Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto - the musician's view

My first memory of this music was very striking and dates back to the 1960`s and a day in school when I was suddenly startled by hearing the magnificent opening chords of this concerto drifting in from an adjacent class room.

A fellow student and classical music enthusiast had brought his LP in to play in a free period (no iPods then!) and I had never heard the like before – the moment is still etched in my memory.  I already knew Beethoven`s 3rd concerto and 7th Symphony from records we had at home, had tried to play some Mozart concertos (and of course Rach 2) and sight read my way through most of the local music library but somehow I had missed this one!  What majesty and nobility, I thought at the time and still feel it now when playing or listening to this music, although I also agree with Robert Simpson’s view that the music is truly about `serenity and confidence`.

This serenity and confidence was of course hard won by Beethoven facing the huge personal crisis of his encroaching deafness and it is one of several works in similar vein and in the same key which tempts us to imagine that E flat major had great significance to Beethoven for music of this character.

The full orchestra delivers one magnificent chord and the piano enters immediately with a tremendous flourish that would have shocked the audiences of the early 19th century with its boldness. The impact of this gesture is still wonderful in its unexpectedness and is followed by two more chord and cadenza alternations as Beethoven establishes the home key and mood in the grandest of manners, rather like a great doorway opening on a huge landscape. The main themes of this movement seem to have march like characteristics readily reflecting the rhythms you can associate with side drums, fanfares, all the paraphernalia of military grandeur. It is no wonder the concerto has picked up its nickname. When the piano re-enters (ascending chromatic scale) it joins in with the same music but this time embellishing the melodies, dominating proceedings and sometimes taking the listener into marvellously unexpected worlds, shifting into remote keys only to return home again in triumph. The grand plan for this most extravagant of first movements is at heart three part (ABA`) form but here vastly extended – an opening section (A) (Exposition) with two or three main ideas introduced, middle section (B) (Development) where the music is stirred up and rearranged, played with and a return to the opening (A`) (Recapitulation), triumphantly repeating the opening chord and cadenza sequences followed by a revisit to all the material of the first section. Beethoven has much more to say than can fit in to any simple structure and this has to be just an outline.

Listen out for the main themes and try and give them characteristics you can remember as they come by - the first for example has a side drum like rhythm to it and yet another, more simple and march like,  is not so much a tune as something you might hum to yourself as you walk along. Try and concentrate on all the imaginative ways Beethoven develops and extend his ideas without worrying too much, perhaps, about the structure that underpins this music.

The pianist has splendid moments of display throughout (big chords, assertive rhythms, double octaves, glistening scales) as well as quieter moments of reflection where he or she ornaments, reinvents and embellishes.  Listen also for the marvellous use of the horns throughout the concerto – appearing everywhere lending majesty at one moment and a more rustic calm at another.

The second movement – there are three in all – is an extreme contrast. All the imperial paraphernalia, if that is what it is, is dismissed and we are drawn now into a private, intimate world of the great beauty and deepest personal feeling. A quiet hymn like tune, is played very softly by the strings in a wonderfully remote key as if the music has moved suddenly to a different and more peaceful world. The piano enters gently with a beautiful romantic melody (it could almost be Chopin) played in the right hand with simple rippling accompaniment. The music later slips into D major (the horns can be heard calling quietly again) followed by a chain of trills in the piano after which the piano plays the first tune (the hymn) but this time with string accompaniment and piano embellishment then followed by a duet with flute and clarinet. Try and listen to the melodies as they appear and reappear - try and spot which subtle combination of instruments is now conjured out of orchestral resources of only strings, woodwind and horns. No room for trumpets and drums in this music! The link to this last and final movement is especially magical and justly celebrated - the music stops - pauses - there is a solitary seemingly `wrong` note on the horn which then inspires the piano to gently explore a new idea – it feels as if we are peering round the corner rather uncertainly - before the Rondo last movement finally bursts on the scene.

A Rondo is simply a piece in which the main tune keeps coming `round` and a good plan for this as a listener is to follow and count how many times you hear the main tune altogether. The theme is quite unmistakeable, a rather ungainly, dancing rhythm, seemingly all wrong and across the beat followed by two little skips and a trill. I can easily imagine Beethoven dancing about at this point, in a rather ungainly manner but full of clumsy enthusiasm and rather embarrassing energy! As before listen for the changes of key, shifts in the orchestration, the use of solo instruments in the orchestra and eventually the timpani/drum solo that heralds the end of this extraordinary composition.

How poignant to think that this was written, not in a tranquil setting, but in a war zone, Beethoven was hiding in a cellar from the noise and danger of the bombardment of Vienna in 1809, and also trying to protect what was left of his hearing as well as his personal safety.

The Concerto was dedicated to `His Imperial Highness Archduke Rudolph`, Beethoven`s most loyal patron and friend, who had fled from the capital to his country estates and relative safety as the French army, under their Emperor, Napoleon, laid siege to Vienna.  This concerto was the only one that Beethoven did not perform himself and his oncoming deafness may well have been the reason.

The performance I heard all those years ago as a schoolboy was given by the pianist Claudio Arrau. This month we can all continue to enjoy this great work and in an equally authoritative performance given by that most thoughtful and inspirational of British pianists, Paul Lewis on the 6 December in Liverpool.

Richard McMahon
Head of Keyboard
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama