We unravel the secrets and beauty of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor," hailed as a masterpiece in the piano concerto repertoire. We explore the complexities of the music, the unusual circumstances behind its creation, and what to listen for!
A recent performance of Mitsuko Uchida of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting
Speaker 1: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Kiwi, and we are talking about one of the big 19th century concertos, Beethoven's piano concerto number five, Emperor. There is a lot to discover and learn about this masterpiece; from Beethoven seeking refuge to compose amidst military bombardment, to how this concerto changed cadenzas going forward and all kinds of moments to listen for as we dive into the music. Plus, stay with us to the end for a listener email.
Not that I have an exhaustive list of my favorite piano concertos, Evan, but this one from Beethoven, it's definitely near the top of the list. I love some of the bigger things he's doing with the piano concerto as a whole, pushing it forward, but there's so many little moments in here, too, little kind of genius moments I think are just waiting to be heard.
Speaker 2: Yeah. John, I have a similar kind of feeling. For me, and I think my experience is not unusual, this is one of the first concertos by Beethoven that I encountered, maybe one of the first piano concertos I ever heard. It continues to be just a worldwide favorite with music listeners, and with good reason. It's just a thrilling, wonderful piece.
Speaker 1: Absolutely. Bring us up to speed here, I guess. When and where did Beethoven write this?
Speaker 2: Beethoven wrote this fifth piano concerto in 1809. He's just about pushing 40 at this point in his life. One of the things I think is really interesting about this fifth piano concerto is that this is the very last concerto that Beethoven will compose in the course of his career. He writes seven concertos; five piano concertos, plus the violin concerto and the so- called triple concerto. Then he lives for another 18 years. He dies in 1827. He never writes another concerto. Maybe this one was so powerful and profound he had nothing left to say in that genre, or maybe he just focused on other things. No one really knows. I just find that fascinating.
1809, of course, very interesting and very difficult time in Beethoven's life and what's going on in Europe at the time. Beethoven, of course, has been living in Vienna for some years at this point. This is the time in which Napoleon's army is invading the city of Vienna. Everyone that lives there is dealing with this terrible calamity. Beethoven writes about it. He says, " It has affected me, body and soul, with nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts." He actually writes his concerto while he's living in his brother's basement trying to take refuge from the fighting. Of course his hearing is going, and loud noises like explosions are painful to him, physically, as well as of course the physical danger that everyone is in. In the midst of all this suffering and uncertainty, he writes this extraordinarily courageous piece of music.
Speaker 1: It also has a nickname too as well, Emperor, but we're not really sure how that came about, I guess. Beethoven never gave it that nickname or I guess it really intended to. It's kind of a, well, I don't know.
Speaker 2: No one knows the origin of this nickname Emperor Concerto. There are conflicting stories, most of which are lack credibility anyway. Frankly, I would say let's get rid of it because I think, if anything, Beethoven probably would've objected to it, especially given his obvious feelings about Napoleon making himself an emperor. Let's just call it the fifth piano concerto.
Speaker 1: That's good. We'll call it just the fifth piano concerto. Well, so often in episodes we talk about the introductions to a work, how it sets the scene, both with tonality but also instruments, the themes, the overall atmosphere of the work. They can be kind of lengthy, but here Beethoven kind of just gets rid of it. It's one big chord and then the soloist is off. It's a bright, rich texture. I love how the piano emerges almost like sparkles of light or some kind of glitter.
Speaker 2: Right away we have a sense of what this concerto was going to be like because even in this very first couple of measures, we hear a piano part, which is virtuosic, but without being really showy. It's not like this incredibly insanely difficult piano part. It's just a very elegant and very expressive piano writing, certainly challenging. There's a lot of technical demands on the soloist from the start, but they don't have this sort of pyrotechnic superhuman quality. It's just a magnificent and attention- grabbing beginning
Speaker 1: This whole beginning here, it takes about a minute to happen with the pianist going off on their own. The orchestra comes back in twice with big chords. Then it feels like the movement continues or it really starts in earnest. These chords are interesting. They're very separated in time over this introduction, but if we just take them all out and just put them together, it sounds something like this.
