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Beethoven’s last piano concerto dates from the beginning of May 1809, when, with Napoleon’s army besieging Vienna, the Austrian Imperial family and all of the court, including Beethoven’s pupil, friend, and benefactor, Archduke Rudolph, fled the city. On May 11 the French artillery, which commanded the heights of the surrounding countryside, was activated. Beethoven’s house stood perilously close to the line of fire. 

Those who could not – or, like Beethoven, would not – leave sought shelter underground. Beethoven found a temporary haven in the cellar of his brother’s house. Imagine the composer crouching there, with heaven knows how many other frightened souls, trying to shield his already irreparably damaged ears from the din of volley after volley.

Once the bombardment had ceased and the Austrian forces had surrendered, the occupiers imposed a “residence tax” on the Viennese. The composer, on whom a sufficiently heavy financial burden had been placed by the departure of those who would guarantee his income, described “a city filled with nothing but drums, cannon, marching men, and misery of all sorts.” 

After the summer, Beethoven was able to get away from the city and return to composing, producing back-to-back masterpieces in the “heroic” key of E-flat, the present Piano Concerto and the “Harp” Quartet, Op. 74. The grim experiences of the preceding months had not diminished his creative powers.

With many of his circle back in Vienna at the beginning of 1810, by which time a general armistice had been signed, life was returning to a semblance of normalcy, the French uniforms and the sound of the French language in the streets notwithstanding. There was, however, no opportunity to present the new concerto. That had to wait until the following year, and then not in Vienna but in Leipzig, with one Friedrich Schneider as soloist. Beethoven, who had written his four previous piano concertos for his own performance, was by now too deaf to perform with orchestra. 

For the occasion of the Vienna premiere in February 1812, the soloist was Beethoven’s prize pupil, Carl Czerny. Interestingly, the concerto itself failed to make much of an impression, largely, it would seem, because of the nature of the audience, the Society of Noble Ladies of Charity, more receptive to the historic tableaux vivants that shared the bill with Beethoven. 

Nonetheless, it was at that same concert that one connoisseur, a French army officer, supposedly called this work “an emperor among concertos” (aloud, in the auditorium?). Although this is often cited as a source of the nickname, verification is lacking. It is more likely that “Emperor” was the brainchild of an early publisher. Whatever its origin, the sobriquet seems apt for music of such imperious grandeur. 

Here, Beethoven is no longer writing up to his own lofty standards as a performer, but for the super virtuoso of the following generation – personified by Czerny. Yet while the projection of power is among the composer’s aims, overt display is not, with nothing resembling a solo cadenza in sight. With the “Emperor”, Beethoven created a truly symphonic concerto.

The first movement opens with a grandiose E-flat chord for the full orchestra, interrupted by a series of equally commanding arpeggios for the solo, suggesting an early cadenza. But instead, Beethoven alternates mighty pronouncements for the orchestra and the piano. The introduction ended, the piano offers a broad, swaggering theme of which (and of the ensuing, more subdued, second theme) Donald Francis Tovey wrote: “The orchestra is not only symphonic, but is enabled by the very necessity of accompanying the solo lightly to produce ethereal orchestral effects that are in quite a different category from anything in the symphonies. On the other hand, the solo part develops the technique of its instrument with a freedom and brilliance for which Beethoven has no leisure in sonatas and chamber music.”

The second movement is one of the composer’s sublime inspirations. The muted strings play a theme of incomparable beauty and sad tenderness, the piano responding in hushed, descending triplets, creating a subtle tension until the theme is fully exposed. The nocturne-like character of the movement is furthered by a delicate balance of soft woodwinds, strings, and the solo, as the music mysteriously fades away. Then, over a sustained horn note, the piano introduces, softly and still andante, the theme of the rondo finale. Suddenly, dramatically, the piano lunges into the final theme, a grandly exuberant allegro. — Herbert Glass