Great Masters at the Keyboard: Beethoven

Beethoven for PT 8-2012

This article is reprinted from our publication “The Piano Times,” in honor of Beethoven, who died on March 26, 1827.

Are musical audiences more exacting today than they used to be?  In some respects, it would seem that the answer is in the affirmative.  At all events, the master pianists of today who make the grand tour are so worn out with the sheer physical stress of travel at the end of the season that they are obliged to spend the greater part of their summer vacation in recuperating.  Nevertheless, we do not today expect pianists to improvise on a given theme, as both Beethoven and Mozart were expected to do; in fact, we do not expect modern pianists to shine as composers, nor composers to be brilliant pianists.  The following account of how Beethoven played is extracted from an article by Henri Kling in Le Guide Musical, an excellent musical journal published in the early part of the twentieth century in Belgium.

From his adolescence, Beethoven possessed a virtuosity of the first order.  During the first years he was in Vienna from 1795 to 1814, Beethoven often had occasion to display his talents.  It was thus that on the 29th of March, 1795, Beethoven lent his assistance to the Society of Musical Artists, and played for the first time his Concerto in C Major, Op. 15.  A Viennese critic characterized the playing of Beethoven in the following terms: “His playing is bold, brilliant, full of impetuosity that at times compromised his clearness.  He shone above all in his improvisations, in which he excelled admirably.  Since the death of Mozart, who, for me, remains the non plus ultra, I have not experienced artistic delight comparable to that which Beethoven has given me.”

On the 22nd of December, 1808, Beethoven gave a recital at the Theater an der Wien, in which he interpreted for the first time his Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 73.  An amusing incident recorded by Spohr in his Memories marks this memorable performance.  “Beethoven,” he says, “played a new concerto of his own, but after the first Initi, forgot that he was the soloist; he raised his hands and commenced to conduct with them.  At the first sforzando, he threw his arms so violently to the right and left that he knocked down the two candlesticks placed on the piano.  The audience laughed, and this put Beethoven in such a temper that he stopped the orchestra and made it begin over again.  Fearing that the same accident might happen a second time, Seyfried, the conductor, had two small boys stand on each side of Beethoven, each holding a candlestick.  One of these youngsters approached the master in good faith, his eyes following the music.  When the fatal sforzando was again reached, however, he received from Beethoven’s right hand such a resounding blow that he was terrified, and the poor boy allowed the candlestick to fall.  The other boy, with greater wisdom, had anxiously followed the movements of the master, and by dodging quickly had luckily managed to avoid the blow.  If the audience had laughed at the previous mishap, it fairly exploded at this one.  Beethoven became so furious that on the first chord at which the solo again entered, he broke half a dozen piano strings!  All the attempts on the part of music lovers in the hall to obtain silence were in vain.  Thus the first allegro of the concerto was entirely lost upon the audience.”

After the fashion of Mozart, Beethoven played only his own works in public; he composed five concertos for piano and orchestra which are admirable masterpieces in this style of composition.  One should also mention the Fantasia in C Minor for piano, chorus, and orchestra.

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