Until the other day, I had never actually even thought about, or put that together myself, in that way with just the chords. It totally changes it.
Speaker 2: Yeah. It really couldn't be more simple, harmonically. For anybody who's ever studied music theory tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic, 1, 4, 5, 1. This is the chord progression in western music, the most common, the most simple, ordinary chord progression in western music. Beethoven takes this very simple harmonic language, and yet by extending it with his virtuosic piano part ... Again, we don't expect the piano to come in so soon in a piano green concerto. It's a very unusual feature. He takes something very ordinary and turns it into something extraordinary.
Speaker 1: This whole idea of playing this super simple progression as you described it, with a soloist in between, that's continued. We hear that all the way through today from indie bands to jazz, this thing it's still around.
Speaker 2: Yeah. He kind of sets the whole tone for a whole lot of creative things that are to follow.
Speaker 1: It would've been, as you said, a little striking to have just a cadenza like this, a moment for the soloist alone at the beginning. The fourth piano concerto, it also starts with piano, but it's very different. Yeah.
Speaker 2: The classical era concertos, the piano concertos by Mozart are the most familiar to us, and there's a whole tradition where the orchestra comes in at considerable length, kind of lays out the whole exposition and then the instrument, then the piano comes in. You have this concertos in the late 18th century. Beethoven's first three concertos follow that same ... First three piano concertos plus the violin concerto follow that same template. In the fourth piano concerto, you have this piano solo at the very beginning, which was pretty unusual. Likewise, in this fifth concerto, you have these three very simple chords in the orchestra with this virtuosic piano writing, this cadenza as we're calling it at the very, very beginning, also very unusual. For an audience in 1809, 1810, this must have been quite striking.
Speaker 1: Yes. When the theme does come in, it really gives you an idea of the full scope of the orchestra that Beethoven is bringing, and as he would bring more with his later symphonies. Full sound of the brass and timpani as well. There's a lot of things that are traditional about this in terms of its structure as well in the first movement, using sonata form a way that you can pace and really tell the story. It's a lot of music theory there. Here's a moment where I was talking about earlier with the kind of more small moments. We get this big, fantastic theme, but then suddenly a very small, very intimate sound. It's minor, and then it goes into major. It's a very small moment that just passes by, but it comes back again and again in this first movement. You can hear for where it appears not just strings, but also piano later, and other instruments and sections that bring it in.
Transitions, Evan, are a big point for me in kind of seeing how composers treat things. Beethoven often has a line that will repeat over and over and over again, instruments building in, or instruments joining in to make it bigger. It can go both ways. It can repeat and get bigger and build to a new plateau in the music, or it can come back down and have something softer. We see a lot of good pacing from Beethoven in terms of a lot of it's coming down. He saves the building up big moments for well, when it really, really needs it.
Speaker 2: He's really able to take this extension of a traditional first movement form and keep our attention. He keeps it exciting by the ways that he's, like you're talking about John, the building up, the coming down, even simple things like scales, whether they're just stepwise motion, a very chromatic. He really kind of holds our attention, despite saying something at much greater length than audiences of his time were used to hearing.
Speaker 1: What's also striking here is how Beethoven brings the piano back in after this reintroduction of the orchestra, if you will. It comes back in with a scale, a very simple one, a chromatic scale. They're just going up all the notes on the piano. This first heroic theme, when the piano comes in, you kind of think it would be some big rich piano sound texture, but it just goes up there and it sits in the higher register, and then rather modestly this heroic theme comes in, but it's very, very reserved.
Speaker 2: It's almost like it kind of sneaks in rather than proudly proclaiming, here I am, main theme once, again, which is more of a traditional structure,
Speaker 1: The loudest person in the room might not be the most heroic, if you will. One of the things that's different about this concerto I think is also how Beethoven treats the soloist and the orchestra. Well, the piano is really commanding and driving the bus, as we say a lot in music in the US. The piano is driving the bus, they're in control here. The orchestra, a lot of times they have to really just adjust to whatever the piano is doing, but they're very accompanimental.
