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Program Notes: Beethoven's First Piano Concerto (September 29-30, 2023)

Updated: Sep 19, 2023


September 29-30, 2023

Ludwig van Beethoven

Coriolan Overture, op. 62 (1807)

(played without pause)

Unsuk Chin

subito con forza (2020)

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, op. 15 (1795)

Allegro con brio


Rondo (Allegro scherzando)

Jonathan Biss, piano


Robert Schumann

Symphony No. 4 in D minor, op. 120 (1851 version)


Program Notes

By Yvonne Frindle

With this concert we launch a Beethoven piano concerto cycle, featuring five soloists across the season to showcase different approaches and generations of music-making. Jonathan Biss, our first soloist, is closely associated with Beethoven’s music, both as performer and writer. The marvelous thing about the Beethoven concertos, says Biss, is that they’re so different from each other. Piano Concerto No. 1 ranges from the brilliant and witty to the profound and spiritual, and, he adds, shows incredible ingenuity: “There’s a sense in this piece of really trying to expand the boundaries of what a concerto could be. There’s a sense of an enormous personality refusing to be contained.”

Stéphane Denève is also excited to be programming the music of Korean composer Unsuk Chin, whose subito con forza will be heard back to back with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture to show, he says, “how there is a dialogue between the classical and the modern.”

Chin’s inspiration for her work has resulted in a concert first half that could be described as (nearly) all-Beethoven. Beethoven is a composer who can easily sustain “all-composer” programming because he covers so much emotional ground. That emotion and drama comes to the fore in the theatrical overture to Coriolan as well as the dialogue and humor that emerges in the concerto.

For the symphony, Denève has chosen a 19th-century German work that is too rarely performed and which he’s been wanting to program with the SLSO for a long time: Robert Schumann’s Fourth. It’s a work that has inspired and fascinated him since he was a teenager. In particular, he wants to draw your attention to what’s probably the “best transition ever from the third movement to the last. It’s so powerful.” This is just the beginning for what he promises will be a “really Romantic Fall” that will also include symphonies by Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák—all strong Romantic voices.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Overture to the play Coriolan

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died 1827, Vienna, Austria

Beethoven wrote his Coriolan overture early in 1807. This was the same year he composed much of his Fifth Symphony, and the two works convey a similar sense of dramatic struggle and elemental force. The inspiration for this overture was not Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, as might be assumed by English speakers, but a drama based on the same story by Heinrich von Collin (1771–1811). That Austrian writer was a contemporary of Beethoven, and the two men enjoyed a spirited professional friendship until Collin’s untimely death. Among the collaborations they considered or actually attempted were several operas, including one after Macbeth (Collin evidently was drawn to Shakespeare’s tragedies), for which Beethoven made substantial sketches. Unfortunately, none of these other projects reached completion, and the Coriolan overture remains the only fruit of Beethoven’s acquaintance with Collin.

Coriolan recounts the story of a Roman general who has turned against his country, leading a band of rebels to the gates of the Eternal City. Ready to sack the capital, Coriolanus rebuffs all entreaties until a delegation of women that includes his wife and mother begs him to relent. Collin’s play was first produced in 1802, enjoying successful run in Vienna of nearly two and a half years. It was revived in April 1807, and it was on this occasion that Beethoven’s overture received its public premiere. The music, however, while inspired by Collin’s play, had been composed as concert music, providing new material for Beethoven’s orchestral programs. As such, the overture is forward-looking—a tone poem at a time when no one was yet writing tone poems and when audiences weren’t necessarily expecting theatrical overtures to be descriptive of characters or action. And when it was heard in concert before the drama’s revival, one journalist commented on its “richness of ideas, bold originality and fullness of power.”

That “fullness of power” is evident from the overture’s opening moments, in which a series of shattering chords gives way to an agitated theme in the strings. Beethoven soon counters that principal idea with a more lyrical second subject, though even this proves restless rather than tranquil in character. The music surges forward with what is at times an almost violent intensity, but its conclusion, perhaps reflecting the tragic fate of the drama’s title character, is somber and quiet.

Adapted from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2002

First Performance: In a private concert for “Prince L.” (probably Lobkowitz) in March 1807; as a prelude to Collin’s play on April 24, 1807, both in Vienna.

First SLSO Performance: December 16, 1910, Max Zach conductor

Most Recent SLSO performance: May 21, 2008, Benjamin Zander conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 6 minutes

Unsuk Chin

subito con forza

Unsuk Chin

Born 1961, Seoul, South Korea

It would be wrong to tell you how this music begins. It’s enough to mention that the performance will continue without pause from Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, and that it will begin, as the Italian title suggests, “suddenly with force.”

Unsuk Chin’s subito con forza was commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020 and it takes the form of a compact musical birthday treat with many references to Beethoven’s music— occasionally obvious, but mostly discreet. Listen for hints of the “Emperor” piano concerto or the famous opening rhythm of the Fifth Symphony within the dense and decorative textures. It also employs the same orchestral forces that Beethoven might have used, but with the notable addition of an orchestral piano and keyed percussion instruments such as xylophone.

