BEETHOVEN: Concerto No. 5 in E‑flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 73, Emperor

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent electorate. His baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770; he died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He wrote the Emperor Concerto in 1809. The first known performance was given in Leipzig on November 28, 1811, by Friedrich Schneider, with Johann Philipp Christian Schulz conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra. The first North American performance was at the Music Hall, Boston, on March 4, 1854 by Robert Heller, with Carl Bergmann conducting the Germania Music Society orchestra. Ada Clement was the first pianist to play it with the San Francisco Symphony; that was on November 21, 1913, with Henry Hadley conducting. In the most recent subscription performances, in April 2011, Jonathan Biss was soloist and Peter Oundjian conducted. The orchestra for the Emperor Concerto consists of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with timpani and strings. Performance time: about forty minutes.

Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of every sort!” Thus Beethoven on July 26, 1809, to Gottfried Christoph Härtel, his publisher in Leipzig. The Emperor Concerto is a magnificent affirmation made in terrible times. (The title, by the way, is not Beethoven’s and is known only in English‑speaking countries.) In 1809 Austria was at war with France for the fourth time in eighteen years. In May, one month after hostilities began, Napoleon was in the suburbs of Vienna. The French artillery began its terrifying assault. On the worst night of all, that of May 11, Beethoven sought refuge in the cellar of the house of his friend Castelli, a poet. Once there, he covered his head with pillows, hoping to protect the remaining shreds of his hearing.

Late in the summer, Beethoven regained his ability to concentrate. By year’s end he had completed, besides the E‑flat Concerto, the String Quartet; the Farewell Sonata; and two smaller piano sonatas, the wonderfully lyric No. 24 (Opus 78) and its snappy companion, No. 25 (Opus 79). Excellence is undiminished, but in quantity, 1809 is a slender year compared to the previous seven years. Whatever the reasons, Beethoven never again composed as prolifically as he had between 1802 and 1808. Beethoven’s biographer Maynard Solomon calls that period the composer’s “heroic decade.” The Sinfonia eroica of 1803 most forcefully defined the new manner; the E‑flat Piano Concerto represents both its summit and its termination.

The Emperor Concerto represents the culmination of what we have come to think of, in Solomon’s terms, as the composer’s “heroic” manner. Beethoven had begun his Fourth Piano Concerto in an unprecedented way, giving the soloist a lyric phrase without accompaniment and only after that beginning the “normal” exposition of material by the orchestra. Starting to sketch the Emperor, Beethoven again turned his mind to the question of how one might begin a concerto in a striking and original manner. Here, too, he introduces the piano sooner than an audience of 200 years ago expected to hear it—and not with a lyric or thematic statement, but in a series of flourishes. The orchestra offers three sonorous chords, the piano responding to each with fountains and cascades of broken chords, trills, and scales. Each of the three “fountains” produces new pianistic possibilities, and the long first movement—taking almost half the concerto’s length—is prodigiously and continually inventive in this department. The crescendo of excitement 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 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 quiet song, pianissimo 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 this music has subsided into stillness, Beethoven makes one of his characteristically drastic shifts, just dropping the pitch by a semitone. That move made, but still in the tempo of the slow movement, Beethoven projects the outline of a new theme, made, like all the others in the concerto, of the simplest imaginable stuff. Suddenly that new idea bursts forth in its proper tempo and fortissimo. The finale has begun. The theme is revealed as that of a robust German dance. Beethoven works out the movement with his own vast sense of space. Just before the end, the timpani attain unexpected prominence in a passage of equally unexpected quiet. But this descent into adagio and pianissimo is undone in a coda as brilliant as it is brief.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: Yefim Bronfman, with David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich (Arte Nova)  |  Murray Perahia, with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (CBS Masterworks)  |  Rudolf Serkin, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony)  |  Leon Fleisher, with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics)

Reading: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books)  |  Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton)  |  The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson)  |  Beethoven: His Life, Work, and World, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Thames and Hudson; reprinted by Collier Books)

On DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven’s Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also at keepingscore.org.