Program Notes | Beethoven’s Emperor
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op.36
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born 1770, Bonn
Died 1827, Vienna
Beethoven liked to get away from Vienna during the summer, and in April 1802 he rented rooms in the village of Heiligenstadt, which had fields and forests where he could take long walks. Beethoven remained there a long time, not returning to the city until October, but his lengthy stay had nothing to do with the beauty of the setting. That summer the composer finally had to face the dark truth that his hearing was failing, that there was no hope, and that he would eventually go deaf. Evidence suggests that he considered suicide that summer. Yet from these depths, Beethoven wrote some of his most genial music, a fact that should warn us not to make easy connections between a creator’s life and his art. Chief among the works he completed that despairing summer was the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, as sunny a piece of music as he ever wrote.
Historians have been unanimous in finding Beethoven’s first two symphonies conservative, but to contemporary listeners the Second Symphony sounded audacious enough. After the premiere in Vienna on April 5, 1803, a reviewer complained that “the first symphony is better than the [second] because it is developed with a lightness and is less forced, while in the second the striving for the new and surprising is already more apparent.” That critic makes an acute point: While the Second Symphony remains very much in the mold of the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, it represents clear progress beyond the limits of Beethoven’s well-behaved First Symphony. These advances are evident in its span (some performances of the Second stretch to nearly 40 minutes), its bright sonority (Beethoven chooses D major, a particularly resonant key for the strings), and its atmosphere of non-stop energy. The Second Symphony may take the form of an 18th-century symphony, but there are “new and surprising” elements throughout this buoyant score.
The slow introduction begins with a great explosion: The orchestra has a unison D, marked fortissimo, and then moves through an unexpected range of keys, its rhythms growing increasingly animated as it proceeds. At the Allegro con brio, Beethoven introduces as his main theme a figure that seems almost consciously athematic: There is nothing melodic about this figure for lower strings that rushes ahead, curving around a sixteenth-note turn as it goes. Yet built into this simple figure is a vast amount of energy, and much of the development will grow out of the turn. The second subject, innocent and good-natured, arrives in the wind band. Beethoven develops both these ideas, but the turn-figure dominates the movement, including a muttering, ominous modulation for strings at the end of the development. (Was this one of the places that bothered that early critic?) The movement drives to a wonderful climax, the sound of trumpets stinging through a splendid mass of orchestral sound, and the turn-figure propels the music to a close on the same unison D that opened the movement.
The second movement, Larghetto, is not really a slow movement in the traditional sense, but a moderately paced sonata-form movement built on a profusion of themes. Beethoven develops these lyric ideas at luxurious length—this is the longest movement in the symphony. The Scherzo erupts with another unison D, and out of this explosion leap three-note salvos. Beethoven seems unusually alert here to where these sounds are coming from; the three-note cannonades jump up from all over the orchestra. By contrast, the trio brings a gentle tune, but the remarkable thing about both scherzo and trio is that each opening statement is quite brief, while the second strains are long and take the music through unexpected harmonic excursions.
The finale opens with an abrupt flourish. Yet from this brief figure Beethoven generates most of the last movement, deriving much of the music from the flourish’s opening F#-G slide and its concluding drop of a fifth. Full of boundless energy and good spirits, this rondo offers a flowing second theme for lower strings (Beethoven marks it dolce) and a genial tune for woodwinds over chirping string accompaniment. But the opening flourish always returns to whip this movement forward and to give the music its almost manic character, and the symphony drives to a conclusion that is—one last time—a ringing D for full orchestra.
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73, “Emperor”
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
In the spring of 1809 Napoleon―intent upon consolidating his hold on Europe―went to war with Austria. He laid siege to Vienna in May, and after a brief bombardment the city surrendered to the French and was occupied through the remainder of the year. The royal family fled early in May and did not return until January 1810, but Beethoven remained behind throughout the shelling and occupation, and it was during this period that he completed his Fifth Piano Concerto. Some critics have been ready to take their cue from the French occupation and to understand the concerto as Beethoven’s response to it. Alfred Einstein identified what he called a “military character” in this music, and Maynard Solomon has particularized this, hearing “warlike rhythms, victory motifs, thrusting melodies, and affirmative character” in it.
