Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb Major, op. 73 ("Emperor")

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            It is Mozart, of course, to whom we owe the creation of the mature, symphonic piano concerto.  Following in his stead, Beethoven wrote five works in this genre; the first two were composed in the 1790s and owe much to the example of Mozart.  The third, in C minor, was completed in 1803, around the time of his second symphony, and it is a far darker and impassioned work than the previous ones.  By the time of the fourth concerto, finished in 1806, Beethoven had undergone remarkable growth as a composer.  He had resolutely fought his way out of the deep suicidal depression occasioned by his increasing deafness.  The monumental Eroica (third symphony), his opera, Fidelio, and the Rasumovsky string quartets had been created, and revealed the musical power, psychological depth, and progressive imagination of the mature composer.  As such, the fourth piano concerto occupies a significant place in his oeuvre, with the rôle of the piano assuming greater strength and independence than in the earlier concertos.  The fifth concerto (the moniker, “Emperor,” has no real meaning, having been attached later in circumstances not related to the composer, although it must be admitted, it’s not inappropriate, at all, if you must have an nickname) thus stands at the end of his efforts in the genre.  It is a major work, not only in its intrinsic artistry, but also marks the culmination of an extraordinary period of inspiration and production on the part of the composer.  That time began more or less in 1803 with the great third symphony, the Eroica, went on to include other major works in the “heroic style,” and ended in 1809 with the fifth piano concerto.  Many of them are in the key of Eb major, which seems to have been Beethoven’s key of choice when essaying a bold, dynamic, confident work.

            As he matured, Beethoven, like many great artists pushed the limits of the artistic conventions of his milieu; one has only to think of the challenging nature for performer and listener alike of the late string quartets and piano sonatas.   That was certainly true of many aspects of his fourth piano concerto, and even more so for the fifth.  The latter is a significant work in all regards, not the least for its great length—one of the longest of his symphonies and concertos--but not a measure too long for his formidable execution of the musical architecture.  It unfortunately marks another milestone:  it was the first of his concertos that he did not perform, owing to the significant deterioration of his hearing, which made collaboration with the orchestra impossible.

            Like the fourth concerto it begins unconventionally, the piano playing the opening bars with the orchestra.   The beginning consists simply of three great hammer strokes in the orchestra, after each of which the piano plays a short roulade of arpeggios, trills, and other cadenza-like gestures, in a style not unworthy of Chopin.  The orchestra immediately follows with a vigorous statement of the main theme, a simple, but stately one, in the Beethovenian tradition, and not inappropriate for the grand nature of the work. Soon, the quieter second theme comes, first in the minor in the woodwinds, and immediately in the major in the horns.    The orchestra works its way through to the end of the section and the piano finally enters with a scale, a trill, and the main theme from the opening measures.   There then ensues one of Beethoven’s longest movements, in which the soloist and orchestra engage in a dialogue that stunningly exemplifies the creativity and genius of the composer, as they work out the themes on their way to the recapitulation--heralded by a repetition of the hallmark opening chords and piano flourishes.

            The profound serenity, beauty, and reflective eloquence of the slow movement stand at the apex of the composer’s gift in this voice.  The gentle main theme is primarily stepwise, rather like a simple chorale, played first by the orchestra.  The rich, freshness of the opening is accomplished in no small part by Beethoven’s choice of key—B major, a remote key, but really an enharmonic version of one of his signature harmonic relationships.  The piano enters, and engages in a series of explorations of the material, in a free and almost improvisatory fashion, interspersed with meditative, straightforward statements of the eloquent theme.  This sublime, discursive mood continues--certainly no one is in hurry for it to end—but it surely must, and the composer again pulls out a bit of trickery to bring on the finale.  A soft, sustained B natural in the bassoons and horns descends to Bb, the strong note in music that psychologically takes us to Eb , the main key of the concerto, and where we must go for the last movement.  But the intent is mysterious:  we hear a brand new theme in the piano, softly and deliberately stated, and then, without notice, we vigorously plunge straightway into the happy last movement with that new theme its subject.  It’s a romping, stomping affair which some have compared to a rough German dance—it’s certainly in the vein of his seventh symphony, which he would compose two years later.

            The shape is simple—only a diversion in the middle interrupts this dancing, active material.  There, the pianist explores briefly a few fresh keys and contrasting ideas, but soon enough, the driving, dancing fun resumes, as the smashing conclusion seems to near.   One more trick, though:  gradually the intensity appears to be waning, not growing, and a quiet duet between the soloist and the timpani portends a tranquil ending.  Not so—for a triumphal outburst in Beethoven’s best manner from the whole orchestra clinches the matter.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan