The Unexpected Emperor
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 is famously nicknamed the “Emperor Concerto.” But who is the mysterious “Emperor” who inspired the creation of this masterwork?
In the autumn months of 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven contemplated the practicalities of suicide. For six years, he had sought treatments for his deteriorating hearing from every doctor whom he could find, throwing money at genius and quack alike, lunging at every whisper that science could halt this horrible march. Yet the charlatans only worsened his condition, and even the finest physicians ultimately had to concede defeat. Confronted by a future of silence, the man who lived to explore the majesties of sound wondered if he had reached his finale.
Yet a single thought stopped him from this irreversible ending. The very thing that he feared to lose would be the fuel that pushed him forward. “Only my art held me back,” he wrote in a letter to his brothers, revealing his impending deafness to them for the first time. “It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.”
And so the composer buried himself in his work, finding comfort only in the creation of something new. In the years to come, he served as his toughest taskmaster and his harshest critic, sometimes forgetting about sleeping and eating amid his labors. “I live only in my notes,” he declared, “and with one work barely finished, the other is already started. The way I write now, I often find myself working on three or four things at the same time.”
From this frenzy emerged music like nothing that the world had heard before. Already, Beethoven had pushed hard upon the Classical Era’s formal constraints, straining the old bonds that the patriarchs of that period had preached to him. Now, desperate to express everything that churned within him before the volume turned off completely, he shattered those old expectations, acting without fear of critical lacerations. When performers deemed some of these new works “unplayable,” Beethoven scoffed. This music, he would tell them, is music for another time.
Still, there was one man of his own time in whom Beethoven invested absolute trust. Napoleon Bonaparte seemed to be the perfect leader, preaching the gospel of freedom and equality. The French Revolution had a fierce champion in Beethoven, applauding from afar as citizens rose up against the stale principles of the old monarchy. As a person who rose from the ranks of the people, Napoleon seemed like the ideal individual to keep these principles of citizen-centered government burning brightly.
But then came the morning in 1804 when Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven’s students, burst into the composer’s home bearing shocking news. Napoleon had just crowned himself Emperor of France. His delusions about Napoleon’s supposed altruism shattered, Beethoven exploded into anger. “Is he too, then, nothing more than an ordinary human being?” Ries later recalled Beethoven shouting. “Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition.”
On Beethoven’s desk lay the pages of a symphony. Longer and pulsating with more raw emotion than any music that he had previously created, Beethoven had dedicated the piece in Napoleon’s honor. Heroic in character, the finale used a melody that Beethoven had crafted in his ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus, the myth of the Greek Titan who withstood the wrath of the gods by bringing their fire to aid mere mortals. To Beethoven, a leader risking personal hardships to help improve humanity felt like the perfect story to link with Napoleon.
Yet now, with Napoleon sitting on a throne that was just as lavish as the pedestals of the monarchy that he had previously claimed to despise, Beethoven was sickened by the thought of honoring him in any way. Seizing the title page of that symphony, he scratched out the new emperor’s name so vigorously that he tore holes in the paper. In 1806, when that symphony (Beethoven’s third published work in this genre) was published, it bore a far more wistful dedication: “Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
By this point, all of Europe understood just how far Napoleon had strayed from his initial revolutionary boasts. Vast armies under the emperor’s control swept across the continent, defeating anyone who dared opposed the leader’s visions of conquest. On November 13, 1805, more than 15,000 Napoleonic troops invaded Vienna, an act that ironically coincided with the premiere of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. Three-and-a-half years later, the fighting had only increased in ferocity, coming to a boiling point between April and July of 1809.
During these dark days perpetrated by the man whom he once idolized, Beethoven likely wished that his deafness had reached totality. His hearing had disintegrated terribly, but not enough to avoid the sounds of demolition and militancy that filled the streets of his city. “We have been suffering misery in a most concentrated form,” he wrote during the summer of 1809 to his publisher in Germany. “What a destructive and disorderly life I see around me. Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery in every form.”
Viennese residents fled in droves. Among the best-known participants in this exodus was Archduke Rudolph Johann Joseph Rainier, an amateur pianist who took lessons from Beethoven and sponsored many of Beethoven’s compositions. Afraid that Beethoven would flee the war-torn metropolis as well, Archduke Rudolph joined financial forces with two of his royal friends, Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz and Prince Ferdinand Kinsky, to make Beethoven an unheard-of offer: a lifelong pension for as long as he lived within Vienna.
So Beethoven stayed. And out of gratitude to his noble patron, he commenced work on a new piano concerto, a composition with no trace of the human misery plaguing the world around him. Just as he had done with the symphony that he had intended to dedicate to Napoleon, he used the key of E-flat Major, a tonality associated with images of heroism. And from the opening flourishes for the soloist to the hearty Germanic dance in the concerto’s finale, he developed a work that was sunny and optimistic enough that a listener could nearly forget about the war.
But one audience member evidently never got the memo. At the concerto’s premiere in Vienna, a French military officer in the crowd stood up after the work’s triumphant finale and shouted “It is the emperor!” Presumably, the man was referring to Napoleon — the very individual whose trail of destruction Beethoven was trying to eradicate with this music.
The outburst lasted for only a second or two. Some researchers have even determined that it never happened at all, arguing that the story is merely a convenient fabrication. Regardless, the damage was done. Whether it was fact or fiction, the story of this supposed incident made the rounds until it was inexorably linked with this piece. More than two hundred years later, music lovers still know this composition by a nickname that the composer evidently never used and probably would have detested: the “Emperor Concerto.”
And so, the answer to a trivia question — “What emperor is the subject of the ‘Emperor Concerto?’” — appears to be “No one.” Yet for Beethoven, such a response is perfectly fitting. Just like his third symphony, this concerto’s statements of heroism go beyond the legacy of any individual. Instead, it represents the human spirit, the intrepidness that carries a person through the despondency of impending deafness or the horrors of war. If this work really does carry an emperor’s title, Beethoven would likely declare that the crown rightfully belongs to all of us.
Pianist Young Kim and the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra perform the “Emperor Concerto” on April 22 at 3 p.m. at Proctors. Diane Wittry, Guest Conductor. Tickets, $12 & $15. Click here for more information.