798 and again before publication in 1800, this concerto is actually not the first Beethoven wrote, although it was the first to be published. What is known today as No. 2 preceded it by a year. In 1784, Beethoven had written a youthful concerto in E-Flat WoO (Work without opus number) 4, which was not published in its entirety until 1890.

Beethoven himself was the pianist at the premiere of the original version of this Concerto in Vienna in 1795, but the manuscript was barely finished before the concert. His close friend, the physician Franz Wegeler, described the scene: “Beethoven did not write the rondo... till the afternoon of the day before the concert...Four copyists sat in the room outside, and he gave them the pages one by one as they were finished.” 

By Beethoven’s own admission, the First Concerto still reflects the styles of Mozart and Haydn. It begins with a lengthy and formal orchestral opening, ceremonial in style, after which the soloist makes his entry with a new opening theme. The interplay between the piano and orchestra is reminiscent of the Mozart concerti, where the orchestra provides quiet background accompaniment for the soloist when both play together. This lighter accompaniment was, of course, acoustically necessary since the pianos of the time lacked the power of those even in the first part of the nineteenth century.

A note about the cadenza to the first movement: Only incomplete fragments remain of the cadenza that Beethoven used at the premiere. By 1809, the composer’s hearing loss prevented him from performing in public, and he wrote three new cadenzas of differing lengths and difficulty for pianists of varying abilities.

In the years 1798 to 1809, the piano underwent a rapid evolution, not in small part as a result of Beethoven’s demands and specifications. While the concerto was written for a piano of five octaves, like Mozart’s, by the time Beethoven composed the cadenzas in 1809, he was writing for a piano of 5 1/2 octaves and commensurate power and sound to match. Consequently, a 1798 instrument for which the concerto was written, would not be able to play the 1809 cadenzas Beethoven wrote for it.

The slow movement, again, harks back to the Mozart model. If in the first movement soloist and orchestra are partners, in the second it is the piano that dominates and develops the themes, aided by the clarinet. The sparkling rondo finale is an orchestral romp, in which the soloist and orchestra engage in a dialogue, each trying to outdo the other.

Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 
Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák wanted to bring Bohemian nationalism to international awareness, and he strove to make his compositions worthy of world recognition. In 1883 his Stabat Mater became a sensation in the English world of choir festivals. The Royal Philharmonic Society invited him to London to conduct his music in 1884, nominating him as an honorary member, and commissioning him to compose and conduct a new symphony for the following season.

Dvořák considered the invitation a great honor and gave considerable thought to the composition of the Symphony, resolving to do his utmost to make it an outstanding work. “I am occupied with my new symphony (for London) and wherever I go I think of nothing but my work, which must be such as to make a stir in the world, and may God grant that it will,” he wrote to a friend. He started on the D minor Symphony on December 15, 1884 and finished the full score on March 17 the following year. Although Dvořák was a fluent composer, he spent twice the time on this Symphony as it took him to write his previous one.

While the London audience at the premiere was enthusiastic, applauding after every movement, the Symphony is among the most somber of Dvořák’s works. Mainland European audiences were frankly astonished to hear this mood from a composer whom it had always associated with optimism. It took them a number of years to warm up to the work.

In the first movement especially, the dark opening theme prevails although a second theme in the major mode breaks the mood to a limited extent. In this symphony, Dvořák uses the flute to recreate fanciful birdcalls. The second movement is no less intense, but in this case, the opening is gentle, giving no hint of the emotional turmoil to follow in the contrasting middle section. The gentle mood returns, however, to give a soothing close to the movement.

The Scherzo is a furiant, a fast Bohemian dance in triple time that recalls the Slavonic Dances. In the Trio, the flute again supplies “sounds of nature.” Yet even in this dance movement, there is a dark undertone.

The stormy Finale is a fitting conclusion to this dramatic work. After considerable time, Dvořák introduces a new theme that vies unsuccessfully with the opening theme to lift the Symphony out of its dark mood. Only the Cello Concerto, in which Dvořák mourned in music the death of his secret love from his youth, matches the grand tragedy of the Seventh Symphony.

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