Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2

Beethoven’s second piano concerto is, in fact his first: he completed it in 1795, two years before the concerto which ended up being assigned as “First” due to a publishing error. Even these two early concertos were not, technically, the first piano concerto that Beethoven wrote: at the age of fourteen, he produced an entire concerto in E flat, and sometime in his late teens and early twenties he produced a second attempt, of which only the first movement exists.

Thus, Beethoven was already a relatively experienced composer of piano concertos when he wrote the Second, at the age of twenty-five. Experienced enough, it seems, to have high standards: although he wrote the piece mainly for himself to perform, he was never entirely satisfied with it. He sold it for cheap, writing to his publisher, “I value the concerto at only ten ducats, because, as I have already written, I do not give it out as one of my best.”

We would do well, however, to hold in mind Beethoven at one of his more honest moments, on the value of his lesser work: “What I sh*t is better than anything you could ever think up,” he wrote to a critic, defending his (atrocious, but lucrative) battle piece Wellington’s Victory.

The Second Piano Concerto succeeded fabulously at the purpose for which Beethoven used it: his very first public appearance in Vienna, at a charity concert to benefit the widows and orphans of local musicians. Beethoven was ill in the days leading up to the concert, and a friend wrote that “not until the afternoon of the second day before the concert did he write the rondo [the final movement], and then while suffering from a pretty severe colic which frequently afflicted him…. In the anteroom sat four copyists to whom he handed sheet after sheet as soon as it was finished.” The last-minute rondo is one of the highlights of the piece, a catchy tune based on the “scotch snap” rhythm, short-long, short-long: a pattern common in English and Scottish country songs, but nonexistent in their German and Italian equivalents, and thus recognizably foreign-sounding to Beethoven’s audience in Vienna.