Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, Opus 73, Emperor

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

: Probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th). Bonn, then an independent electorate
DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna


WORLD PREMIERE: November 28, 1811. Friedrich Schneider with Johann Philipp Christian Schulz and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig

US PREMIERE: March 4, 1854. Robert Heller with Carl Bergmann and the orchestra of the Germania Music Society, at the Music Hall, Boston

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—November 21, 1913. Ada Clement was soloist, Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—January 2016. Emanuel Ax was soloist, Krzysztof Urbański conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; with timpani; and strings

DURATION: About 38 mins

THE BACKSTORY  “Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of every sort!” Thus wrote 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 brother Caspar. 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 No. 5, the Harp String Quartet, Opus 74, in the same key; the Farewell Sonata, also in E‑flat; 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 Piano Concerto No. 5 represents both its summit and its termination.

THE MUSIC  The Emperor Concerto represents the culmination of what we have come to think of 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 entire first movement—the longest Beethoven ever wrote—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 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.

Recordings: Garrick Ohlsson with Michael Palmer and the American Sinfonietta (Natural Soundfields Limited)  |  Emanuel Ax with André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RCA 24/96 Sound Dimension)  |  Leon Fleisher with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics)  |  Stephen Kovacevich, soloist and conducting the Australian Chamber Orchestra (Classics for Pleasure)  |  Murray Perahia with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Sony)  

Online: Keeping Score: Beethoven’s Eroica with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

Reading: The New Grove Beethoven, by Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson (Norton)  |  Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer)  |  Life of Beethoven, by Alexander Wheelock Thayer, revised and updated by Elliot Forbes (Princeton)

(February 2018)