Chin was inspired not only by Beethoven’s music but by the conversation books he maintained after his hearing had deteriorated. These allowed him to communicate with friends (they would write, he would speak), and inevitably he would also use them to capture thoughts and musical ideas. In particular, Chin was drawn to one of his comments: “Dur und Moll. Ich bin ein Gewinner.” (Major and minor. I’m a winner.)

Major and minor immediately suggests the idea paired contrasts—in this case what young music students are usually taught as indicating “happy” (major) and “sad” (minor). Chin was also attracted to the “enormous contrasts” of mood in Beethoven’s music—“from volcanic eruptions to extreme serenity.” The suddenness of the opening continues in rapid shifts of mood in music that’s satisfying not only for its thrilling, roller-coaster character and marvelous orchestral colors, but for its ingenious homage to the man Chin describes as “the first consciously modern composer.” As Beethoven might have said, “It’s a winner.”

The composer and her musical style

Unsuk Chin was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1961. Initially self-taught, she studied composition at the Seoul National University before moving to Germany to study with György Ligeti in Hamburg. She has been based in Berlin since 1988, and in 2004 she won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award (the “Nobel Prize” of music) for her Violin Concerto.

Chin describes Beethoven as one of her favorite composers because “he was constantly looking for new directions. He was the first consciously modern composer, in the sense that every piece asked for original solutions, even if this meant breaking through existing forms.”

Following the UK premiere of subito con forza at the 2021 BBC Proms, The Times declared Chin’s ear for color as “her greatest weapon” and her style is characterised by what writer Paul Griffiths calls “iridescence,” with colors that “shimmer, float and weave.” Many of these distinctive colors, he explains, emerge from the natural “chimings” of the instruments she uses—piano, for instance, and her large and “delicately handled” percussion sections—as well as the rapid flutterings between different instrumental sounds.

She also creates electronic music and this experience has, writes Griffiths, “deepened her awareness of how sounds could be constituted and transformed by purely instrumental means, and so of how the orchestra could be again the magic box it was for Rimsky-Korsakov or Ravel.”

Yvonne Frindle © 2023

First Performance: September 24, 2020, Klaus Mäkelä conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam; the U.S. premiere took place in October 2021

First SLSO Performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 5 minutes

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 1

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven had a sense of musical humor, as we shall hear in his Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. He also was a superb keyboard virtuoso, by all accounts one of the greatest of his day. Carl Czerny, the composer’s student and himself a fine pianist, declared: “Nobody equaled him in the rapidity of his scales, double trills, skips, etc.” Moreover, Czerny asserted, “Beethoven’s performance of slow and sustained passages produced a magical effect on every listener.”

Beethoven composed two works for piano and orchestra during his early years in Vienna, where he settled in 1792. The Piano Concerto in C, probably completed in 1795 and now known as No. 1, was in fact the second he completed; but since the composer preferred this work to its predecessor, the Piano Concerto in B flat major (op. 19), it was published nine months earlier and consequently given a more forward position in the catalog of his works. Beethoven may have played the concerto in Vienna as part of a charity concert in December 1795. He probably also presented the work during a trip to Berlin the following year, and he definitely performed it in Prague’s Konviktsaal in 1798, at which time Václav Jan Tomašek, another accomplished pianist, heard him and reported on “Beethoven’s magnificent playing and particularly the daring flights of his improvisation moved me strangely; indeed, I felt so humbled that I did not touch my own piano for several days.”

The brilliance of Beethoven’s piano playing is very much on display in the C major concerto, which would have functioned as a virtuoso calling card for the composer. The energetic Allegro con brio first movement begins in the tradition of the “military concerto” openings often used by Mozart. The martial character of the initial theme is established by its conspicuous fanfare motif, the use of trumpets, and its proud demeanor.

The Largo (very slow) second movement is elegant and dreamlike and features the distinctive use of clarinets, especially when they play with the piano towards the end of the movement. Beethoven, in his own performance, certainly must have “produced a magical effect,” as Carl Czerny described.

The finale (fast and playful) introduces the type of musical humor often found in the works of Beethoven’s occasional teacher, Joseph Haydn, including an energetic episode in “Turkish” style. During the closing bars 25 Beethoven slows the tempo to a decorous Adagio only to pull the rug from under us with a sudden rush to the final measure.

Perhaps the funniest moment in the concerto, however, is to be heard in the longest of the three solo cadenzas that Beethoven composed for the first movement of this concerto in 1809. In this cadenza Beethoven documents a favorite trick of his that continues to trap unsuspecting listeners (and occasionally performers) to this day: he twice introduces the concluding trills that normally signal the end of a cadenza and the return of the orchestra, but then cheekily continues before eventually concluding with one last surprise. Soloist Jonathan Biss compares this cadenza to “the Big Bang.” In addition to being “absolutely massive,” he said in a 2016 interview, “it goes into wild, woolly, unexpected areas.…You sense that Beethoven is not going to be hemmed in by convention or decorum.”

