Sometimes the greatest works of art can result from situations of fear and stress. Beethoven composed his fifth and last piano concerto under the most trying conditions imaginable - the threat of wartime occupation. In May 1809 Vienna was in turmoil. Napoleon's armies, striking out across Europe in all directions, had reached its gates, and by 11 May the city was suffering heavy artillery bombardment. According to a pupil, Beethoven temporarily abandoned his house on the ramparts and took refuge in a cellar in his brother's house, where he sat with a pillow over his head to shut out the noise of the cannon. The next day, the city surrendered.
Beethoven returned to his own lodgings, where - as an international celebrity - he was visited by a French nobleman. The aristocratic nose must have wrinkled in disdain at the appalling squalor in which the world¹s greatest composer - 'a very ugly man, clearly in a foul temper¹ - was living: in two small, dirty, untidy rooms, covered in dust and mould, an unemptied chamber pot under the bed, and the remains of several nights' suppers left lying around on chairs.
Amid this domestic chaos, made worse by the restrictions of the French occupation which imposed crippling taxes on Viennese citizens and forbade them to leave the city, Beethoven worked on his concerto, together with the Harp String Quartet and several new piano sonatas, including Das Lebewohl (The Farewell), begun when the Archduke Rudolf and his family fled Vienna. In July 1809 he complained bitterly to his publisher: 'We have suffered a great deal. Since 4 May I have produced hardly any unified work, just a fragment here and there. The whole course of events has profoundly affected me, nor can I have the enjoyment of country life, so indispensable to me . . . What a dreadful, messy life around me, nothing but drums, cannon, men, all kinds of misery.'
Miraculously, none of this misery is evident in the score of the Fifth Piano Concerto - one of Beethoven¹s boldest, most innovative and most heroic works. Despite his revulsion at Napoleon's tyrannies, he seems to have instinctively returned to the key of E flat major - the key of the Eroica Symphony, which was originally dedicated to the French emperor. (The nickname Emperor is however, totally spurious, having been added to the concerto later in the 19th century.)
Rather, the music owes its military atmosphere of trumpet calls, drum rolls and martial rhythms to the French 'Military Concerto', popular since the early days of the French Revolution. In his Piano Concerto No.4, Beethoven broke the mould of the traditional concerto form with a quiet opening phrase for the piano alone, answered by the orchestral strings. In this Fifth Concerto he combines a flamboyant gesture for soloist and orchestra together, at once declamatory and improvisatory in an equally revolutionary opening.
The slow middle movement is based - according to Beethoven¹s friend Carl Czerny - on an Austrian pilgrim hymn. Beethoven often struggled with his material, reworking it until he was happy, and that was the case with this apparently effortlessly beautiful melody. The hushed transition from this movement to the finale is one of those magical, timeless moments, like the passage that links the third and fourth movements of the Fifth Symphony. In the case of the concerto, the soloist introduces a gentle arpeggio figure as if in a dream, conjuring it up from nowhere. But when the music awakes, it sweeps off in a victorious romping theme, transforming those contemplative arpeggios into the melody that forms the basis of the Rondo finale. This movement combines passages reminiscent of the almost improvisatory mood of that transitional section with music recalling the heroism of the opening movement.
Beethoven never performed the work in public, although he may have been the soloist in a private performance at the house of his aristocratic pupil and patron the Archduke Rudolph, to whom the concerto is dedicated. Czerny performed the work in a charity concert in Vienna, but the first public performance had to wait until the next year, when it was heard in Leipzig in November 1811. The Concerto was by no means an instant success, and only became popular in the latter part of the 19th century when it was taken up by the great virtuoso soloists following in Liszt's footsteps. Their powerful techniques - and their powerful pianos - were finally able to do justice to Beethoven's grandiose inspiration.
© Wendy Thompson