But, far from being swept up in the fervor of the fighting, Beethoven found the occupation a source of stress and depression. During the shelling, he hid in the basement of his brother Caspar’s house, where he wrapped his head in pillows to protect his ears. To his publishers, Beethoven wrote: “The course of events has affected my body and soul . . . Life around me is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort.” The concerto he wrote during this period may be noble and powerful music, but it is noble and powerful in spite of the military occupation rather than because of it. And in fact, Beethoven had done much of the work on the concerto before the French army entered Vienna: His earliest sketches date from February 1809, and he appears to have had the concerto largely complete by April, before the fighting began.
Beethoven defies expectations from the opening instant of this music. The Allegro bursts to life with a resplendent E-flat major chord for the whole orchestra, but this is not the start of the expected orchestral exposition. Instead, that chord opens the way for a cadenza by the solo piano―a cadenza that the orchestra punctuates twice more with powerful chords before sweeping into the movement’s main theme and the true exposition. This first movement is marked by a spaciousness and grandeur far removed from Beethoven’s misery over the fighting that wracked Vienna. This is music of shining sweep, built on two main ideas, both somewhat in the manner of marches: the strings’ vigorous main subject and a poised second theme, sounded first by the strings, then repeated memorably as a duet for horns. After so vigorous an exposition, the entrance of the piano feels understated, as it ruminates on the two main themes, but soon the piano part―full of octaves, wide leaps, and runs―turns as difficult as it is brilliant. This Allegro is music of an unusual spaciousness: At a length of nearly 20 minutes, it is one of Beethoven’s longest first movements (and is longer than the final two movements combined). Beethoven maintains strict control―he does not allow the soloist the freedom to create his own cadenza but instead writes out a brief cadential treatment of themes before the movement hurtles to its powerful close.
The Adagio un poco mosso transports us to a different world altogether. Gone is the energy of the first movement, and now we seem in the midst of sylvan calm. Beethoven moves to the remote key of B major and mutes the strings, which sing the hymn-like main theme. There follow two extended variations on that rapt melody. The first, for piano over quiet accompaniment, might almost be labeled “Chopinesque” in its expressive freedom, while the second is for winds, embellished by the piano’s steady strands of sixteenths.
As he did in the Fourth Piano Concerto, Beethoven links the second and third movements, and that transition is made most effectively here. The second movement concludes on a low B, and then Beethoven drops everything one half-step to B-flat. Out of that expectant change, the piano begins, very gradually, to outline a melodic idea, which struggles to take shape and direction. And then suddenly it does; it is as if these misty imaginings have been hit with an electric current that snaps them to vibrant life as the main theme of final movement. This Allegro is a vigorous rondo that alternates lyric episodes with some of Beethoven’s most rhythmically energized writing―this music always seems to want to dance. Near the close comes one of its most striking moments, a duet for piano and timpani, which taps out the movement’s fundamental rhythm. And then the piano leaps up to energize the full orchestra, which concludes with one final recall of the rondo theme.
At the time he wrote this concerto, Beethoven was 38 and his hearing was deteriorating rapidly. It had become so weak by this time that he knew he could not give the first performance; this is the only one of his piano concertos for which he did not play the premiere. That premiere had to wait two years after the concerto’s completion: It took place in Leipzig on November 28, 1811, with Friedrich Schuster as soloist. That performance, which Beethoven did not attend, was a great success; a reviewer wrote that “It is without doubt one of the most original, imaginative, most effective but also one of the most difficult of all existing concertos . . . the crowded audience was soon put into such a state of enthusiasm that it could hardly content itself with the ordinary expressions of recognition and enjoyment.” But the Vienna performance―on February 12, 1812, with Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny as soloist―was not successful. One journal noted the difficulty of the music and suggested that “It can be understood and appreciated only by connoisseurs.”
The nickname “Emperor” did not originate with the composer, and Beethoven’s denunciation of Napoleon’s self-coronation several years earlier suggests that he would not have been sympathetic to it at all. Despite various theories, the source of that nickname remains unknown, and almost certainly Beethoven never heard this concerto referred to by the nickname that we use today.
-Program notes by Eric Bromberger