Under Siege: Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto

In 1809, Vienna was under siege by Napoleon and Beethoven, now more or less completely deaf, was hiding in his brother’s basement.  Terrified and feeling, perhaps more than others, the constant percussive effect of war, Beethoven produced one of his best compositions, the Emperor concerto.  It would prove to be his final statement on the genre.

The Emperor is in many ways different from the four that preceded it. In each prior case, Beethoven had been booked to perform with an orchestra and required a new concerto for the occasion. By 1809, that was no longer the case and the Emperor appears to have been composed without thought of a premiere. It is likely that Beethoven realized that he could no longer perform with a full orchestra.

The concerto is composed in the now familiar “heroic” style that defined Beethoven’s middle period. But what about that name? Surely, not a reference to Napoleon; then, what? My view, which you should immediately discount, is that this is Beethoven’s declaration of the piano as the Emperor of all musical instruments.

Consider the first movement. As he did in the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, he opens with three power chords: E-Flat (the tonic), A-Flat (the subdominant) and B-Flat (the dominant). Over this tonally anchored orchestral accompaniment, the piano presents a chromatic contrast, while matching the dynamic range of the full orchestra, from piano to fortissimo. Deploying a technique pioneered in his Violin Concerto, the piano comments around the edges of the orchestral themes, presenting dizzying runs of scales and arpeggios, to the point that a final grand cadenza was deemed superfluous–Beethoven notes in the score “Non si fa una Cadenza, ma s’attaco subito il seguento”. (“Do not make a cadenza here but attack the following immediately.”). Beethoven’s decision changed the genre of the concerto forever–while cadenzas had traditionally been written (or improvised on the spot) by the soloist, future composers would leave nothing to chance, scoring their own cadenzas in their published scores.

There can be no doubt anymore. Here, at the threshold of the 19th century, the piano had assumed its primacy among instruments–one which it would never fully surrender through to the present day despite the robust challenge from the guitar.

Nearly every great pianist has recorded the Emperor Concerto, including my father’s (and my) favorite, Emil Gilels.

But, as great as Gilels’ version is, and as great as some of the others are, the choice here is Vladimir Horowitz. Long considered to be the greatest pianist of his generation and a musical superstar equal to that of the greatest pop stars of today, Horowitz suffered a mental breakdown at the peak of his career and stopped performing. After a decade away from the stage, Horowitz made his return at Carnegie Hall in May 1965. The Beatles aside, this was the musical event of the decade in NYC. Nearly half the population of New York attended that concert (or so they would have you believe). My father, who loved reminding me that he had seen everyone from Callas to Heifetz to Bird in their prime, was downright giddy at having attended this. There are recordings out there, but, much like the Beatles at Shea, they are largely terrible. His Emperor with Fritz Reiner and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra is anything but. The Emperor playing the Emperor–what could be better?

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


Leonard Bernstein looms large in my understanding of Beethoven, as will be revealed next week. He was, by all accounts, one of the greatest conductors in history–a singular musical genius whose interests were unfortunately too widely dispersed to leave as profound a legacy as he should have. Lenny will be forever linked with the legacy of Gustav Mahler and his restoration of Mahler’s symphonies to the world stage is his greatest achievement in music. But Lenny was also a Beethovian and, a wonderful pianist in his own right, likely dipped into the Emperor when scoring one of the singular tunes from West Side Story. Listen to the opening of the second movement and then to this:

Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story: Somewhere

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