Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major “Emperor”, op. 73
solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
note by James Keays
II. Adagio un poco mosso
III. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
Composed 1809-1811. First performance: November 28, 1811, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany. Friedrich Schneider, piano. Johann Philipp Christian Schulz, conductor.
During the classical period, the concerto for piano existed almost solely as a virtuoso display piece for composer-pianists. This is not meant to imply that they lacked musical substance. In the hands of a good composer, a concerto displaying technique could also be a significant musical creation. The concertos of Mozart, who was drawn to Vienna by the prospect of supporting himself as a piano soloist, certainly fall into this category. The first three of Beethoven’s five piano concertos do, as well. The last two, however, function less as purely virtuoso displays and more as vehicles for the loftiest musical ideas. Though they are extraordinarily demanding for the soloist, they leave the listener with the overall impression that the music, rather than the technical display, is all-important.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 could be considered either the last great concerto in the classical style or, because of its immensely powerful gestures, the first of the great 19th-century romantic concertos. The first movement begins with the intense statement of an E-flat chord, harking back to the opening chords of the Eroica Symphony. There follows an extensive written-out cadenza punctuated by more chords in the orchestra. When the orchestra finally enters with the principal theme, it is, like so many of Beethoven’s best themes, a simple statement of a tonic triad—again like the beginning of the Eroica. At the end of the first movement, the traditional cadenza is written out instead of improvised, clearly a case of the composer wanting to exert total control over the work. An almost improvisatory second movement in the distant and unexpected key of B major ends with a brief cadenza which forecasts the theme of the last movement in the slow tempo. The concluding movement begins without pause and continues in a flurry of syncopated rhythmic energy.
The Piano Concerto No. 5 was begun in 1809 during one of the most productive periods in Beethoven’s life. The same years also brought forth, among dozens of works, Symphonies No. 5 and 6, the Violin Concerto, the Razumovsky Quartets, Leonore Overture No. 3, the Les Adieux Sonata, and the incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont. Beethoven dedicated the concerto to his patron, Archduke Rudolph. This is the only concerto that Beethoven did not play in public, although he probably played it in private at the Archduke’s residence. It was first performed at a public concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in November 1811. The subtitle “Emperor” was evidently added by a publisher during the 19th century for reasons unknown. It is not likely that Beethoven would have approved.