Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto was written in 1805-1806 and first performed by the composer in March 1807 at one of Prince Lobkowitz's private musical evenings. The public premiere took place over a year later on 22 December 1808 at a concert in honour of Beethoven's friend, student, and patron Archduke Rudolph. The composer was once again at the piano, in his last performance as a pianist. Soon after, encroaching deafness would interrupt Beethoven's piano-playing career, and he would concentrate solely on his work as a composer.
The concert of 22 December was extraordinary: apart from the piano concerto and several other works, it also saw the premieres of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and his Choral Fantasy. Unfortunately, the conjunction of four major premieres in one concert proved a difficult ordeal for the audience. The symphonies and the Choral Fantasy were not particularly successful, and the piano concerto's premiere was also its last performance during the composer's life.
In fact, Beethoven himself was to a great extent responsible for this. It is obvious that the Fourth Piano Concerto is a much less "public" work than was generally expected in Beethoven's time. Rather than featuring the traditional competition between soloist and orchestra, it is more like a contemplative and tense dialogue. The concerto is unusual right from the start. In place of the orchestral exposition that was standard at the time, it begins with a tranquil and lyrical piano solo. That does not mean, of course, that the concerto offers no opportunities for the soloist to dazzle with technique. Traditional virtuosity still unquestionably has its place, it is just not in the foreground. This allows the listener to immerse themselves completely in the lucid world of the work, permeated with a potent energy. The Fourth Piano Concerto, like many other works that had been unfairly consigned to the shadows, was rescued from oblivion by the young Felix Mendelssohn, who performed it in Leipzig in 1836. This time, the concerto was a roaring success. Robert Schumann, who attended the performance, was so impressed by the work and the talent of the interpreter that, in his own words, "I sat in my place, holding my breath and afraid to move".
Beethoven's Ninth has long ceased to be simply the number of a symphony. It can be numbered among the greatest works of art of all time, such as the poems of Homer, Dante s La Divina Commedia, Raphael s Madonna, Cervantes Don Quixote, Goethe s Faust, Bach s Mass in B Minor... It expressed the aspirations of its time like no other work, at the same time proclaiming ideals that are common to all mankind, and which still hold true today. It completed Beethoven s career as a symphony composer, and also paved the way for the future. Beethoven had taken a profoundly innovative step in introducing poetry into a symphony, and this initially stunned his contemporaries. For the composer himself the Ninth Symphony meant a release from the burden of his attempts over many years to set the words of Schiller s ode An die Freude. It was in this guise – not as a song or a separate chorus, but as the finale of a Choral Symphony – as the Ninth soon came to be called – that Beethoven finally saw the light, hearing over the mists of time one of the principal means of development of the symphony as a genre. Beethoven was the first to use words to "reveal the idea", the philosophical concept of a symphony. The most important aspect, however, was that, beginning with Beethoven, the symphony, according to the well-chosen definition of the German music critic Paul Becker, began to play the role of a "secular mass", uniting concert audiences in a common experience, similar to the way in which Sunday mass united worshippers in church. And it is no coincidence that Beethoven s peerless setting of Schiller s Ode to Joy has become the official anthem of the European Community – the united Europe. It is no coincidence that it is regarded everywhere as the apotheosis of Freedom and the Brotherhood of all mankind. Beethoven himself conducted the first performance of his Ninth Symphony in Vienna on 7 May 1824.