“Emperor” Concerto

By Ludwig van Beethoven
Composed in 1809

This concerto is truly a work of superlatives.

It was the last concerto Beethoven composed, and is seen by some as the end of his “heroic” period. The title “Emperor,” although in common use now, is not Beethoven’s; it became attached to the concerto after Beethoven’s death, in 1827, probably due to the nobility and expansiveness of its themes.

Beethoven composed this work in 1809 during the siege and bombardment of Vienna by the French under Napoleon. Due to his growing deafness, it was the first of his piano concertos where the premiere was played by a pianist other than Beethoven himself (by Friedrich Schneider in Leipzig in 1811, and by his pupil Carl Czerny at the Vienna premiere in 1812). It was also the first concerto in which a composer integrated his cadenzas into the score itself; indeed, it is notable that the piece actually starts with a piano cadenza!

After the opening cadenza, the orchestra states the familiar first martial theme, which includes a turn, descending arpeggio quarter notes, and a dotted eighth-sixteenth-half note motif, all of which make their appearance as subthemes later in the first movement. The second theme also makes its appearance in the opening orchestral tutti, in E-flat minor – a soft step-wise slow “march” immediately reprised in E-flat major as a beautiful melody played by two horns. This basic thematic material is used by Beethoven throughout the first movement, interspersed by richly ornamented piano passages and cadenzas. The key relationships are also notable. Besides the usual familiar keys (E-flat, B-flat, A-flat), Beethoven repeatedly moves into more distant keys, particularly C-flat major/B minor (with a “third” relationship to the concerto’s overall key of E-flat). Also notable are a tendency for themes to move step-wise by a half-tone into different keys.

The following adagio is in B Major (again that “third” relationship). Its opening theme is actually based upon a tune which Beethoven originally intended for a military band (!) and then magically transposed into an ethereal “pilgrim’s song.” After the opening, the theme is repeated twice, once by the piano alone, then by a flute-clarinet-bassoon choir against the piano’s accompaniment.

At the end of the adagio, a step-wise downward movement from the bassoons to the horns brings the tonality back from B major to B-flat (the fifth of E-flat). After a tentative prelude, the pianist launches full throttle into the robust last movement, a classic joyous rondo with hunting theme overtones. The rondo theme is repeated four times, and interspersed with variations by soloist and orchestra. In the coda the piano plays part of the rondo theme accompanied by the timpani. A last dash by the piano and orchestra leads to the concerto’s grand conclusion.