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A Heroic Piece in Hard Times: Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto


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Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto (the “Emperor”) dates from 1809, a difficult year for Vienna and for Beethoven. In May, Napoleon invaded the city and Beethoven took refuge in the basement of his brother’s house. The bombardment was close enough that he covered his ears with pillows to protect them.

On July 29th, he wrote to his publisher:

“We have passed through a great deal of misery. I tell you that since May 4th, I have brought into the world little that is connected; only here and there a fragment. The whole course of events has affected me body and soul…. What a disturbing, wild life around me; nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts.”

Beethoven reportedly confronted a French officer:

“If I were a general and knew as much about strategy as I do about counterpoint, I’d give you fellows something to think about.”


Modern day Vienna

It was in these horrendous times that Beethoven wrote one of his great heroic pieces, a piece with an unconventional opening. In his Fourth Concerto, Beethoven had begun with a short statement by the piano, which then quickly turned it over to the orchestra for its customary introduction of themes. But here in the Fifth Concerto, he goes way beyond that. It opens with a cadenza for the soloist.

And how did the concerto get its nickname? The story goes that when the concerto was premiered in 1812 (in an occupied Vienna) a French soldier, obviously impressed, exclaimed, “It is the Emperor!”

Written by:
Alan Chapman
Alan Chapman
Published on 09.13.2021

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