LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, op. 73, “Emperor”

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827. He composed the Emperor Concerto in 1809, but it was not performed in Vienna until early 1812. The first known performance was given in Leipzig on November 28, 1811, by Friedrich Schneider, with Johann Philipp Christian Schulz conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the last concerto that he was to complete (though he did get rather far advanced with one more essay in the genre in 1815, before breaking off work on it for good), was composed in the difficult year of 1809, a year that was much taken up with warfare, siege, and bombardments. The French erected a battery on the Spittalberg and began firing on the night of May 11—directly toward Beethoven’s apartment, which happened to be in the line of fire. The composer took refuge in the cellar of his brother’s house in the Rauhensteingasse, and he spent a miserable night protecting his sensitive ears from further damage by holding a pillow over them. The Imperial family, including especially the emperor’s youngest brother, the Archduke Rudolph, who had already become Beethoven’s sole composition student and one of his strongest supporters and closest intimates, fled the city. One of the compositions of this period, directly expressing Beethoven’s feelings for his young and cultivated patron, was the piano sonata later published as Opus 81a, with the separate movements entitled “Farewell, absence, and return.” About this time he also composed the Harp Quartet for strings, Opus 74, and completed the grandiose piano concerto published as Opus 73. All three of these works are in the key that apparently possessed Beethoven at the time, E flat major (the same “heroic” key of his earlier Third Symphony).

The nickname of the concerto, the Emperor, takes on an ironic twist in these circumstances, since the emperor to whom it must refer is Napoleon, the man responsible for that miserable night in the cellar and the successive miseries of burnt houses and wounded civilians. But Beethoven never knew anything about the nickname, which is almost never used in German speaking countries. In fact, the origin of the nickname is still unknown.

The piece was successfully performed in Leipzig in 1810, but Beethoven withheld a Viennese performance for some three years after finishing it, possibly because he hoped that his steadily increasing deafness might abate enough to allow him to take the solo part. In the end his pupil Carl Czerny played the first Vienna performance, but this time it failed unequivocally. The fault was certainly not in the composition and probably not in the performance; most likely the audience, the “Society of Noble Ladies for Charity,” expected something altogether fluffier than this noble, brilliant, lengthy, and demanding new piece.

In many respects the Emperor Concerto is a throwback, after the incredibly original treatment of the relationship between soloist and orchestra to be found in the Fourth Concerto, to the grand virtuoso showpiece with the soloist representing a two fisted hero who takes on the mighty orchestra against all odds. With elaborate bravura the piano rolls off chords, trills, scales, and arpeggios against three emphatic sustained chords in the orchestra, thus establishing the soloist’s independence before he relapses into nearly a hundred measures of silence, while the orchestra sets out the two principal themes in an enormous orchestral ritornello. The first of these, a malleable idea that gives rise to most of the developmental motives of the score, yields after a brief transition to a new theme, first heard in the minor with staccato strings, a hesitant pianissimo march. But soon it shifts to the major, and the horns, imbuing it with rare warmth, take over the melody in a legato form. Motives from the first theme build to a martial peroration before the soloist enters with a chromatic scale to take over the narrative. Once the principal material has been briefly stated by the soloist, Beethoven at last gets on with the business of moving decisively away from the home key for a decorated version of the second theme in the unexpected key of B minor moving to B major (written as C flat) before side slipping suddenly to the “normal” second key, B flat. From here on the development and recapitulation are built largely from the motives that grow out of the first theme, laid forth on the grandest scale with great nobility. The soloist throughout asserts his prerogative to mark the framework of the movement, bringing in the development (and later the coda) with a chromatic scale and the recapitulation with the same bravura gestures that opened the movement.

Just before the end of this enormous movement—it is longer than the other two put together—Beethoven introduces an entirely new wrinkle at the chord that was the traditional signal for the soloist to go flying off in improvisatory fireworks, however inappropriate they might be to the piece as a whole. Beethoven forestalls the insertion of a cadenza by writing his own, a procedure so unusual that he added a footnote to the score: “Non si fa una Cadenza, ma s’attacca subito il seguente” (“Don’t play a cadenza, but attack the following immediately”). What follows is a short but well considered working out of the principal idea with the orchestra joining in before long in the warm horn melody. (From this time on, Beethoven began to write cadenzas for his earlier concertos, too. Since he was no longer going to play them himself, he wanted to be sure that the cadenza offered was not an arbitrary intrusion into the musical fabric.)

The slow movement appears in the seemingly distant key of B, which was the very first foreign key to be visited in the opening movement. Now it serves to provide a short but atmospheric Adagio with elements of variation form. The rippling piano solo dies away onto a unison B, with a mysterious sense of anticipation, heightened by a semitone drop to B flat, the dominant of the home key. The piano begins to intimate new ideas, still in the Adagio tempo, when suddenly it takes off on a brilliant rondo theme, in which the bravura piano part once again takes the lead. The wondrously inventive development section presents the rondo theme three times, in three different keys (descending by a major third each time from C to A flat to E); each time the piano runs off into different kinds of brilliant display. The coda features a quiet dialogue between solo pianist and timpani which is on the verge of halting in silence when the final brilliant explosion brings the concerto to an end. —© S. L.