Speaker 2: Yes. This is also something of a departure from the traditional concerto form that Beethoven had inherited. It's a departure from his previous concertos as well. There's this wonderful quote I found from Cliff Eisen who says, " From the third piano concerto on, Beethoven not only expanded the proportions of his works, making them truly symphonic, but successfully managed to forge a new relationship between piano and orchestra. Whereas, in Mozart's concertos soloist and ensemble work in tandem. In Beethoven's, the soloist is clearly the hero. This is already clear from the different ways in which the soloist makes his first entrance. Most striking of all perhaps is this concerto where three orchestral chords punctuate a series of almost improvisatory phrases. The hero of the piece could not be more obvious, nor the monumental scope of the work more clearly marked out."
Speaker 1: That's quite a quote. I mean, that's really what's happening here,
Speaker 2: Yeah. Yeah. Once again, it's a departure from what audiences would've expected in this era. It seems so Beethovenian to have this individual instrument be the hero of the story.
Speaker 1: I think that lines up with this moment here in the music where it's a rather difficult section for the soloist. The orchestra has little moments here and there when they come in and those need to line up. Listening wise, this is a one way relationship. When you're playing chamber music, everyone is listening together, everyone's adjusting as they need to within context, but here it's the soloist who is laying down the line and everyone has to follow in.
There's another interesting moment here. We've heard some call and response, a lot of dovetailing where one thing ends and then one thing kind of sneaks back in or just takes off with a line. Here we have the back and forth be between directly piano and with the orchestra fighting each other. In a recording like this, and many modern performances, it's a big grand piano. This grand piano actually didn't quite exist in Beethoven's time. The instruments were very, very different. Here's an example of that sound here with a Christian (inaudible) , a pianist playing an 1824 replica of a keyboard. You can really hear how I think it was a lot harder to compete with the orchestra on that older instrument.
Then following this right after this, there's scales. He's done a lot of simple things, like you mentioned, that simple chord progression. He uses a lot of scaluar motion here as well. I'm really struck how he uses these scales, they're going up and down and he's threading the tonality here. It seems like one moment it's maybe major, maybe minor, maybe something else.
Speaker 2: This is one of the many instances in this movement, in particular, where there's a kind of ambiguity about the direction we're going in. Beethoven is so good in so many of his works at leaving us guessing and wondering. Then when something really surprising happens, we're surprised. Then it also seems like it's the only thing that could have happened.
Speaker 1: That's a good point. You hear it and it's like, well, it is surprising, but then what other choice would there be?
Speaker 2: Yeah. What the heck was that? Well, of course that's what happened. You have this simultaneous surprise, but also a sense of decisiveness. That's one of the things that makes Beethoven's music so compelling.
Speaker 1: Absolutely. There's another moment here, and it's something I've actually mentioned in many episodes, where it feels like a line is going up in the register and then very gently it feels like it just lands on a higher point as if you threw a paper plane and it went up two stories and then just very gently landed on a shelf up there.
It's like a little daydream, from what we expect to be some heroic figure.
Speaker 2: Right. This is one of the many places too where it seems to me Beethoven is such a master of the instrument. Beethoven was quite skilled at playing a number of instruments. He was a string player, but piano was really his instrument more than anything else. Maybe that's why there are five piano concertos and only one file violin concerto, for instance. These little moments where everything just seems so exquisitely refined and perfect. You really have a sense that he's absolutely sure he knows what he wants.
Speaker 1: He brings back in the idea from the opening, right, with the chords and the piano coming in, but it's a little bit different the second time.
Speaker 2: Yeah. I love the way Beethoven recapitulates the opening, but in a manner that's just different enough to make it even more interesting. This is kind of the recapitulation that isn't, in a sense. It both recapitulates, but it also further develops the themes of the exposition.
