Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”, Op. 73

by Max Derrickson

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”, Op. 73

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Beethoven composed his final piano concerto in 1809, near the end of a decade of remarkable output and musical growth. The years 1800-1810, called Beethoven’s “middle period,” produced many of his masterpieces: piano concertos 4 and 5; symphonies 3, 5, and 6; the Triple Concerto; several of his best chamber works for piano; and the opera Fidelio. The source of the sobriquet “Emperor” remains the stuff of legend. According to an apocryphal anecdote, unverified and ironic, an officer in Napoleon’s army attended an early performance of the concerto. It so moved him that at the last chord he stood and exclaimed, “This is the Emperor!” Beethoven’s displeasure with Napoleon aside, the title seems altogether appropriate for such a majestic work as Concerto No. 5.

The concerto is a beautiful example of how Beethoven’s creative process matured during his middle period. While his works remained rooted in classical formal structures, he began to add drama, more adventurous harmony, deepening sonorities for orchestra and piano, and a vastness of architectural structure. Most agreeable, perhaps, is that in this period and in this concerto, Beethoven’s expression speaks of larger-than-life themes, great achievements, and emotions as far and as deep as the human experience.

The first movement, Allegro, is an extraordinary utterance. From the start, Beethoven conveys a sense of heroic scale. [. . .]

Upon the meditation of the calm Adagio comes an afterthought. The piano tentatively begins a new tune, almost as if it were noodling through a breathtaking notion but were not yet ready for its full impact. In short order, however, the bridge from the Adagio is crossed [. . .]