Beethoven’s “Emperor”

Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor”
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E Major

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor”

Work composed: 1809
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 14, 2013; Cristoph König, conductor; André Watts, piano
Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 38 minutes

In May 1809, Napoleon’s troops attacked the city of Vienna, and throughout the following summer, the city shook with mortar fire. Ludwig van Beethoven, whose hearing was severely impaired, suffered both the stress of living under attack and constant painful assaults on his ears. In July he wrote his publisher, “Since May 4 I have produced very little coherent work, at most a fragment here and there. The whole course of events has in my case affected both body and soul … What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me: nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.” Despite the traumatic conditions, Beethoven continued to compose, producing what is arguably the most popular piano concerto ever written.

It is not clear how “Emperor” came to be associated with Beethoven’s final piano concerto (the nickname wasn’t his), although there is an apocryphal story about a French officer who, upon hearing the work performed in Vienna in 1812, exclaimed, “C’est l’Empereur!” If, as many have assumed, the emperor in question refers to Napoleon, Beethoven, suffering under Napoleon’s continuous bombardment, would certainly have disapproved.

By this point in his compositional career, Beethoven’s penchant for innovation in the opening measures of his concertos had become a signature, and the Fifth is no exception. After an introductory orchestral chord, the piano enters with a cadenza. Cadenzas, unaccompanied virtuoso passages filled with scales and trills created from fragments of thematic material, usually appear at the close of a movement. By opening the concerto with a cadenza full of musical foreshadowing, Beethoven telegraphs the themes and ideas of the opening movement to the listener. The seamlessness of the opening movement gives listeners a sense of inevitability, as if the music could unfold in no other way. Beethoven’s semi-subversive opening cadenza acts as a subliminal suggestion, planting the basic elements of later themes in our ears without our noticing.

In the Adagio un poco mosso, listeners may recognize the opening notes of Leonard Bernstein’s song “Somewhere” from West Side Story. We can picture Beethoven, surrounded by aural and emotional chaos, escaping from the turmoil of his surroundings into an ethereal sound world. All too soon Beethoven brings us back to earth as the whole orchestra drops down a half-step, from B to B-flat; it sustains that note while the piano storms into the Rondo with renewed vigor. Piano and orchestra execute a series of variations on this theme, each more elaborate than the next. The playful, humorous aspects of Beethoven’s personality reveal themselves here in the “false ending,” abrupt key changes, and generally buoyant mood throughout.

Johann Philipp Christian Schulz gave the premiere with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig on November 28, 1811, with Friedrich Schneider at the piano. In its review, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reported that “[the audience] could hardly content itself with the ordinary expressions of recognition” in their excitement at hearing Beethoven’s greatest, and last, piano concerto.


Anton Bruckner

Symphony No. 7 in E Major

Work composed: 1881–1883
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May 18, 2009; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation:2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 Wagner tubas (2 tenor, 2 bass), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, contrabass tuba, timpani, cymbal, triangle, and strings
Estimated duration:64 minutes

Anton Bruckner was born and raised in a small town near Linz, in the north of Austria, far from the sophisticated musical scene in Vienna. As a result, he was seen by many of his Viennese peers and critics as a country bumpkin, and his provincial naïveté made him a target for mockery. Bruckner’s artlessness also got him into musical trouble. He had no interest in getting involved in the musical war that raged between Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms and their followers. However, by expressing admiration for Wagner’s music, and by incorporating aspects of Wagnerian style into his own work, Bruckner unintentionally made himself a target for the anti-Wagnerites. Several of Bruckner’s early symphonies were cruelly characterized as “unplayable, full of incongruities and wild excesses.” Not surprisingly, Bruckner opted to premiere his Seventh Symphony in Leipzig, away from Vienna’s harsh critics, and it was in Leipzig, at the age of 60, that Bruckner finally experienced a positive public reaction to his music. Arthur Nikisch conducted the premiere with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on December 30, 1884; afterwards, the audience gave Bruckner a 15-minute standing ovation, and the press was both enthusiastic and amazed. A Leipzig critic asked, “How is it possible that he could remain so long unknown to us?”

Bruckner was deeply insecure, highly sensitive to criticism, and full of self-doubt. Thanks to the incessant criticism of the Viennese, especially the acid-tongued influential music critic Eduard Hanslick, Bruckner was rarely satisfied with his music, even after publication. The Seventh Symphony, despite its popularity, did not escape Bruckner’s near-obsessive need for post-compositional tinkering. True to form, when Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1886, Hanslick complained of “interminable stretches of darkness, leaden boredom, and feverish over-excitement.” But even Hanslick had to acknowledge the Seventh Symphony’s appeal, as Bruckner ascended the stage four to five times after each movement, to thunderous applause.

Bruckner first heard Wagner’s music in 1863, when Tannhäuser premiered in Linz. Not coincidentally, Bruckner completed his first symphony that same year. Music scholar Phillip Huscher notes, “The experience [of hearing Wagner’s music] unlocked something inside Bruckner, freeing the boldness and individuality of his own ideas. Once he tackled the symphony, form and content came together, and Bruckner became the first composer to translate the essence of Wagnerian language to instrumental music.”

According to Bruckner, the main theme of the Allegro moderato came to him in a dream. The cellos intone this expansive melody, which reaches over two octaves. Bruckner moves this melody through various permutations (shortened, inverted, in mirror format), including a triumphal closing brass fanfare.

The Adagio is both homage and elegy to Wagner. In a letter to a friend, Bruckner wrote, “One day I came home and felt very sad. The thought had crossed my mind that before long the Master would die, and then the C-sharp minor theme of the Adagio came to me.” Bruckner received news of Wagner’s death as he was finishing the Adagio, and added a coda he described as “the funeral music for the Master.” In another nod to Wagner, Bruckner opens the Adagio with a theme played by Wagner tubas, an instrument Wagner designed for use in his Der Ring des Niebelungen. Bruckner’s symphony marks the first time Wagner tubas were used in symphonic music.

The dark, energetic Scherzo features agitated rhythms and declamatory brasses. In its contrasting trio we hear a gentle ländler-style melody suggesting Bruckner’s village roots. In the Finale, Bruckner presents a bouncy alter ego of the theme of the first movement, along with a chorale for strings, and concludes with a jubilant restatement of the opening movement’s first theme in its original form.


© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.