Speaker 1: We should say, this movement itself, it's quite long. It's like 20 minutes long and it's longer than the other movements combined. Just to sit and think about where we are in music at this point in the early 1800s, just a couple of decades ago, not even really, I mean, there's symphonies that are less than 20 minutes long.
Speaker 2: This is pretty revolutionary in its scope.
Speaker 1: Yes. It's demanding so much from the soloist here.
Speaker 2: And from the audience too, when it was first performed. Absolutely.
Speaker 1: After this, we get to a cadenza. I mean, this is what we expect. It's 1809, we're hearing a concerto, we're getting towards the end of this movement. It's getting exciting. There's got to be a cadenza here, but this is also a departure. This is different.
Speaker 2: Right. There's usually, toward the end of a movement, especially the first movement of a solo instrument concerto, like a piano concerto, there's a particular kind of chord, you could call it a 164 chord if you know your music theory. Everybody, even people that didn't know any music theory sitting in the concert hall in 1809, or any of the decades before that, would recognize the sound of this chord and then they would expect the soloist to improvise. These performances today of these, like a Mozart concerto for instance, because improvisation is so much less of a factor in the way musicians are trained in our society, there's really not as much of an expectation that the soloist is going to sit there and improvise. Very often, there's either a musicologist or some scholar will write a cadenza for the soloist to play and, or there are these cadenzas that have been written by other great instrumentalists over the generations that get passed down. You'll hear some of those. In some of the Mozart concertos, there are Beethoven cadenzas that have been preserved, and sometimes you'll hear those in a concert performance or in a recording.
Beethoven departs from that in this concerto. It may be the very first time it's ever happened in music history at this phase where he writes it out. He writes in the score in Italian, the universal language for music in that period, " Don't make a cadenza, but go on to the following." He writes out all of the notes for the soloist to play. There's no proposition expected in this concerto. I'm not aware of that ever happening before. I don't know why he did that, other than just because he was Beethoven and he was always coming up with new ideas based on these inherited structures.
It's also worth noting that Beethoven, at this point, his hearing was sufficiently deteriorated. He wasn't really performing anymore. He had been the soloist in performances of this piece, rather not of this concerto, but of other concertos that he had written. He was not able to be the soloist in the fifth concerto. Is he writing out the cadenza, because he doesn't trust the soloist to do what he wants them to do? Or does he just have this new idea about what a concerto should be? Maybe a bit of both. Maybe there's some other reason, but what we have is this marvelous thing that we can enjoy and appreciate, whether or not we're steeped in this history. It just sounds magnificent on its own.
Speaker 1: Yeah. I think it's just Beethoven ... Yeah. I can't play this one. I can't play it this time, but you're going to play exactly what I would play, not as good, but you should try this. Don't do your own thing, do this thing.
Speaker 2: Do this. Just do this. Another thing that's interesting about this " cadenza" that isn't a cadenza, it's also quite short. Traditionally a cadenza, the soloist would really go on for some minutes playing on the themes that we've heard and so forth. This cadenza is really quite brief. It's maybe a minute long in a performance. That's also quite exceptional.
Speaker 1: He might have needed some more control because of how he gets out of the cadenza, especially in this time period. For so many musicians today, when you're playing in an orchestra, you're sitting there, during the cadenza, you're not counting measures of rest. There's nothing to count. You just sit, but you have to be ready to come back in when the cadenza ends. Sometimes it happens quick, and if you're not paying attention, thinking about what you're going to eat afterwards, you can be caught out. Typically, this has been with a trill. The soloist gets through their big part of the cadenza and they kind of go up to a higher register, and then there'll be some kind of trill that resolves into the orchestra coming right back in. You hear it all the time with different works. Here, there is that trill, and I can imagine some string players just brought their instruments up out of habit or instinct and then maybe feel a little silly, because it's not the end. It kind of just meanders on for a moment. The ending here, it's very strange.
