Classics 04 – Fifths of Beethoven – 14 January 2023
By Laurie Shulman 8 2022
First North American Serial Rights Only

Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, known as ‘Emperor,’ does not refer to any particular monarch, although it does bear a dedication to the composer’s student and patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. The nickname “Emperor” attached itself somewhat later but incurred skepticism early. The English editor and writer Sir George Grove (of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians fame) dismissed the label in the 1870s as ‘inauthentic.’  The term has stuck because the concerto seems imperial: unfolding in large, commanding gestures that suggest power, poise, and confidence.  Hallmarks of Beethoven’s heroic style — the key of E-flat major, march rhythms, and quasi-military themes — strengthen the association, which seems fitting to this marvelous concerto.

One of Beethoven’s innovations in the ‘Emperor’ Concerto is his placement of the piano cadenza at the beginning of the first movement, rather than toward the end. Notice the interaction between piano and orchestra, when one is playing and the other is not; their interchange is a model of concerto dialogue. The French composer Hector Berlioz called Beethoven’s slow movement ‘the very image of grace.’ Equally graceful is the subtle, seamless transition to the finale – no pause after the slow movement! Gloriously optimistic, the finale positively sparkles.

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The stormy Fifth Symphony communicates a different spectrum of feelings, generally summarized as a journey from struggle to triumph. After its second performance in Leipzig, on 23 January 1809, the local press reported that the first movement was a very serious, somewhat gloomy yet fiery allegro, noble . . . with a lot of originality, strength and consistency–a worthy movement which offers rich pleasure even to those who cling to the old way of composing a symphony.

Beethoven had clearly seized upon a new way of composing. That reviewer two centuries ago deserves credit for recognizing the revolutionary qualities of Beethoven’s Fifth, which continues to thrill and astound listeners. Two hundred years have not dulled its ability to raise the hair on the back of our necks.

That famous opening motive is the grist for the entire first movement – and recurs in the third! Beethoven counters his turbo-charged opening with a poetic and refined slow movement

Notice the importance of the cellos as a melody instrument, particularly in the third movement.

C major, the Viennese key of sunlight, brightens the finale: triumph over adversity. The resolute, optimistic conclusion is heightened by expanded instrumentation: this was the first symphony in which Beethoven used piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombones, all in the finale.

Concerto No.5 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73 (“Emperor”)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born 16 December, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died 26 March, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

Take a look at the sleek, 9-foot ebony instrument at center stage.

By 1809, what we call the piano had expanded beyond Mozart’s five-octave fortepiano; however, more than another half-century would elapse before that development culminated in an instrument the size and scope we hear this weekend. Beethoven was prescient in his ambition for the piano, writing music so far ahead of its time that the instrument has continued to grow into the music.  Surely he would have been delighted with the modern concert grand, and nowhere more so than in the Emperor Concerto.

Bold innovation: cadenza at the outset

Beethoven tested his boundaries and elasticity of form in this last concerto. One revolutionary move was placing the solo cadenza at the beginning of the first movement, rather than its traditional placement near the end.  Full orchestra intones a resonant, fortissimo E-flat major chord. Solo piano replies with a series of arpeggios that cede to a trill, then figuration, passage work and a melodic lead-in to a second chord from the orchestra, this time in A-flat. Once again unaccompanied piano responds, this time with more elaborate figuration for both hands. The piano ushers in the third, preparatory orchestral chord–no one in the orchestra has yet played more than a single pitch – and answers it with a more melodic, but still virtuosic, passage to the main theme.

Nearly 100 measures of music unfold before we hear the piano again; clearly Beethoven is in no hurry to make his point. (In fact, this opening Allegro is the longest movement he ever composed.) The soloist re-enters with another grand flourish: this time an ascending chromatic scale and a clarion trill, before a simple, elegant statement of the imperial theme. The piano weaves around the principal melodic ideas, etching elaborate figures without obscuring the noble design of each theme. There is no solo cadenza per se at the end of the Allegro, though the extended coda that serves the approximate function does begin on the familiar chord that usually heralds a cadenza.  The structure is broad and symphonic, the music commanding, and yes, majestic.

Employment offer from a foreign monarch

Beethoven composed the E-flat concerto during a period when Vienna was braced for the second onslaught from Napoleon’s army.  Ironically, the French Emperor’s brother Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, had recently invited Beethoven to move to Cassel, Germany to become Kapellmeister.  Beethoven was tempted. Then three of his wealthy Viennese patrons pooled resources to provide him with an annuity, thereby persuading him to decline the offer.

Vienna had been home to him for so long that he was unlikely to leave at that point.  In light of his strong ties to and reputation in the Austrian capital, it is ironic that the premiere of the “Emperor” did not take place in Vienna, but in Leipzig, in 1810.  Beethoven’s pupil Karl Czerny played the first Viennese performance the following year.

