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Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor"

About the Work

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quick Look Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Jiri Belohlávek, conductor: Igor Levit, piano, plays Beethoven / Works by Mozart & Martinu Nov. 19 - 21, 2015
© Peter Laki

There are several stories about how this concerto-the last and, to some, the greatest of Beethoven's piano concertos-came to be called "The Emperor."  According to one, a French soldier from Napoleon's army occupying Vienna, jumped to his feet after hearing the work and exclaimed: "L'empereur!"  He may have been impressed by the concerto's majestic proportions, or else he was reminded of French revolutionary marches by certain themes in the work.  In either case, he was right on target, as a soldier should be.

The great musicologist Alfred Einstein (1880-1952) wrote an interesting study on "Beethoven's Military Style," a style present in most of Beethoven's concertos.  Beethoven adopted this manner from Giovanni Battista Viotti, a Parisian composer of Italian birth (1755-1824) known mainly for his violin concertos.  Einstein found the connection "unmistakable":


One may characterize it as an idealized quickstep:  rapid four-four time, progressing boldly with growing intensity, with dotted eighth-notes and up-beat patterns, with ever-pulsating rhythm-although above this rhythm some cantabile, "feminine" melodies hover, and triplets and virtuoso figurations soar upward.


This description fits the main theme of the "Emperor" Concerto's first movement to a t.  It appears after a most extraordinary opening, in which a brilliant piano cadenza (not to be improvised but fully written out) is punctuated by orchestral chords that outline the most familiar of all harmonic progressions (?one-four-five-one").  The orchestral exposition that follows abounds in "military" dotted-eighth patterns; after the piano re-enters, however, these models are soon transcended as one of the themes receives an entirely new character.  The second theme, originally all rhythm and angularity, is transformed into a continuous, smooth eighth-note motion played in the piano's highest register and in a distant tonality.  The accompaniment consists of one clarinet, one bassoon, one cello, and occasional double-bass pizzicatos (plucked notes).  It is a short moment of great mystery, cut short by an abrupt return to the initial form of the theme.

The piano writing is more brilliant that in any of the earlier concertos; it includes, in the development section alone, virtuosic sixteenth-note passages in both hands simultaneously, dashing octave runs, and expressive melodic motifs, often in very close succession.  The recapitulation, which begins with a somewhat shorter replay of the opening piano cadenza, has another, even more stunning, cadenza-like passage at the end.  Yet although it is introduced by the chord (the so-called "six-four") that always precedes cadenzas, what we hear is not an ad-libitum interpolation that can be improvised or written out by the performer.  This becomes clear as soon as two horns quietly join the piano, followed by other instruments.  In fact, Beethoven's instruction in the score, written in Italian, the international language of music at the time, reads:  Non si fa una Cadenza, ma s'attacca subito il seguente ("There is no cadenza; instead, proceed directly with the following").  Beethoven in this work assumed such total control over every aspect of the composition that it became impossible to leave anything to chance.  (Also, this was his only piano concerto that he was unable to perform himself because of his deafness, and apparently, he didn't trust his pupil Carl Czerny enough to allow him to improvise his own cadenza.)  Ultimately, this non-cadenza does fulfill the formal function of the traditional cadenza; it allows the performer to display her or his technical prowess, in a bravura section built upon some of the movement's most important themes.

The second movement opens with a chorale-like melody played by muted strings; the tonality is a distant B major-a key that has already been touched upon in the first movement.  The piano responds to the chorale with an expressive second theme that moves faster than the orchestra's chorale.  The two motions are then combined as the chorale melody is taken over by the piano (the strings play along pizzicato), its slow quarter-notes accompanied by the faster triplets derived from the second theme.  After a further variation where the motion intensifies (the triplets replaced by faster sixteenth-notes), the music comes to a halt on the note B.  Beethoven simply lowers this note by a half-step to B flat, to prepare the return of E-flat major in the last movement.

There is no pause between the second and third movements; in fact, the continuity is assured through the appearance of the finale theme in a slow tempo at the end of the second movement, before it is played in fast motion by the solo piano.  In a Mozart or early Beethoven rondo, the character of the main theme would remain the same throughout; here, however, the exuberant melody becomes more subdued about the middle and touches on many distant keys before it returns in its original form.  The penultimate moment of the concerto is particularly memorable for a suspenseful duo between the solo piano and the solo timpani.  This surprising episode is followed by only a few brief measures to conclude this incomparable concerto.