Speaker 2: It's very strange and very unusual. As you were saying, John, when that cadenza ends, traditionally there's like this big tonic chord in the orchestra and the theme is recapitulated in a very decisive way. That's very exciting. Here, the orchestra kind of sneaks back in almost. It just sort of very quietly sort of rejoin the piano like, " Hey, I want to be part of this enjoyment too." They kind of slip together back into this dialogue that you're not expecting in that moment.
Speaker 1: Then it brings it all to, really, a big heroic end.
Looking at the premiere, it was in Leipzig in November of 1811. As you said, Evan, Beethoven's hearing had deteriorated to the point where he wasn't able to perform this with an orchestra, so he was not the soloist.
Speaker 2: Beethoven was indeed not the soloist, as we were saying. In fact, the first performance in Vienna was in February of 1812, a few months after the very first performance of the concerto ever, which was in Leipzig, as you mentioned, John. Carl Czerny, if you've ever studied piano, you know the Czerny exercises. He was, of course, a student of Beethoven's. He played the solo part in that first Vienna performance. There's a very emotional scene in the film, Immortal Beloved, where Beethoven is trying to play a concerto, and he's so deaf that he can't hear the orchestra and the whole thing falls apart and the audience laughs at him. Then the Countess (inaudible) defiantly escorts him from the stage to preserve his dignity. It's a very moving scene. Never happened, because Beethoven was never, as far as I know, never the soloist in a performance of this fifth concerto, because by the time he wrote it, he could not hear well enough to play publicly.
Speaker 1: Okay. We'll get into the second movement right after this.
That brings us to the second movement. This is definitely one of my favorite slow movements from a concerto. The introduction is so serene, so blissful. There is a great video of pianist Nikolai Lu Gonski talking about this concerto. We'll put it on the show notes page. He said about this point in the concerto, the second movement, the music is so beautiful, it's quite difficult to speak about. It's hard to even come up with words to describe it because, well, nothing seems to do it justice.
Speaker 2: Yeah. It's just one of those absolutely exquisite moments in Beethoven and really in all of music. One of the things that I think of when I hear this, it really reminds me of the (inaudible) song. The slow movement from his A minor string quartet that he wrote some years after this concerto. There's this hymn- like quality, there's this sense of reverence that comes from this music. In this concerto, the slow movement opens with the violins and violas playing in this very simple rhythms, very simple harmonies, and you have this pizzicato in the lower strings that just adds this sort of gentle drive to it that's so perfect.
Speaker 1: I love how we hear some of the moments on the keyboard, like when it comes in without urgency, just wandering, without almost any intent. Just getting lower and lower and lower. We hear a lot of things popping up high and then coming down low. He also goes in the other direction here, going from low to high. Another point here, so many trills in this concerto as a whole, I can imagine with the technology at the time, there were definitely performances where the keyboard just wasn't able to maybe handle this fast and action for so long over the whole range. This trill; very, very light, very childlike. Almost like a butterfly getting higher and higher. Then from there, we get into this steady march. It feels very, very proud.
This movement is so beautiful. It really stands on its own. There's not much to say, until we get to the end. The end of the movement is quite interesting. Things start to wind down. You can hear a definite conclusion coming, but he does something different here. Instead of landing on a final resolute chord, maybe B major in this key, it ends with most of the players playing a B with the bassoons sustaining Bs, no other notes. It's very weak in terms of the tonality. Is it minor? Is it major? Could it be something else? Then we get a really interesting transition into the third movement, the finale, which is an E- flat major. We're throwing out some words here, but I think we can all follow along. We have to figure out how do we get from B to E- flat major. Those are very distant keys. Well, Beethoven just lets this sustained B just slide into a B- flat in the following measure, which in the (inaudible) flat is the five, the dominant.
Speaker 2: Dominant, which then leads to the tonic, which is E- flat.
Speaker 1: Yes. This transition, it feels like a suspended moment in time where the piano then gently introduces the next big heroic theme, which is the piano alone at the start of the finale.