Berlioz on Beethoven’s slow movement: “The very image of grace”

The middle movement is comparatively brief, perhaps because its rich tonality of B major is so potent.  Beethoven’s Adagio un poco mosso emphasizes dialogue between soloist and orchestra.  He develops his material almost like variations, with an improvisatory character. Hector Berlioz was a great admirer of this movement, calling it “the very image of grace,” and singling out Beethoven’s ethereal orchestration. Perhaps the most inspired moment occurs at the very end, with the bridge to the glorious finale.  The horns hold a single pitch for what seems like an eternity, suspended in midair; then, seemingly out of nowhere, the soloist diffidently introduces the triumphant chords of the closing Rondo, initially posing them as a question.

With affirmation forthcoming from the noble horns, the exultant finale launches its irrepressible joy ride for one of the most delightful and positive conclusions in all Beethoven.  As in the first movement, the piano choreographs dazzling figures around the principal themes, without obscuring their contour. Our perception of royal splendor remains unimpaired.  The “Emperor” ends with every ounce of the magnificent style with which it opened:  virile, spacious, and ever confident.

Beethoven scored the “Emperor” concerto for woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani, solo piano and strings.

Symphony No. 5 in C-minor, Op.67
Ludwig van Beethoven

In his landmark study, The Classical Style, Charles Rosen observed that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, like Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto, is almost as much myth as work of art.  “When listening to it,” he writes, “it is difficult at times to say whether we are hearing the work or its reputation.”

That reputation developed almost immediately; it is not anything that subsequent generations had to reassess and discover.  As early as 1810, the eminent critic E.T.A. Hoffmann reviewed the Fifth Symphony in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, an important Viennese musical newspaper.

This particular symphony, more than any other of his works, unfolds Beethoven’s romantic spirit in a climax rising straight to the end and carries the listener away irresistibly into the wondrous world of the infinite. . . . The whole work storms past some people like an ingenious rhapsody; but the soul of every sensitive listener will surely be deeply and intimately seized right up to the final chord by an enduring feeling which is exactly that inexpressible prophetic longing. . . . It is conceived with genius, carried out with profound thoughtfulness, and expresses in the highest degree the romantic spirit in music.

Hoffmann’s review paints Beethoven as the embodiment of musical romanticism.  The idealism of his description is partly responsible for the idea of heroic struggle that has become associated with this legendary symphony.

Tradition has assigned to the Fifth Symphony the musical metaphor of artist as hero.  Pitted against an unsympathetic society, he emerges triumphant after a victory over internal strife.  Hoffmann was one of the earliest critics to explore the remarkable programmatic potential in this pregnant music, but the composer himself planted the seeds for the ensuing harvest of rhetoric.  Beethoven’s amanuensis Anton Schindler reported that Beethoven. . . pointed to the beginning of the first movement and expressed in these words the fundamental idea of his work:  “Thus Fate knocks at the door!”

Strengthening that idea is the tonality of C-minor, which has been called both the “key of fate” and the “heroic key” in Beethoven’s music. There is no question that certain tonalities carried deep significance for Beethoven. Several other works in C-minor share the terse drama of the Fifth Symphony.  The Pathétique Sonata, Op.13 (1798/99) and the Third Piano Concerto, Op.37 (1800) are early examples. His Coriolan Overture, Op.62 (1807) is another C-minor work contemporary with the Fifth Symphony.

Both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were completed during the period 1807-1808, years of remarkable productivity when Beethoven was producing a succession of masterpieces.  Ideas for a symphony in C-minor, however, have been traced to the “Eroica” sketchbook of 1803/4.  Considering that E-flat major, the key of the “Eroica” symphony, is the relative major of C-minor, it is not all that surprising that Beethoven generated ideas for both works at the same time.

The French Connection

Robert Schumann detected French influence in the music of the Fifth Symphony, particularly that of Etienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763-1817).  Much French music at the turn of the century, especially opera, bore the imprint of the revolution.  France was in a state of political and social upheaval for Beethoven’s entire creative life, and the strong presence of a growing military culture made its impact felt in the arts.

Wartime symbolism

During the Second World War, BBC shortwave broadcasts were preceded by the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. The gesture was symbolic:  dot-dot-dot-dash is the Morse code for “V,” as in victory.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, Peter Schickele satirized the Fifth Symphony in a mock sports broadcast from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. The “PDQ Bach on the Air” recording is a surprisingly accessible — and hilariously funny — lesson in sonata form for the non-specialist.

Military elements

Obviously this work has “spoken” to listeners in a variety of ways since its première, and, as Charles Rosen pointed out, has transcended its own reputation into the realm of legend.  From a musical standpoint, the overriding characteristic that unifies the Fifth Symphony is military flavor.

