Program Notes: Beethoven 2 & 5, Emperor Piano Concerto

Program Notes: Beethoven 2 & 5, Emperor Piano Concerto

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Full program notes:

Beethoven Marathon: The Emperor and the Fifth

This concert offers two of the mightiest pieces Beethoven ever wrote: his Fifth Symphony and his Fifth (Emperor) Piano Concerto. Both came from almost the same instant: the Fifth Symphony premiered in December 1808, and the Emperor Concerto was completed only four months later. Beethoven was then at the crest of his “Heroic Style,” but these pieces show us different sides of that style. The Fifth Symphony begins in violence, but makes its way out of that darkness to conclude in triumphant sunlight. It takes listeners on one of the most satisfying emotional journeys in all of music, and it has become the most famous symphony ever written. The Emperor, on the other hand, breathes of spaciousness and grandeur from its first instant, and this music unfolds with a sovereign ease. This program begins, however, with an earlier work: the Second Symphony.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36

Beethoven liked to get away from Vienna during the summer, and in April 1802 he rented rooms in the village of Heiligenstadt. That summer he finally had to face the dark truth that he would eventually go deaf. Yet from these depths, he wrote some of his most genial music, a fact that should warn us not to make easy connections between a creator’s life and his art. Chief among the works he completed that despairing summer was his Second Symphony.

Its slow introduction begins with a great explosion and then moves through a range of keys, its rhythms growing increasingly animated. At the Allegro con brio, the main theme seems almost consciously athematic: there is nothing melodic about this figure for lower strings that rushes ahead, curving around a 16th-note turn. Yet built into this simple figure is a vast amount of energy, and much of the development will grow out of that turn. The second subject is innocent and good-natured.

The second movement, Larghetto, is not really a slow movement, but a moderately-paced sonata-form movement built on a profusion of themes. Beethoven develops these lyric ideas at luxurious length; this is the longest movement in the symphony. The Scherzo erupts on a great unison D, and out of this explosion leap three-note salvos. Full of boundless energy and good spirits, the rondo-finale offers a flowing second theme for lower strings and a genial tune for woodwinds over chirping string accompaniment.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 73, Emperor

In the spring of 1809 Napoleon laid siege to Vienna, and after a brief bombardment the city was occupied. Beethoven remained in the city, and during this period he completed his Fifth Piano Concerto. Some have been ready to take their cue from the French occupation and to understand the concerto as Beethoven’s response to it. But far from being swept up in the fervor of the fighting, Beethoven found the occupation stressful and depressing. During the shelling, he hid in the basement of his brother Caspar’s house, where he wrapped his head in pillows to protect his ears. To his publishers, Beethoven wrote: “Life around me is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort.”

a shining grandeur

The Allegro bursts to life with a resplendent E-flat major chord for the whole orchestra, and that chord opens the way for a cadenza by the solo piano, a cadenza that the orchestra punctuates twice more with powerful chords before sweeping into the movement’s main theme and the true exposition. This first movement is marked by a shining grandeur far removed from Beethoven’s misery over the fighting that wracked Vienna. It is built on two main ideas, both somewhat in the manner of marches: the strings’ vigorous main subject and a poised second theme, sounded first by the strings, then repeated memorably as a duet for horns.

The Adagio un poco mosso transports us to a different world altogether. Gone is the energy of the first movement, and now we seem in the midst of sylvan calm. Beethoven moves to the remote key of B major and mutes the strings, which sing the hymn-like main theme.

Beethoven links the second and third movements: the piano begins, very gradually, to outline a melodic idea, which struggles to take shape and direction. And then suddenly it does; it’s as if these misty imaginings have been hit with an electric current that snaps them to vibrant life as the main theme of final movement. This Allegro is a vigorous rondo that alternates lyric episodes with some of Beethoven’s most rhythmically-energized writing—this music always seems to want to dance.

The nickname Emperor did not originate with the composer, and Beethoven’s denunciation of Napoleon’s self-coronation several years earlier suggests that he would not have been sympathetic to it. The composer almost certainly never heard this concerto referred to by the nickname that we use today.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67

Hardly anyone can remember their first time hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—this music is so much a part of us that we seem to be born knowing it. Music so white-hot in intensity, so universal in appeal, cries out for interpretation. To some, it is Fate knocking at the door. To one 19th-century critic, it told the story of a failed love affair. Others see it as the triumph of reason over chaos and evil. But engaging as such interpretations are, they tell us more about the people who make them than about the music itself. The sad truth is that this music is so over-familiar that we have lost the capacity to listen to it purely as music, to comprehend it as the astonishing and original musical achievement that it is.

from volcanic fury to triumphant sunlight

The stark opening of the Allegro con brio, both very simple and charged with volcanic fury, provides the musical content for the entire movement. Those four notes shape the main theme, generate the rhythms, and pulse insistently in the background— they even become the horn fanfare that announces the second theme. The power unleashed at the beginning is unrelenting, and this movement hammers to a close with the issues it raises still unresolved.

The Andante con moto contrasts two themes. Violas and cellos sing the broad opening melody in A-flat major, while the second subject, in heroic C major, blazes out in the brass, and Beethoven alternates these two themes, varying each as the movement proceeds. The third movement returns to the C-minor urgency of the beginning. It seems at first to be in scherzo-and-trio form, with lower strings introducing the sinuous opening idea. At just the point one anticipates a return to the scherzo comes one of the most original moments in music.

Instead of going back, Beethoven pushes ahead. Bits of the scherzo flit past quietly, and suddenly the finale, a triumphant march in C major, bursts to life: this dramatic moment has invariably been compared to sunlight breaking through dark clouds. The coda itself is extremely long, and the final cadence—extended almost beyond reason—is overpowering.

No matter how familiar this symphony is, the music remains extraordinary. Heard for itself, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is as original and powerful and furious today as it was when it burst upon an unsuspecting audience in Vienna two centuries ago.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.