Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”)
Written by Michael Clive
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73
Is there another piano concerto so frequently performed or widely accepted as a symbol of the form’s possibilities? Listeners who would never think of poring over varying interpretations of other works remember their “first Emperor” and argue over comparative interpretations.
The sheer inventiveness and beauty of Mozart’s last and greatest piano concertos, composed from 1784 through 1786, had left Beethoven wondering how he could possibly advance the form. (Both men were pianists.) The Emperor Concerto, completed 25 years later, provides an emphatic answer. Its beauty lies not so much in the originality of its relatively few melodies, but in the poetic grandeur and depth of their development. Mozart’s uncanny mastery had pushed piano concertos from the salon to the concert hall; Beethoven gave them a breadth of scale and an engagement with ideas that have remained benchmarks through the Romantic and Modern eras.
So who is the concerto’s “emperor”? As author Andrew Schartmann notes in his Myth and Misinterpretation in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, it is clear that listeners had Napoleon in mind when the Fifth became associated with that highly charged word. But whether this nickname is appropriate is another matter. “There is no question that the popular title originated from extra-musical associations not sanctioned by the composer,” says Schartmann, who calls the term misleading. “It can only be hoped that performer[s] do not base their interpretations on these unfounded anecdotes.”
Perhaps. But the anecdotes are inescapable, and there are good reasons why they seem tied to the notion of the common man versus an imperial ideal. Beethoven was deeply concerned with the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment, and most particularly with the dilemma of the individual’s right to be free versus society’s need to be governed. Beethoven was among the many thinkers who first believed that as liberator of Europe from monarchies, Napoleon was a champion of human freedom who betrayed this noble cause by arrogating the power and privileges of monarchy to himself. The composer famously intended to dedicate his Eroica symphony — which, like the Emperor Concerto, bears a key of E flat — to Napoleon, but furiously “undedicated” it in manuscript.
There are also good reasons why the concerto form is especially well suited to Beethoven’s philosophical concerns. Its most basic formal constraint — the one (soloist) versus the many (orchestra) — provides an ideal framework for exploring the individual’s relationship with society. As with his symphonies, Beethoven’s piano concertos pushed the scope and heft of the form as he worked his way through musical ideas. Beethoven greatly admired Mozart’s piano concertos, with their constant sense of spontaneity and delight, but did not pursue these qualities in his own concertos. Instead, they get progressively weightier, until in the fifth we hear some of the noblest music ever written. For all its beauty, “delight” is not the prevailing effect; as we listen, we have the impression that all of human dignity is at stake.
Playing the Emperor Concerto is almost mandatory for most top-flight pianists, regardless of specialty; for fans, deciding one’s preferences in the Emperor Concerto goes beyond an evening’s interpretation, to larger questions of performance style and esthetic philosophy. Friendly debates over these matters have led to fistfights and worse. In recent decades we can trace these passions back to the friendly rivalry between Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, brilliant pianists whose long and influential careers represented polar opposites in playing style. Rubenstein, one of the 20th century’s greatest interpreters of Chopin, waited until quite late in his career to tackle the Emperor Concerto, astonishing his admirers when he recorded it. His approach is characteristically restrained and poetic, in marked contrast to the power and dazzle of the Horowitz version. What’s more, Rubenstein’s comments — that it had taken him until late in life to discover the truth of the concerto buried under generations of misinterpretation and virtuosic display — were taken by many as a dig at Horowitz.
This partisanship has produced a glorious legacy of performance. In the latter half of the 20th century, pianists including Claudio Arrau and Rudolf Serkin emphasized statesmanlike restraint and overall architecture in the Emperor, while others including Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter thrilled with their fleetness and overpowering technique. This abundance has left today’s interpreters and listeners to enjoy one of Beethoven’s greatest creations any way we like — clearly a case of artistic freedom in the service of human freedom.
What to Listen For
For all the philosophical meanings that many listeners hear in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, its appeal is mainly a matter of sheer, abstract beauty, expressed through melodies that combine simplicity and grandeur. Their development seems profound yet personal, partly because Beethoven’s development sections often delineate only the accompanying line in the orchestra or the piano, leaving us to imagine the melody on our own. This draws us into the composition as few concertos do — one reason why the Emperor as achieved such rare popularity with its adoring public.
The Emperor Concerto bears the hallmarks that have grown familiar through the canon of Beethoven piano concertos: the fast-slow-fast arrangement of movements, the adherence to sonata form, the final rondo with its repeated melodic statements by the soloist. But its consistently noble character is unique. If Beethoven’s rededication of the Eroica symphony shows what he thought of emperors, the Emperor Concerto still seems aptly named for its elevated expression, which never flags.
Rather than climbing to altitude, the concerto’s opening seems already to have arrived at a great height, announcing itself through repeated, solemn chords with the gilded quality of a royal fanfare. After an introduction, the splendid opening theme has a sense of firmness, strongly rooted in the concerto’s tonic key of E flat. It is balanced by a second theme that is no less noble but far softer, almost whispering its presence until the two themes reconcile. After this high-flying but worldly opening, the second-movement adagio seems to ascend still further, perhaps heavenward, stopping time with a sweet but melancholy meditation. After the end of a series of trills, listen for the second phrase of the poetic main theme: in his book The Rest Is Noise, the music critic Alex Ross identifies this as a source for Leonard Bernstein’s song “Somewhere” from the musical West Side Story.
In the final movement, the main theme is really just an arpeggio reassembled. But with each dazzling iteration, Beethoven disassembles it still further, requiring the listener to take part in the performance through active listening — just as variations on a theme may require listeners to bushwhack their way back to the original theme. As in the concerto’s opening, the main theme of the final movement has the structure and imposing character of a fanfare.
Beethoven performed his other concertos publicly, but by 1811 his increasing deafness prevented him from doing so. In listening, we can hear why: this concerto requires extreme virtuosity from the soloist. Entrances are precise and unforgiving, and some passages that have a free, cadenza-like quality are actually prescribed in detail. The premiere of the Emperor Concerto was played by pianist Friedrich Schneider in Leipzig.