Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"), Op. 73

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Lakeview Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), Op. 73 on Tuesday, April 30th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), Op. 73
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Aside from the indelible opening bars of the composer’s Fifth Symphony, the word “Beethoven” conjures no other idea more than Joseph Stieler’s (1781 – 1858) iconic 1820 painting of the subject. We see a man gazing up from a musical manuscript, pencil still clutched in his right hand, bright crimson scarf around his neck, and white and grey untamed hair strewn about. His deep-set dark eyes appear otherworldly looking up above our heads, and his jaw and mouth appear resolute and decisive; it is as if he hardly notices us who see him in the portrait. This caricature of Beethoven, as a man consumed in his own inventive world, is well-served by the actuality of his biography. Beethoven was, in fact, one of Western music’s first successful artists beholden to no one but himself.

Born to an abusive father and sickly mother, Ludwig was a lonely child who came to find solace in music. His father, who realized that young Beethoven’s musical aptitude was extraordinary, capitalized on his son’s talent as best he could, obtaining sporadic music lessons and promoting concerts for Ludwig as a child prodigy, the successor to Mozart. This publicity enabled Beethoven to gain some level of local notoriety, and by 12 years of age, he was appointed court organist to the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne.

At age 16, Beethoven’s talent and fame as an organist and blossoming composer enabled him to move to the music capital of the world: Vienna. There, he was introduced to Count Ferdinand von Waldstein (1762 – 1823), who soon became a lifelong friend and financial supporter of Beethoven. Though he was only eight years older than the composer, Count von Waldstein saw in this young virtuoso an “everyman” artist – one who was not afraid to buck the trend of traditional musical Classicism in favor of a style of personal expression that, in this time period, was quite scarce. von Waldstein’s initial financial support enabled Beethoven to avoid wasting his early career composing in the popular style of the day and gave him a degree of artistic freedom to experiment with new musical textures and colors.

Further, Beethoven seemed completely uninterested in appeasing the aristocracy by conforming to the social norms of the day. At a high society function in Vienna, Austrian aristocrat Frau von Bernhard wrote of the event, “I still remember, clearly, both Haydn and Salieri sitting on the sofa on one side of the small music room. Both carefully dressed in the old fashion way with bagwig and silk hose, whereas even there Beethoven would come dressed in the informal fashion of the other side of the Rhine, almost truly ill-dressed.” This “other side of the Rhine” was a common derogatory phrase used by Austrians to describe Germans living in Austria who were thought to be uncultured and crass. Beethoven was neither, but he simply chose not to accommodate what he saw as a dying tradition of Imperialistic tea parties and balls. Beethoven’s individualism and disregard of beau monde protocol became a source of endless fascination to the Vienna aristocrats. A local newspaper described him as “coarse, but honest and unaffected. He says quite bluntly whatever he may be thinking.”

The Fifth Piano Concerto, written between 1809 and 1811, was composed during the most trying period of Beethoven’s life. At 39 years of age, Beethoven had almost completely lost his hearing, had experienced two devastating failed marriage proposals, often suffered from severe headaches and fevers, and openly contemplated suicide. Additionally, in May of 1809, Napoleon’s troops attacked the city of Vienna and continued their siege throughout the following summer. Beethoven suffered both the stress of living in a city that shook with mortar fire and constant painful assaults on what precious hearing he had remaining. In July he wrote his publisher, “Since May 4 I have produced very little coherent work, at most a fragment here and there. The whole course of events has in my case affected both body and soul… What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me: nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.” Despite the traumatic conditions, Beethoven continued to compose – and ultimately produced one of the most popular piano concertos ever written. Arguably, the Fifth Piano Concerto marks the end of what Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon calls the composer’s “heroic decade.” The Third Symphony (Eroica) of 1803 most forcefully defined the new manner, and the Fifth Piano Concerto represents both its summit and its termination.

Beethoven’s work during this time heavily molded the musical ideas and style that would eventually lead into the Romantic era – which matured hand-in-hand with the Age of Enlightenment. This period is characterized by its emphasis on personal artistic emotion and individualism as well as the glorification of nature. Works are expressively programmatic and often deal with philosophical themes. Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica), for one, is a musical offering of his staunch republican beliefs that the country is considered a public matter, not the private concern or property of the rulers. In fact, Beethoven abhorred individuals who thought they alone were the collective of an institutional power and showed no deference to checks and balances on authority. When Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) established the First Consul of France in 1799, Beethoven (and many others) saw the initial gleams of promise of a modern representative democracy in Europe, where class and title no longer held value over individual citizenship and collaborative national progress. Beethoven originally dedicated the Third Symphony to Napoleon, who he believed embodied the democratic and anti-monarchical ideals of the French revolution. Beethoven’s secretary Ferdinand Ries (1784 – 1838) recounted that Beethoven withdrew his dedication when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French on May 14, 1804, springing into a rage and screaming, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” Beethoven then ran to his work table, seized the title-page of the symphony, and tore it to shreds. This example of Beethoven’s disgust for all things imperial seems to contradict the subtitle of the Fifth Piano Concerto – Emperor. In fact, this epithet was not Beethoven's own but was coined by Johann Cramer (1771 – 1858), the English publisher of the concerto, as a stunt to promote higher sales. It is safe to assume Beethoven would not have subtitled his work “Emperor.”

The Fifth Piano Concerto introduces the solo piano sooner than an audience of the Classical era expected– and not with a lyric or thematic statement, but in a series of flourishes. The orchestra offers three sonorous chords, and the piano responds to each with fountains and cascades of broken chords, trills, and scales. Each of the three “fountains” produces new pianistic possibilities, and the entire first movement– the longest Beethoven ever wrote– is prodigiously and continually inventive in this department. The crescendo of excitement that Beethoven builds during this movement depends crucially on the increase in dissonance. He blends brilliance with quiet, and throughout he tempers the virtuosic writing with the instruction dolce: literally, “sweet.” The slow middle movement comes across as both interestingly fresh and reassuringly tied to where we have been. The chief music here is a chorale, to which the piano’s first response is a song, soft and expressive. Beethoven presents us with two variations on the chorale: the first given to the piano, the second to the orchestra, with the piano accompanying (but the accompaniment contains the melody, rhythmically “off” by a fraction). When the music slowly subsides into stillness, Beethoven utilizes his characteristically drastic shifts by dropping the pitch by a semitone, and, still in the tempo of the slow movement, outlines a new theme with which suddenly a new idea bursts forth, in its proper tempo and fortissimo, leading directly into the finale. The finale’s theme is that of a robust German dance, and the movement is written as a seven-part rondo form (ABACABA). The solo piano introduces the main theme before the full orchestra affirms the soloist's statement. The rondo's B-section begins with piano scales before the orchestra again responds. The C-section is much longer, presenting the theme from the A-section in three different keys before the piano performs a passage of arpeggios. Rather than finishing with a strong entrance from the orchestra, however, the cadenza ends with a trill that dies away until the introductory theme reappears, played first by the piano and then by the orchestra. In the last section, the theme undergoes variation before the concerto ends with a short cadenza and robust orchestral response.

The premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto was on November 28, 1811 with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Due to hearing loss, Beethoven was unable to perform the work with an orchestra. The concerto was debuted by conductor Johann Schulz (1773 – 1827), with Friedrich Schneider (1786 – 1853) as soloist. In its review, the German music newspaper Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reported that the audience “could hardly content itself with the ordinary expressions of recognition” in their excitement at hearing this great, and final, piano concerto by Beethoven. This work truly exemplifies the artistic power of individualism, as expressed by one of the world’s greatest composers.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), Op. 73 on April 30th, 2019: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program Notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith