LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” (1809)
Composed while Vienna was under siege by Napoleon’s armies, Beethoven’s last piano concerto was born under the sign of war. “What a destructive, unruly life around me! Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of all sorts!” wrote the nearly deaf composer. To protect his deteriorating hearing from the noise, Beethoven had sought refuge in a friend’s basement and covered his ears with pillows. Yet his despair amid the chaos is never manifested in the score; the music remains defiant, rebellious, triumphant. This concerto concluded one of Beethoven’s most vibrantly productive periods, in which he created an astonishing number of masterpieces (including four symphonies, the Piano Concerto No. 4, the opera Fidelio, the Violin Concerto, the three dramatic “Razumovsky” String Quartets, and two of his great piano sonatas—the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein”). Sadly, however, it is the only one of his five piano concertos that he could not premiere himself, due to his near-total deafness. Beethoven introduced something new in this piece: where soloists would normally expect to improvise and show off their technical abilities in a cadenza, he wrote in the score: “do not play a cadenza, but immediately begin the following.” He notated an enhanced cadenza-like passage that continues to work the thematic materials and then proceeds to the end of the first movement. After its Leipzig premiere in 1811, a journalist proclaimed: “It is without doubt one of the most original, imaginative, most effective but also one of the most difficult of all existing concertos.” It is ironic that this concerto should come to be known as “Emperor” (the nickname was appended after Beethoven’s death and refers not to Napoleon, but to the work’s regal temperament); it was Napoleon’s power grab, after all, that so disillusioned and infuriated the composer of the Third Symphony that he tore its original title page. Political implications aside, Beethoven’s masterpiece speaks with both majesty and poetry—a crowning achievement indeed.