About the Music: Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart 

Overture to La Clemenza di Tito K. 621 

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (he never used “Amadeus” except when making a joke) was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756 and died in Vienna in 1791. He composed his opera La Clemenza di Tito in 1791, and it was first performed in Prague the same year. The score of the Overture calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. 

***** 

The subject matter of most opera seria seems stilted to those of us today who live under democratic governments, particularly as we view the demise of tyrannical regimes in places just discovering rule “by the people.” Traditionally, the plot of opera seria involved a rather unsubtle heroic theme intended to demonstrate the wisdom and benevolence of the ruling class. La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) K. 621 was Mozart’s last opera, and with opera seria already waning in popularity, one of the last of the genre. 

Mozart received the commission in mid-July of 1791 for an opera to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II to be held in Prague on September 6. The cast had not yet been hired, so Mozart could only begin work on the choruses and ensemble numbers. He learned the identities and capabilities of his cast only in mid-August, a bare eighteen days before the first performance. Substantial portions of the opera were probably composed on the journey to Prague itself (in his head, as usual) and upon his arrival; Mozart likely composed the Overture at the very last minute. The first performance was not well-received by the royal couple, particularly the Emperor’s wife, Queen Maria Louisa of Spain, who pronounced it “German swinishness.” 

The Overture possesses that deceptive simplicity that only a master can produce. Its first subject is an alternately stoic and impulsive theme for the strings. This contrasts with the sweet second subject for the winds, and both are ingeniously interwoven in the development. 

Although La Clemenza di Tito was performed fairly widely after Mozart’s death, it has remained obscure until the last thirty years. Where audiences have become reacquainted with it, they have learned of its special Mozartean warmth and nobility. Its Overture stands as a metaphor for the whole, and an invitation to partake of more. 

 

***** 

 

Ludwig van Beethoven 

Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor” 

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. He composed this work in 1809, and it was first performed in 1811 by Friedrich Schneider with the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig, Johann Schulz conducting. The name “Emperor” didn’t come from Beethoven; there are conflicting theories about how the concerto acquired it. The work is scored for solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings. 

***** 

Had Beethoven known that one day his Fifth Piano Concerto would be known as the “Emperor,” he would not have been amused. In 1809, while Beethoven was composing the work, Vienna was being attacked and later occupied by Napoleon’s troops. At one point Beethoven had to take refuge in his brother’s basement: “The whole course of events has affected me body and soul. What a disturbing, wild life around me! Nothing but drums, cannon, men, misery of all sorts!” 

Years previously, Beethoven had felt an affinity between himself and Napoleon, a self-made man of professed republican intentions; he even wrote his Third Symphony with Napoleon in mind. But when the Frenchman proclaimed himself emperor and set a course for world domination, Beethoven reacted bitterly: “Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of Man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!” Beethoven so violently scratched out Napoleon’s name on the symphony’s dedication page that he went right through the paper. Under the circumstances, “Emperor” was the last title Beethoven might have chosen for a work composed while under attack. 

Beethoven never wrote an ordinary concerto: there’s something unusual around every corner. While most concertos lay out the themes in the orchestra before the soloist enters, here the piano launches right in, only to fall silent. This deceit creates a certain tension about when it will re-enter. Later, at the place where we expect a to hear a cadenza, Beethoven specifically forbids one, instructing the soloist to push on. 

The theme-and-variations second movement begins in the unexpected key of  B-major, about as far removed from E-flat as can be. Its ending is pure genius. The piano ruminates, inventing a new melody note-by-note; it keeps adding notes until it achieves the opening theme of the Finale, which follows without pause. 

This Rondo is an astonishing dissertation on the use of form. The first episode of the rondo is in fact a sonata form; the second episode is itself a miniature rondo. You might only hear these forms-within-forms and compositional devices if you deliberately listen for them, but they create a finely crafted, multi-layered cohesiveness—and music that sounds utterly fresh and spontaneous. 