Adapted from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2006

First Performance: Possibly as early as March 29, 1795, in Vienna, the composer as soloist; the first confirmed performance was in Prague in 1798, again with the composer as soloist

First SLSO Performance: February 2, 1923, Rudolph Ganz conducting from the piano Most Recent SLSO performance: January 8, 2022, Stéphane Denève conducting with Shai Wosner as soloist

Instrumentation: solo piano with flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 37 minutes

Robert Schumann

Symphony No.4 (1851 version)

Robert Schumann

Born 1810, Zwickau, Germany

Died 1856, Bonn, Germany

The 30-year-old Robert Schumann scarcely had completed his First Symphony when he set to work on a second, in the spring of 1841. On May 31 of that year, Clara Schumann, the composer’s wife, reported to her diary: “Yesterday Robert began another symphony.…I have seen none of it, but I observe Robert’s enthusiasm and hear D minor sounding wildly from a distance.” (The completed symphony was presented to her on her birthday on September 13, 1841.)

The premiere of the original version of this D minor Symphony, on December 6, 1841, was less well received than its predecessor, which had been cheered at its triumphant premiere earlier that year. Schumann acted aloof, declaring that the new symphony’s cool reception “means nothing. I know [it is] not a whit behind the First.” But despite these brave words, he withheld the score from publication.

A decade later, he returned to the piece, making significant revisions to the orchestration and other details. In this form the work proved more successful, and it was published in 1851 as the composer’s Fourth Symphony, op. 120. (Schumann had meanwhile completed two others.)

The Fourth Symphony departs significantly from the classical form Schumann had used in his First. Although the new work preserved the outline of the traditional four movement symphonic design, its sections are played without pause. This was still a relatively uncommon strategy, to the extent that the first edition labeled the work as “Symphony No.4 in D minor / Introduction, Allegro, Romanze, Scherzo and Finale in one movement.”

Schumann had also for a time considered calling it a “Symphonic Fantasy.” The movements share a number of common themes, and in this the work approaches the novel cyclical construction proposed by pianist and composer Franz Liszt, a procedure that calls for certain musical ideas to recur in different forms throughout a multi-movement composition. It’s a strategy that suggests the storytelling conventions of literature and film: flashback and reminiscence.

The first movement of the symphony opens with an introduction in slow tempo (marked in German, rather than Italian, as “somewhat slow”) built from a falling and rising melodic line. Soon we hear the initial stirring of what proves to be the principal theme of the first movement proper (Lebhaft or “lively”). This fiery melody dominates the movement to such a degree that we are well under way before any secondary ideas appear. 27 The most important of these subsidiary themes is a series of robust chords, which will reappear in the symphony’s finale.

The Romanze second movement begins with a plaintive oboe melody that dissolves into the falling and rising figure that opened the symphony. A florid theme for solo violin provides a lyrical contrast, and the return to the movement’s initial material rounds it into a clear A–B–A design.

The ensuing Scherzo reveals still more of the thematic connections that bind the symphony. Its powerful opening idea presents a mirror image of the fallingrising line of the previous two movements, whereas the central (Trio) section is based on the violin solo from the Romanze. The Trio returns once more at the end, dying away in the final minute.

The transition to the finale is strikingly similar to that in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Fragments of the first movement’s principal theme emerge over ominous tremolo rumblings, punctuated by solemn chords in the brass. Appearing tentatively at first, the music gathers momentum and at last breaks into a triumphant fast section (Lebhaft) built largely on the vigorous chordal motif from the opening movement.

Adapted from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2012

First Performance: Ferdinand David conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the original version of the symphony on December 6, 1841; the revised version we hear in this concert was first heard in Düsseldorf on December 30, 1852, the composer conducting

First SLSO Performance: January 9, 1914, Max Zach conducting

Most Recent SLSO performance: November 3, 2012, John Storgårds conducting Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 30 minutes

Jonathan Biss

Jonathan Biss


Jonathan Biss is a world-renowned pianist who channels his deep musical curiosity into performances and projects in the concert hall and beyond. In addition to performing with today’s leading orchestras, he continues to expand his reputation as a teacher, musical thinker, and one of the great Beethoven interpreters of our time. He is Co-Artistic Director alongside Mitsuko Uchida at the Marlboro Music Festival, where he has spent 15 summers. He also recently led a massive open online course (MOOC) via Coursera, reaching an international audience of over 150,000.

He writes extensively about the music he performs and has authored four audio- and e-books, including Unquiet: My Life with Beethoven, the first Audible Original by a classical musician and one of Audible’s top audiobooks of 2020.

Last season, he gave solo recitals in cities including Cologne, New York, and Philadelphia, performing music by Berg, Schumann, and Schubert; he performed Beethoven trios with violinist Midori and cellist Antoine Lederlin in Cologne, Engardin, Hamburg, London, and Tokyo; and he appeared as soloist with the Atlanta Symphony, Budapest Symphony, and the Rochester Philharmonic, as well as with the New York String Orchestra at Carnegie Hall playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). Highlights of the 2023–24 season will include recitals and chamber music in London’s Wigmore Hall, and Beethoven concertos with the London Philharmonia Orchestra and with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.

1 Comment

Sep 13, 2023

I think that the intermission is after the Beethoven piano concerto, not before it.

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