Speaker 2: I almost feel Beethoven's trying to trick us here. We've been lulled, we've been soothed by this astoundingly beautiful slow movement, which follows this exceptionally long, very complex first movement. It's almost like Beethoven is saying, " Hey. We had this very long first movement. Well, now we're in the second movement, let's introduce a second section in this slow movement with a wholly unrelated key, something completely new as far as thematic material." Then, all of a sudden we discover that what we're hearing is a kind of a pre- echo for the third movement. Not only the key, but the rhythmic quality and the shape of this new theme are quite different from the rest of the second movement.
Speaker 1: Almost like if you're listening to a very poorly pressed or made record and you hear what's coming up next on the revolution in the music before. I think there's four people who will remember that or understand what I'm saying about that. This bores the lines of when a movement begins or ends. That wasn't quite revolutionary at the time, but this transition, it was unique. For instance, if I'm on the radio, Evan, and I'm going to play the finale to Beethoven's fifth, piano concerto, as we call it, well, where do I start? Do I start right where it may say track three on the CD? No, that's going to be in the middle of a sustain or something. Do I start right when the piano enters with the big chords in the third movement? Or do I start before when it enters. Me, personally, if I'm just playing the third movement, I'm going to start it with the big part of the third movement. It does a ask the question, well, what does this belong to?
Speaker 2: Where does it really begin? Where does the second movement end? Where does the third movement begin? It's a deliberate ambiguity, which is part of what makes this concerto so exciting.
Speaker 1: As it jumps into the third movement, it is fun. It is very, very exciting. The first movement felt very deep. There's a lot of philosophical questions, I think, being asked. The second, very meditative, very dreamlike, lighter than air. The third, it's exciting. It feels like a dance. It's just fun all the way to the end.
Speaker 2: Right. We've had these very heroic statements, this struggle for freedom in the first movement, this incomparable longing in the second movement. Then the third movement is almost like a party.
Speaker 1: Yes. The reason why it's, I think, fun and kind of like a party is because it's a rondo, which seems to be built for excitement. A rondo is a form that alternates between contrasting themes. We're thinking very simply with this. We can think of it as A, B, A, C, A, B, A. Well, what's the C? Well, that's another contrasting section. Think of a song you listen to, your favorite band on the radio, for instance, or whatever, verses, choruses, a bridge, a solo. There's contrasting sections like that. Here we have A and then B, and then A. For instance, the A theme as we can kind of guess it is that big theme.
Speaker 2: Yeah. The thing to understand about a rondo, it's this, it's a very traditional form at the end of a concerto. Many of the Mozart piano concertos, for example. With this rondo allegro, it's kind of a standard thing. The thing to understand about a rondo, if you understand nothing else, is that it's a structure in which you have this theme which recurs over and over again. In between the recurrences are these different things that happen, but we keep going back to something familiar.
Speaker 1: Yes. It lets you really stretch or be adventurous in something because, well, this is only for this one section, and we're going to have our pallets cleansed in a moment by listening to the theme in its nice structure and key, if you will. He's also blurring, Evan, the lines of the rhythm here, the time signature to do with some even more theory. Is it six eight? Is it three, four?
Speaker 2: 6, 8. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 versus 3, 4, 1 and two and three and one and two and three. What he's doing from the very first measure when the fast tempo starts is both at the same time. If you actually look at the score, you look at the piano part, the right- hand part is written in 3, 4. One and two and three. The left- hand part is in six, eight; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. You have this simultaneity where you have these two different accents falling in different places in the same measure. It's one of these wonderful instances (inaudible) , happen so often in Beethoven where you're really just not entirely sure where the beat is. Rather than it being confusing or just sounding wrong or weird, it sounds exciting and maybe it kind of is baffling in a way, but it's also thrilling.
The opening of the very last movement of the ninth symphony is my favorite thing in Beethoven, in terms of rhythmic ambiguity. Where is the beat? You don't know. On some level, you don't care because you're just sort of trusting Beethoven to take you on this incredible journey. The journey is always worth it.
