Did you know that in his time, Beethoven was as well known for his piano playing as he was for composing?
In Vienna, at the turn of the 19th century, improvisation contests between two pianists was considered a fun night for aristocrats. Basically, it was “Lip Sync Battle” in powdered wigs! During Beethoven’s first years in Vienna, he had gone up against all the local talent and won. In 1800, when Beethoven was thirty, Daniel Steibelt came to town. He was one of Europe’s most famous pianists, a stuffy, uptight German from Berlin. Two aristocrats, Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Lichnowsky agreed to sponsor a battle between Beethoven and Steibelt. The princes were very top-drawer in Vienna, and both were very fond of Beethoven, with the older Lichnowsky providing housing when Beethoven first came to Vienna, and Lobkowtiz, who was two years younger than Beethoven, providing significant funding and support.
The battle took place in Lobkowitz’s magnificent concert room on the first floor of his palace (built at great expense and contributing to his later bankruptcy). The structure of the contest was that one musician would set a tune for the other to improvise on, and they would go back and forth until a winner was declared. On this night, Steibelt went first, bringing a piece of his own music and playing it to thundering effect. Beethoven then stepped up and turned Steibelt’s sheet music upside down! He took the first four notes of the piece and began to play variations on it, improvising, imitating Steibelt’s noisy playing, making a parody of it. The audience loved it, and Steibelt got up and walked out, outplayed and humiliated.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was first performed on 5 April 1803, with the composer as soloist. His page-turner at the concert, Austrian musician and composer Ignaz von Seyfried, later wrote in his memoirs that the pages were mainly blank, explaining, “I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper.”
The fact that Beethoven was a virtuosic pianist informs his showcasing of the instrument in all its highly expressive glory. And around this time, the piano itself was taken to a new level of technical ability. Manufacturers added additional high notes to the piano, going beyond the standard five octaves. Beethoven took advantage of these new high notes, although it would mean the concerto could only properly be performed on one of these new pianos, and his third Piano Concerto is the first to ever include a high G note.
According to a minor composer, critic and writer of the time, Carl Ludwig Junker, “Beethoven's playing differs so greatly from the usual method of treating the piano, that it seems as if he had struck out an entirely new path for himself.” Ranking Beethoven among the top 25 greatest pianists of all time, ClassicFM.com says, “We may not have any recordings of Beethoven performing, but we have the virtuosic and inventive music he wrote for the piano and accounts from people who heard him play. The man who is now better known as a composer was much admired for his use of legato and the singing tone he was able to produce.”
Of course, we have no video of Beethoven playing, but we do have some incredible performances. Listen to one of the greatest interpreters of Beethoven’s piano concertos, Daniel Barenboim, performing Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Royal Danish Orchestra. Also, check out our guest artist for Beethoven Unleashed, Martina Filjak, playing the Beethoven Hammerklavier Piano Sonata. This performance won her the first prize at the Cleveland International Piano Competition. We can’t wait to hear her take on Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Cape Symphony! Ticket sales are brisk, so get yours now at capesymphony.org or by calling 508.362.1111.