A Heroic Piece in Hard Times: Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto

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Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto (the “Emperor”) dates from 1809, a difficult year for Vienna and for Beethoven. In May, Napoleon invaded the city and Beethoven took refuge in the basement of his brother’s house. The bombardment was close enough that he covered his ears with pillows to protect them.

On July 29th, he wrote to his publisher:

“We have passed through a great deal of misery. I tell you that since May 4th, I have brought into the world little that is connected; only here and there a fragment. The whole course of events has affected me body and soul…. What a disturbing, wild life around me; nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts.”

Beethoven reportedly confronted a French officer:

“If I were a general and knew as much about strategy as I do about counterpoint, I’d give you fellows something to think about.”

Modern day Vienna

It was in these horrendous times that Beethoven wrote one of his great heroic pieces, a piece with an unconventional opening. In his Fourth Concerto, Beethoven had begun with a short statement by the piano, which then quickly turned it over to the orchestra for its customary introduction of themes. But here in the Fifth Concerto, he goes way beyond that. It opens with a cadenza for the soloist.

And how did the concerto get its nickname? The story goes that when the concerto was premiered in 1812 (in an occupied Vienna) a French soldier, obviously impressed, exclaimed, “It is the Emperor!”

Alan Chapman

Alan Chapman

Alan Chapman, in addition to his weekday morning program, is also the host and producer of two weekend programs: Modern Times and A Musical Offering.

After receiving his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he earned a Ph.D. in music theory from Yale University. He is currently a member of the music theory faculty of the Colburn Conservatory. He was a longtime member of the music faculty at Occidental College and has also been a visiting professor at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. His analytical work has appeared in the Journal of Music Theory and in The New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill, winner of the Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing on music.

Well known as a pre-concert lecturer, Alan has been a regular speaker on the L.A. Philharmonic’s “Upbeat Live” series since its inception in 1984. He also works closely with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Pacific Symphony. His lectures have been presented by virtually every major performing organization in southern California. He has been heard globally as programmer and host of the inflight classical channel on Delta Airlines.

Alan is also active as a composer/lyricist. His songs have been performed and recorded by many artists around the world and have been honored by ASCAP, the Johnny Mercer Foundation, and the Manhattan Association of Cabarets. His children’s opera Les Moose: The Operatic Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was commissioned by LA Opera for its 1997-98 season. Alan frequently appears in cabaret evenings with his wife, soprano Karen Benjamin. They made their Carnegie Hall debut in 2000 and performed at Lincoln Center in 2006. Their recent CD, Que Será, Será: The Songs of Livingston and Evans, features the late Ray Evans telling the stories behind such beloved songs as “Mona Lisa” and “Silver Bells.”