Speaker 1: I think we can almost end it there. The journey's worth it, and you just have to let Beethoven take you wherever you need to go.
Speaker 2: That kind of sums up a lot of Beethoven, I think. Certainly this concerto.
Speaker 1: Yes. The A section, you can hear when it goes into a contrasting B section. Then we go back to the theme again. Then we get to that C- section, we mentioned earlier. That's an even further contrasting section. Here, we go into a lot of different territories in terms of keys and the sound, the tamber of what's happened.
Speaker 2: He really wanders further away from the familiar territory in this section than in any other place in this movement, I think. We start off in C major, which is not terribly distant from the core key of E- flat major. Then we go down to A- flat and then we find ourselves in ... That's pretty closely related to E flat. Then all of a sudden we're an E major, which is about as far away as we can get from E- flat major. I actually think he's inharmonically spelling out F- flat major, which is a non- existent key, but really just going down by thirds. He's really kind of taking us on this journey, harmonically, to these distant places and then bringing us back home in a way that's sort of wild and crazy journey that just, as we were saying earlier, John, it's very surprising. Then once it happens, it's like, well, of course what else could have happened?
Speaker 1: Exactly. He can be so adventurous here because we know, as we've already said in this rondo, the familiar theme in its entirety or in its whole self will return. There's always this little pallet cleanser. I've mentioned, I love the little moments you can find in here. There's a great one where with the strings in the piano, the piano is sitting on a long extended trill before returning with the theme and the string writing. It suddenly sounds to me very French. I don't want to say (inaudible) or anything, but it feels very, very early 20th century to me. Okay. It sounds very Viennese too.
Speaker 2: Sure.
Speaker 1: I hear something else there too. I love finding little moments like that.
Speaker 2: All those composers who came later and did even more adventurous things, they all knew and studied their Beethoven.
Speaker 1: Yes. Now, we're getting towards the end here. It's getting more exciting. Things become more compact in terms of things are happening faster, there's more changes happening. We get to this point where the theme comes back in. Well, what do you do to make this even more exciting? Well, you can subdivide it. That means, well, if I'm playing a note that is four beats long, just a long whole note, I can subdivide that into four quarter notes. Play four downbeats instead. It takes the same amount of time. They're doing that here with this theme. They're adding in lots of extra notes that will create a lot of excitement. The theme, it's still cohesive. It's still correct.
The funny thing is, if there's any middle school or elementary school band directors listening, this is something you teach very early on to students to subdivide. To hear it in your head, or even play it subdivided, so that you don't rush. You don't skip beats.
Speaker 2: How you hold the beat. Yes. Something about this particular gesture too seems very (inaudible) to me. You have a lot of this in Haydn, we have the theme, it's restated, and yet you have these subdivision, especially in the strings. It creates a lot more excitement as we hear something familiar.
Speaker 1: Yeah. That's a very good point. I definitely hear that. Then we get to, what is this? Another cadenza. There's even timpani involved. I think this is quite something, with the piano winding down and with the timpani still plugging along like this.
Speaker 2: One of the many instances in Beethoven's orchestral works where he has a whole different vision for what the timpani can contribute.
He really had a revolutionary understanding of that one instrument, as he did in so many things.
Speaker 1: That's a good point. We don't want to gloss over ... I always forget how instrumental he was also for the timpani. I don't know a whole lot about timpani technology from that time. I mean, I lived with a percussionist for a while. Today, when you go see an orchestra play and you see the timpani player in the back, they have pedals that they can use on their feet, and they can adjust the pitch of all of these drums in front of them to be very, very precise. You may even see them in a movement, put their head down towards the timpani, and you see them just kind of flicking it with their finger.
Speaker 2: Adjusting the pitch.
Speaker 1: Yeah. Then they use the pedal. In this time, I mean, it's like it's a key that you have to take at all the little nuts or whatever around the whole thing, like you're tuning a drum on a drum set. I think the pitch may have been kind of wrecked at this point.
