Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ is a revolutionary challenge
There's something revolutionary about Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto -- but not what you think. The subtitle "Emperor" leads many to believe that Beethoven intended the work as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
'Larger Than Life'
Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, conducted by JoAnn Falletta, with piano soloist William Wolfram:
» In concert: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
» Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
» Tickets: $15 to $68, with 20 percent discount for seniors and military; $10 students
» Call: 792-2000 (days), 524-0815, ext. 245 (evenings), or visit www.honolulusymphony.com
Von Weber's "Oberon Overture"; Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, "Emperor"; Stravinsky's "Divertimento" from the "Allegorical Ballet, Le Baiser de la fée (After the Fairy's Kiss)"; Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante"
Beethoven lived in an era of unending social upheaval. He was born in 1770, and during the course of his 57 years (he died in 1827), he witnessed the transformation of Europe. The French Revolution began in 1789, and warfare plagued Europe. It would make you dizzy to review all the countries that went to war with each other.
War reached Beethoven's actual doorstep in May 1809 when Napoleon's troops bombarded Vienna. By then, Napoleon had crowned himself emperor and was on a course to rule all Europe.
It was in this atmosphere of terrifying cannon fire that Beethoven composed his Fifth Piano Concerto. As you can imagine, working conditions were far from ideal. The unbelievable noise and miserable conditions -- food shortages, crippling taxes and general squalor -- made writing new music almost impossible. Still, Beethoven persevered.
The concerto is amazingly free from any element of the misery of the times. In fact, at some moments it's soothingly positive. It's ironic that the subtitle "Emperor," added in the 19th century and never intended by Beethoven, makes us think that it was dedicated to an invading dictator.
The music itself was revolutionary in its own right, thanks to the first movement's nontraditional beginning. Instead of the piano entering after an orchestral introduction, Beethoven begins with the piano and orchestra answering each other in exuberant flourishes. From there on it's thrills and chills for pianist, orchestra and audience.
Himself a brilliant pianist, Beethoven would have given the work's premiere, but he was nearing complete deafness by the time he completed the concerto. Hearing loss prevented him from introducing this beautiful work to the world. We can only wonder if this is why the "Emperor" was his last piano concerto.
Many of Beethoven's contemporaries considered the work too difficult, too demanding. They said that a lot about Beethoven. Today, his Fifth Piano Concerto is a challenge that musicians embrace with gusto. This majestic, glorious piece is absolutely worthy of the "Emperor" subtitle.
We invite you to enjoy this triumphant work with us this weekend. We'll have the pleasure of welcoming maestra JoAnn Falletta back to the podium as fantastic American pianist William Wolfram does the honors with this impressive masterwork.
is principal timpanist of the Honolulu Symphony. He also serves as music director for the Maui Pops Orchestra and associate conductor of the Louisville Orchestra. E-mail him at email@example.com