Concerto No. 5 in E flat Op 73 Emperor (1809)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
- Adagio un poco mosso
- Rondo – Allegro
In 1809, the year Beethoven wrote this, his last piano concerto, self -proclaimed Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte had invaded Austria for the fourth time in eighteen years. “Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of every sort” wrote Beethoven, who, sheltering in a cellar, had clasped a pillow to his head to try and protect what little of his hearing remained. Beethoven’s dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon six years previously was short-lived and it is not surprising that the concerto’s nickname (curiously only used in the English speaking world) was not bestowed by the composer but by his friend, pianist and publisher John Cramer.
Truly an emperor amongst concertos, Beethoven’s final work in this genre paved the way for all of the great romantic piano concertos that followed. Crowning the end of his so-called “heroic period”, due to Beethoven’s debilitating deafness the Emperor is the only one of his five concertos that he did not perform. Its premiere in Leipzig two years later was well-received, unlike the later Vienna premiere with Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny as soloist. Its numerous innovations were too much for the critics who accused Beethoven of only writing for connoisseurs.
And innovations there were many. Until then the traditional concerto had pitted a virtuosic soloist against a subservient orchestral accompaniment. The Emperor concerto is more a symphony for piano and orchestra. Like in the 4th piano concerto and the violin concerto before it, there is frequent interplay between soloist and orchestra, with the soloist on occasions accompanying orchestral solos.
The first movement at 20 minutes long was the longest concerto movement written to date. The opening was also unconventional. Three massive orchestral chords are each followed by an improvisatory series of cascades and roulades from the piano, repeated in the recapitulation section and replacing the more conventional cadenza normally found towards the end of the movement.
The reflective slow movement is one of Beethoven’s finest. The introductory chorale is treated to two variations. The first is by the piano and the second, by the orchestra, leads to one of the most magical transitions in all music. The bassoon holds a B natural that drops to a B flat taken up and sustained by the horns. Over this the piano outlines the opening theme of the last movement but at the previous slow tempo. Suddenly the opening theme of the finale bursts forth on the piano answered by the full orchestra.
Although termed a rondo, there is only one contrasting episode in the finale, which contains three variations on the original lively theme. The last of these decays to a deceptive pianissimo timpani passage before finally exploding again for the brief coda.