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Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor"

About the Work

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quick Look Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Susanna Mälkki, conductor / Garrick Ohlsson, piano, plays Beethoven Nov. 18 - 20, 2010
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

The year 1809 was a difficult one for Vienna and for Beethoven. In May, Napoleon invaded the city with enough firepower to send the residents scurrying and Beethoven into the basement of his brother's house. The bombardment was close enough that he covered his sensitive ears with pillows to protect them from the concussion of the blasts. On July 29th, he wrote to the publisher Breitkopf und Härtel, "We have passed through a great deal of misery. I tell you that since May 4th, I have brought into the world little that is connected; only here and there a fragment. The whole course of events has affected me body and soul... What a disturbing, wild life around me; nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts." He bellowed his frustration at a French officer he chanced to meet: "If I were a general and knew as much about strategy as I do about counterpoint, I'd give you fellows something to think about." Austria's finances were in shambles, and the annual stipend Beethoven had been promised by several noblemen who supported his work was considerably reduced in value, placing him in a precarious pecuniary predicament. As a sturdy tree can root in flinty soil, however, a great musical work grew from these unpromising circumstances – by the end of that year, 1809, Beethoven had completed his "Emperor" Concerto.

When conditions finally allowed the Concerto to be performed in Leipzig some two years later, it was hailed by the press as "without doubt one of the most original, imaginative, most effective but also one of the most difficult of all concertos." (The soloist was Friedrich Schneider, a prominent organist and pianist in Leipzig who was enlisted by the local publisher Breitkopf und Härtel to bring this Concerto by the firm's most prominent composer to performance.) The Viennese premiere on February 12, 1812, with Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny at the keyboard, fared considerably less well. It was given as part of a benefit party sponsored by the augustly titled "Society of Noble Ladies for Charity for Fostering the Good and Useful." Beethoven's Concerto was only one unit in a passing parade of sopranos, tenors and pianists who dispensed a stream of the most fashionable musical bon-bons for the delectation of the Noble Ladies. Beethoven's majestic work was out of place among these trifles, and a reviewer for one periodical sniffed, "Beethoven, full of proud self-confidence, refused to write for the crowd. He can be understood and appreciated only by the connoisseurs, and one cannot reckon on their being in the majority at such affairs." It was not the musical bill that really robbed the attention of the audience from the Concerto, however. It was the re-creation, through living tableaux – in costume and in detail – of paintings by Raphael, Poussin and Troyes. The Ladies loved that. It was encored. Beethoven left.

The sobriquet "Emperor" attached itself to the E-flat Concerto very early, though it was not of Beethoven's doing. If anything, he would have objected to the name. "Emperor" equaled "Napoleon" for Beethoven, as for most Europeans of the time, and anyone familiar with the story of the "Eroica" Symphony will remember how that particular ruler had tumbled from the great composer's esteem. "This man will trample the rights of men underfoot and become a greater tyrant than any other," he rumbled to his young friend and pupil Ferdinand Ries. The Concerto's name may have been tacked on by an early publisher or pianist because of the grand character of the work; or it may have originated with the purported exclamation during the premiere by a French officer at one particularly noble passage, "C'est l'Empereur!" The most likely explanation, however, and one ignored with a unanimity rare among musical scholars, is given by Anton Schindler, long-time friend and early biographer of Beethoven. The Viennese premiere, it seems, took place at a celebration of the Emperor's birthday. Since the party sponsored by the Noble Ladies was part of the festivities ordered by the French conquerors, what could be more natural than to call this new Concerto introduced at that gathering the "Emperor"?

The "Emperor" is the largest in scale of all Beethoven's concertos. It is also the last one, though he did considerable work on a sixth piano concerto in 1815 but never completed it. The Fifth Concerto is written in a virtuosic style that looks forward to the grand pianism of Liszt in its full chordal textures and wide dynamic range. Such prescience of piano technique is remarkable when it is realized that the modern, steel-frame concert grand was not perfected until 1825, and in this work, written sixteen years earlier, Beethoven envisioned possibilities offered only by this later, improved instrument.

The Concerto opens with broad chords for orchestra answered by piano before the main theme is announced by the violins. The following orchestral tutti embraces a rich variety of secondary themes leading to a repeat of all the material by the piano accompanied by the orchestra. A development ensues with "the fury of a hail-storm," wrote the eminent English music scholar Sir Donald Tovey. Following a recapitulation of the themes and the sounding of a proper chord on which to launch a cadenza, Beethoven wrote into the piano part, "Do not play a cadenza, but begin immediately what follows." At this point, he supplied a tiny, written-out solo passage that begins the coda. This being the first of his concertos that Beethoven himself would not play, he wanted to have more control over the finished product, and so he prescribed exactly what the soloist was to do. With this novel device, he initiated the practice of completely writing out all solo passages that was to become the standard method used by most later composers in their concertos.

The second movement begins with a chorale for strings. Sir George Grove dubbed this movement a sequence of "quasi-variations," with the piano providing a coruscating filigree above the orchestral accompaniment. This Adagio leads directly into the finale, a vast rondo with sonata elements. The bounding ascent of the main theme is heard first from the soloist and then from the orchestra. Developmental episodes separate the returns of the theme. The closing pages include the magical sound of drum-taps accompanying the shimmering piano chords and scales, and a final brief romp to the finish.