Speaker 2: Yeah. The early 19th century, the instrument had a lot less versatility, which is one of the reasons why a lot of timpani parts in music, up to and before Beethoven, are so simple, because there were just a lot of limits to what the instrument could do. Beethoven, fully aware of those limitations, nevertheless, has these ideas for what the timpani can contribute to an orchestral (inaudible) , that are just so exciting. Again, it is unexpected. Yet, once you hear that (inaudible) with the timpani at the end of this movement playing very softly, it's unexpected. It's shocking almost. Yet, it's what else could possibly have happened.
Speaker 1: From there, it builds back up and it finishes with these scales. It just drives all the way to the end.
We can't recommend enough that you listen to several different recordings. This is a great concerto, in terms of it's very distinctive, has very distinctive melodies. There's not a lot of wild things happen in terms of ... This movement sounds nothing like the (inaudible) movement or it just doesn't sound cohesive. It's great in a way that it offers a lot of individuality for the musician to insert on their own. As the listener, it lets you get, I think, more in tune with different players. How does this person play the fifth, as opposed to that person? The more you listen, the more you catch onto very subtle differences.
Speaker 2: Because the concerto is so beloved, and has been for so many generations, we have so many different recordings of it spanning decades. Totally different styles, different conductors, different pianists, even very different instruments. We were talking about the (inaudible) recording earlier John with the 1824 replica. You hear these different performances, it's almost like a different piece. The more you hear these different interpretations, the more you appreciate the depth of what Beethoven has created in this masterpiece.
Speaker 1: Now it's time to read, not your review, but rather an email we received from someone. They said, " Hello. I am a first year music teacher, recently graduated from college. I still remember my music history classes, but your show has helped me dive deeper into each composer and piece. Then, I turn around and teach it to my students because I am just so excited to learn more and pass on the information."
Well, thank you so much, Samantha, who actually wrote in with that. She continues, " After your Rachmaninoff episode, I have been listening to his works on repeat." She then asks some questions, which I'm not going to read, because we're going to turn those into episodes. There was one question I thought we might be able to answer here. She writes, " Why do we refer to all symphonic works as classical music when the classical era was such a comparatively small period of time? Thank you for all you do."
Well, thank you so much, Samantha D, for writing in and for teaching music. Why do we call it music? I don't know. Thank you so much.
Speaker 2: Classical music, it's a term that I have never really liked, but what other term we're going to use. There's the confusion that Samantha is referring to, which is we talk about the classical era, which is sort of kind of the 1750 ish to 1800, 1825 ish.
Speaker 1: I'm on the earliest side. I think it's like early 1810s. See, we don't even agree.
Speaker 2: Yeah. Where does it even end? It's the musical term that's used to describe European music that is before Romanticism, but after the Baroque. Even those terms, why do we give these different terms to these different eras? What if we had a whole different way of thinking about things?
Speaker 1: Baroque was an insult, originally.
Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly. Baroque is kind of describing something as grotesque and sort of malformed, is how the word was originally used. Romantic, what does that word even mean? Where does Modernity begin? We could really make ourselves crazy with trying to understand these terms. I think it's a wonderful thing to think about and talk about and write about music. In doing so, we have to recognize that there are always going to be limitations on describing things which are inherently indescribable. Let's keep talking and writing and thinking, and we'll come up with some interesting things.
Speaker 1: Yes I think another good example to, that people will kind of recognize is jazz. People use jazz as a catchall for so many things, but think of all the different forms. Swing, bebop, fusion, straight ahead, whatever. I remember growing up in the nineties and two thousands, there was a very certain saxophonist who was called jazz. How do you compare Duke Ellington to Pat Matheny? It's a problem we have, but it's a problem we're not alone in.
Well, thank you so much, Evan, for joining me to talk all about Beethoven's fifth piano concerto.
Speaker 2: Thank you, John. It's a wonderful concerto. Having this conversation with you, helped me to appreciate it even more.
Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown.org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to classical breakdown@ weta. org. If you enjoyed this episode, leave of review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.