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Piano Concerto No. 5, in E-Flat Major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”)
Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven was a formidable pianist; rarely did a pianist possess his dramatic expression of feeling or musicality. Like Mozart, Beethoven was an expert improviser, but when he performed, his listeners were often disturbed by his daring innovations. 

Beethoven composed his final piano concerto, the Emperor, while Vienna was occupied by Napoleon. Beethoven did not subtitle the concerto and would have resented the name by which it is now known because Napoleon’s imperial intentions disappointed his expectations. Some musicologists label the concerto martial and imperious; rather, it is radiant, positive, and self-confident, paying homage to the unconquerable human spirit. 

The howitzers’ noise tortured Beethoven while he was composing this work; already his hearing had become so limited that he could not perform the premiere on November 28, 1811. 

Except for the initial emphatic orchestral chords, the soloist, rather than the orchestra, begins the Allegro first movement. In other ways, too, the beginning departs from common practice: the piano introduction is a huge rhapsodic flourish, like a cadenza but not of the soloist’s invention. Later, the orchestra introduces the movement’s subject and develops the themes with the difficult piano part as accompaniment. In another structural advance, there is no pause for an improvised cadenza. Breaking with tradition, Beethoven wove the cadenzas into the score, giving the music continuity, but denying the soloist opportunity for impromptu virtuosic display.  

The comparatively brief slow movement, Adagio un poco mosso, opens with muted strings playing a solemn hymn-like melody. This tranquil, reflective movement consists mainly of a piano/orchestra duet. The movement’s center contains a sequence of quasi-variations on the strings’ theme. Finally, the piano quietly plays a figure that foreshadows the last movement’s theme. Suddenly and without pause, the joyous, exultant theme of the rondo finale, Allegro, begins. In this impetuous movement, the piano delivers and develops exhilarating themes in what has been called the “most spacious and triumphant of concerto rondos.” At the coda’s end, in a renowned section, kettledrums quietly mark the rhythm of the first subject to accompany the piano’s soft chords.

Program notes by Susan Halpern.