Concerto No. 5

in E-Flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73, "Emporer", Ludwig Van Beethoven

On May 12, 1809 Napoleon’s army successfully occupied Vienna, part of a succession of victories which would not end until 1812 in the disastrous invasion of Russia, and the final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. By this time, Beethoven had entirely lost faith in the ideals he once had attributed to Napoleon (seen in the dedication to Napoleon of his Third Symphony, which he later erased in a fit of rage) and re-dedicated “to celebrate the memory a great man… ”

In 1809 Beethoven was furiously witnessing the enormous successes of a tyrannical man who had crowned himself emperor in 1804, and even worse, had declared that his family would succeed him in perpetuity. Gone was the hero of the French Revolution, and in its place was a frightening military genius who was busy conquering Europe in a succession of conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars. Thanks to general conscription, the French army was a powerhouse. Conquering Vienna was part of his grand, ambitious plan. Vienna was no match for his cunning or his determination.

Sensing the city’s demise, the Viennese nobility had fled the city by the time Napoleon arrived, off to their country castles perhaps, but Beethoven elected to remain in his brother’s basement (or that of the poet, Castelli) covering his ears to deafen explosions and cannons in his neighborhood. On July 26, he wrote to his publisher, Gottfried Christoph Hartel in Leipzig, “The course of events has attacked me, body and soul… What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me…nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.” It was within this chaotic, brutal matrix that Beethoven worked on his fifth and final Piano Concerto in E flat. (A sixth piano concerto was partially completed and scored in 1815, but nothing ever came of it.) Amazingly, the composer completed the majority of Opus 73 by December. For Beethoven, the outer world was but a part of his existence: a greater reality was the discipline of his writing. “Nulla dies sine linea” he stated (“No day without a line of music”). He did exactly that, faithful to his art and his commitment.

It was a massive creation, “music of sweeping imperious grandeur, unknown to any concerto written up to 1812, and beside which the dignity of emperors or archdukes loses all consequence.” It was the culmination of Beethoven’s “heroic decade,” 1802-1809. “The Fifth Piano Concerto marks both a summit and termination.” (John N. Burk)

The concerto premiered in Leipzig on November 28, 1811, and in Vienna, February 12, 1812. The origin of the sobriquet is not verified. Legend has it that at the concert, a French army officer shouted “C’est l’empereur!” (It is the emperor!) or perhaps was attached by Johann Baptist Cramer, the English publisher of the concerto. It is the only piano concerto which Beethoven did not introduce himself.

Opus 73 begins with three huge orchestral chords, each separated by pianistic flourishes from the soloist. Immediately afterwards, the orchestra follows with a sweeping theme, followed by several subsidiary subjects. Strings sing the first main theme quietly and are answered immediately by horns. The pianist soon answers, leading us into a rhapsodic world, moving steadily toward the second main idea. A dramatic, complex development follows with both forces taking equal part, thus fusing both performing elements. The recapitulation is traditional with major themes being re-stated almost without change. At the point where one would anticipate a cadenza, Beethoven wrote, “Do not play a cadenza, but attack immediately the following.” The pianist does exactly that, initiating an episode, which introduces a stunning coda.

The relatively small second movement opens with a slow moving, hymn-like melody presented by muted violins. After a small pause, the soloist responds with a complementary, intimate theme in slow triplets followed by graceful variations. The two forces converse slowly, always relaxed, and at ease. A small crescendo adds momentary dynamic color: and an extraordinary section ensues with an exquisite long trill from the soloist, underscored with syncopated chords which yields seamlessly into a poised, decorated recap of the opening melody. Beethoven urged that the movement not be taken too slowly, “un poco piu mosso” and assigning two large beats per measure rather than four, giving a pulse which has momentum. Cramer’s first published edition noted, “This must not drag.”

At the close, listen for a soft bassoon passage, which slides into a single sustained tone. This tone (B) drops a semitone (to B-flat), establishing a new possibility for modulation: the piano whispers (pianissimo) a new tune in two measures, offering a hint of what is to come, but in no way forecasting the astonishing character change of the last movement.

From quiet tranquility, Beethoven soars into a movement of high rhythmic propulsion and ebullient linear sweeps. The little melody heard at the outset becomes the basis for an enormous rondo in 6/8 meter. That aforementioned, tiny hint is now fully highly energized, leaping upward in powerful syncopated rhythms, roaring ahead in its statements (fantissimo), separated by imaginative, jolly episodes. One of the most interesting moments is the duet for piano and timpani just before the close. Throughout, the music never loses its impetuous, headlong nature, surging to a massive closure, marked by soaring piano scale passages and orchestral flourishes.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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