March rhythms figure prominently, sometimes even when the music is in triple time, as in the C-major sections of the slow movement.  Beethoven’s emphasis on the brass section underscores the martial quality of the symphony.  So too does his expansion of the orchestra to include piccolo (redolent of military band flavor), contrabassoon, and trombones for the finale.  His letter to his patron Count Franz von Oppersdorff in March 1808 shows that he wanted the bigger sound.

The last movement of the symphony has three trombones and flautino — and not three timpani, but will make more noise than six timpani, and better noise than that.

Only the beginning of the scherzo, with its spooky, menacing lower strings outlining the opening arpeggios, eludes the military overtones.  Beethoven’s allusion to “better noise” makes one wonder whether there is an undertone of glee in his close.  He takes a whopping 54 measures to hammer home the final C-major cadence, just to make certain we get his message.  Nearly two centuries later, the rhetoric retains its power undiminished.

The Fifth Symphony was premiered at the Theater-an-der-Wien on December 22, 1808. It shared the program with the Sixth Symphony and the Choral Fantasia, Op.80, both of which also received first performances.  When it was published in April 1809, the score bore an unusual joint dedication to Beethoven’s patrons Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasoumovsky. The symphony is scored for piccolo,  pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

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Send the Carriage Through
Lisa Bielawa
Born 1968

Lisa Bielawa is a composer, vocalist, and producer who has relocated temporarily from New York to Louisville since being named one of the Creators Corps composers. The honors and awards she has received include a Rome Prize in composition, a Music Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and an Opera America grant for female composers. She was Artist-in-Residence at New York City’s Kaufman Music Center for the 2020-21 season and, from 2019 to 2022, the founding Composer-in-Residence and Chief Curator of the Philip Glass Institute at The New School’s College of Performing Arts. She holds a B.A. in literature from Yale and has been an active member of New York’s new music scene for more than three decades.

Many of her works incorporate community-making as a component of her artistic vision, including music conceived for large outdoor public places. The catalyst for Send the Carriage Through was the pomp and ceremony surrounding the funeral of England’s Queen Elizabeth II. She was also guided by the awareness that her new piece would premiere alongside a Beethoven piano concerto and a Beethoven symphony. Bielawa’s composer’s note, which follows in its entirety, explains her thought process, and the connection to our city.

I set out to compose this piece knowing it would be premiered alongside two of the best-loved works by Beethoven, history’s most celebrated composer. As it turned out, I spent that morning watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, one of history’s most celebrated monarchs. She had in fact “composed” the whole pageant herself, down to every detail – and there she was, at the center of it all, yet absent from it. As I watched the astounding choreography of the procession, I ruminated: what does the way we enshrine people who are gone, especially great leaders, say about us? The mystique of great musical leaders crumbles somewhat when one takes a closer look. In Beethoven’s time, the leadership paradigm for the orchestra was in great flux. Composers usually led their own works, sometimes from the keyboard or from the concertmaster’s chair. When they did not also play, they conducted facing the audience, sometimes banging a stick on the ground. (Beethoven was a notoriously poor leader, especially as his hearing loss became more advanced. He yelled during loud passages and crouched out of sight during pianissimos. His musicians learned to ignore him in order to stay together.) The word “conductor” did not appear in print until 1820, years after his Fifth Symphony and Emperor Concerto were composed. I began to imagine a piece in which we could take a ride through this colorful history of musical leadership. How many different forms can (musical) leadership take?

I watched the Queen’s slow, solemn progress. No one person was “conducting” the epic spectacle. From different locations at different moments, the rhythmic commands rang out – “Bearer party – slow march,” “remove headdress,” and, most poetic of all, “Send the carriage through.” I began transcribing the rhythms of these commands and the patterned groove of the drums (at exactly 75 beats a minute, presumably as specified by the Queen herself in her role as composer) as they ricocheted off of the buildings along the route. But what began as a rumination on greatness and mortality took on more and more playfulness and joy as the weeks and months went by, and my relationship with Louisville – the city, its Orchestra, its audience and community – became more and more colorful and engaged. I began to celebrate the exhilaration of music-making as a team sport, a kind of relay race in which one could literally “pass the baton,” sometimes leading, sometimes following. Six players start the piece in the

balcony, sometimes leading and sometimes following. The role of conductor/leader multiplies, splits and flows. Eventually we find ourselves in a game featuring orchestra members in smaller groups, passing the baton until their balcony friends retake their chairs onstage. Meanwhile the conductor effectively holds the carriage until the whole team is together again, then sends it through, into the unknown.

Send the Carriage Through is at its core a gift of gratitude to the players of the LO and a celebration of Teddy’s own open-hearted vision of leadership as connection and invitation.                                  – L.B.