This remarkable concerto was Beethoven’s last, even though he would live a further eighteen years.  The piano concertos had been vehicles for his own prodigious pianism, but by this time he had grown too deaf to perform. Despite the cruel irony of his affliction and the frightening scenes around him, Beethoven left us a magnificent work of noble spirit and profound affirmation. 

 

***** 

 

Antonín Dvořák 

Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60 

Antonín Dvořák was born in Mühlhausen, Bohemia in 1841 and died in Prague in 1904. He composed this work in 1880, and it was first performed by the Prague Philharmonic under the direction of Adolf Čech the following year. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. 

***** 

Dvořák originally composed this symphony for the Vienna Philharmonic and its director, Hans Richter, who had performed his Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3 in 1879 with some success. Richter had been delighted by the work and had asked Dvořák for a symphony for the following season. Dvořák happily complied—Vienna was the musical capital of the world—but at this point Richter started making excuses. His mother had just died; his wife was about to have a baby; his other children were sick; and besides, the Philharmonic players were overworked. Those were the good reasons, but Dvořák eventually learned the real reason: that the players of the Philharmonic—then, as now, that most conservative of orchestras—had objected to performing works by a little-known Czech composer two seasons in a row. Undaunted (and with the score still dedicated to Richter), Dvořák gave the premiere to his friend Adolf Čech and the Prague Philharmonic. 

Dvořák’s symphonies have had an arduous journey into the concert repertoire, quite apart from the shift in their numbering that was only cleared up in the 1950s. The Ninth entered the repertory the moment it was completed, but performances of the shadowy Seventh and ebullient Eighth were always rare, and the Sixth was essentially unknown even among musicians. Part of this can be blamed on the critical assessment of Dvořák as a composer of lightweight nationalist fare, never quite up to snuff in the symphonic department compared to Beethoven and Brahms. Brahms, of course, knew better, and so do audiences around the world: they are happy to ignore the critics and enjoy the music. 

The first theme of the first movement grows from two notes, then three, then extended by the violins into a phrase leading to a grand statement based on those first two notes. The second theme is a genteel melody heard in the horns and cellos, extended by a solo oboe. Dvořák originally put an exposition repeat into his score but later eliminated it; it seems a shame not to make a repeat, for his transition back to the beginning is lovely. Either way, the transition to the development is wonderfully mysterious and the development itself unique in its long-sustained pianissimo. Listen for the second violins and violas briefly playing sul ponticello—with bows nearly on top of the bridge, producing a ghostly, brittle sound—an effect we associate with music written much later. After the recapitulation, the coda is full of delightful surprises. 

The woodwinds lead us into the Adagio, whose main theme derives from the two-note rising-fourth motive that opened the first movement. Much like a rondo, this theme reappears, varied somewhat each time, to separate contrasting sections. After a final restatement of the theme—very simple now—the woodwinds close with the music that opened the movement. 

Dvořák’s Scherzo is a furiant, a swaggering Bohemian folk dance with bracing off-kilter rhythms. The fun of a furiant is how it leads you into rhythmic expectations that prove to be all wrong. This movement sounds as if it begins in a duple meter—or alternatively, a slowish triple meter—only to reveal itself as a wickedly fast three. This ambiguity keeps us on our toes until the calmer trio arrives and the piccolo—silent in the symphony until now—gives us a solo turn worth waiting for. 

The Finale begins quietly, barely holding its energy back until it can wait no more. Once under way it maintains its high spirits and, as always with Dvořák, an effusion of wonderful tunes and grand moments. 

Scholars have always made much about the obvious influences Dvořák had when composing this symphony, because that’s what scholars do. They point out the wind introduction to the Adagio and how much it mimics the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. They mention the obvious nod to Brahms’ Second in the opening of the Finale, and so on. For his part, Dvořák was never shy about those influences, and only scholars consider these things to be defects. The rest of us may simply enjoy the rare opportunity to hear an unjustly neglected work such as this, performed with the love it so manifestly deserves. 

—Mark Rohr 

Questions or comments? 

markrohrprogramnotes@gmail.com 

 
 
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