Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, “Emperor”

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827

There is a certain irony in the subtitle of "Emperor" that was later given to Beethoven's Fifth and final Piano Concerto, but never used by the composer himself. By the spring of 1809 when Beethoven was creating his "Emperor" Concerto, the last person he would have wanted to honor was the emperor of the day, Napoleon Bonaparte. Years earlier, he had angrily obliterated a dedication to the French leader he'd once admired from the title page of his Third Symphony, the "Eroica," after he learned that Napoleon had just crowned himself Emperor. "Now he will become a tyrant like all the others," the composer raged.

Now in May 1809, Napoleon's armies were actually besieging the city of Vienna. Beethoven’s home was in the line of fire of the French cannons, and he was forced to flee to his brother’s house, where he holed up in the cellar with a pillow pressed to his still sensitive ears. But his work on his new Concerto did not cease.

And yet in many ways “Emperor,” taken in a more generic sense, is an appropriate title for this concerto. It is a work of imperial size and scope — particularly in its huge first movement — and it reflects its war-riven era in its virile, martial tone. Its key — E-flat major — was one of Beethoven’s favorites and one he associated with heroic thoughts; it is also the key of the “Eroica." Sadly, Beethoven was never able to display his own powers as a pianist with this work. Although he had introduced all his other keyboard concertos to the public, his deafness was too far advanced for him to risk playing the 1810 premiere in Leipzig.

The length and complexity of the sonata-form first movement demonstrate Beethoven's new symphonic conception of the concerto. The opening is boldly innovative. First we hear the pianist sweeping over the keyboard in grand, toccata-like arpeggios and scales, punctuated by loud chords from the orchestra. Then the soloist allows the orchestra to present its long exposition of themes. The first theme, with its distinctive turn ornament, is introduced immediately. The second, a quirky little march, appears first in halting minor-mode form in the strings, then is immediately smoothed out and shifted to the major by the horns. Over the course of the movement, Beethoven will transform both these themes in a wondrous range of keys, moods, and figurations.

After its long absence, the piano begins its version of the exposition with an ascending chromatic scale ending with a long, high trill. Throughout, Beethoven uses this scale as an elegant call-to-attention: whenever we hear it, we are being given notice that a new section of the movement is beginning. It will mark the opening of the development section and later the closing coda after the recapitulation.

Just before that coda comes the usual moment for the soloist's big cadenza. But here Beethoven has quashed the soloist's customary right to improvise his or her own exhibition of virtuosity. Fearing the jarring improvisations other soloists might make, the composer wrote in Italian in the score: "Non si fa una Cadenza, ma s'attaca subito il seguente" ("Don't play a cadenza, but attack the following immediately"). He then carefully wrote out a brief series of variants on both his principal themes, the piano soon joined by the horns to blend the cadenza smoothly into the movement's flow.

A complete contrast to the extroverted first movement, movement two is a sublime, very inward elegy in B major, a remote key from the home tonality of E-flat. Two themes receive a quasi-variations treatment. The first and most important is the strings' grave, almost religious theme heard at the opening. The second theme is the downward cascading music with which the piano enters.

At the close of the movement, the pianist experiments hesitantly with a new melodic/rhythmic idea. Suddenly, the spark is struck, and the theme explodes into the exuberant rondo finale. Beethoven stresses the weak beats of the dancing 6/8-meter, giving his theme an eccentric, hobbling gait. An important element is the crisp dotted rhythm first heard in the horns; this martial, drum-like motive returns us to the wartime world of the Concerto’s birth. Near the end, Beethoven gives this to the timpani, in eerie duet with the soloist, before the concerto’s triumphant finish.