Program notes: Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

Sunday, July 24, 2022 , 6:30 PM

Jessie Montgomery: Banner

Beethoven: Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73, “Emperor”


Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)

Composed: 2014, 2017
Length: c. 8 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, timpani, percussion (kick drum, snare drum, tom-tom), strings, and solo string quartet

Jessie Montgomery is a New York-born composer and violinist who is quickly becoming a household name in the American classical music world. She attended Juilliard and is an alumna of and frequent collaborator with the Sphinx Organization, a collection of music ensembles designed to promote and support young African American and Latinx musicians. Her works reflect her background and influence, dynamically interweaving her immersive expertise in classical music and her identity rooted in multicultural America with their own evolving sonic quilt. Montgomery maintains an active career as a performer as well, and her Catalyst Quartet released its fifth album, UNCOVERED, featuring music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, in 2021. She is currently composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Montgomery wrote Banner as a tribute to the 200th anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner—a daunting proposition for any composer. In approaching her task, Montgomery tried to answer a central question: “What does an anthem for the 21st century sound like in today’s multicultural environment?” Montgomery sees in The Star-Spangled Banner a musical space to explore what many perceive as a gulf between American aspiration and American reality. Her reflections on her piece in 2014 resonate evocatively with the challenges we face in 2022:

The Star-Spangled Banner is an ideal subject for exploration in contradictions. For most Americans the song represents a paradigm of liberty and solidarity against fierce odds, and for others it implies a contradiction between the ideals of freedom and the realities of injustice and oppression. As a culture, it is my opinion that we Americans are perpetually in search of ways to express and celebrate our ideals of freedom—a way to proclaim, “We’ve made it!” as if the very action of saying it aloud makes it so. And for many of our nation’s people, that was the case: through work songs and spirituals, enslaved Africans promised themselves a way out and built the nerve to endure the most abominable treatment for the promise of a free life. Immigrants from Europe, Central America, and the Pacific have sought out a safe haven here, and though met with the trials of building a multicultured democracy, continue to find rooting in our nation and make significant contributions to our cultural landscape. In 2014, a tribute to the U.S. National Anthem means acknowledging the contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.

The piece features a solo string quartet (and double bass) forming a kind of concertante group against the rest of the orchestra—Montgomery expanded the original string orchestra version in 2017.

What to listen for

Strains of The Star-Spangled Banner permeate the piece, forming a backdrop for a wild tapestry of tunes and anthems that have found their way into the American vernacular from both abroad and within the country. Featured in the pastiche is the 1905 hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” popularly known as the “Black National Anthem”—listen for it emerging in the double bass.

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

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composed: 1809
Length: c. 40 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano

Considering the circumstances under which Beethoven was composing his bold final piano concerto, the name by which it’s come to be known—“Emperor”—is particularly ironic. Just five years prior to the concerto’s debut, after initially dedicating his “Eroica” Symphony to Napoleon, Beethoven literally and famously ripped the French general’s name off the title page when Napoleon declared himself emperor, rejecting the republican ideals that Beethoven had so admired. His vitriol for Napoleon knew no bounds, as he wrote, “[Bonaparte] will trample the rights of men underfoot to indulge his ambition and become a greater tyrant than any other.”

Despite Napoleon’s advances, Beethoven’s life seemed to be improving in early 1809. With the help of his friends Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein and Countess Anna Maria Erdödy, Beethoven was able to secure an annuity from three Viennese aristocrats, including Archduke Rudolph, to whom he eventually dedicated his concerto. In exchange, Beethoven would remain in Vienna rather than relocating to Kassel, where he had received an offer from the King of Westphalia. The annuity, officially established in March 1809, gave Beethoven unprecedented freedom to pursue his craft, and his letters from that time exhibit an uncharacteristic giddy playfulness and optimistic energy. On May 11, however, Napoleon bombarded Vienna and quickly occupied the city, and soon Austria’s currency was devalued. The ensuing months, in Beethoven’s words, were filled with “drums, cannons, and human misery.” He indicated that it was difficult to get any work done in a late July letter to his publisher, Breitkopf and Härtel:

I have produced very little coherent work [since early May], at most a fragment here or there. The whole course of events has affected both body and soul…. What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me.

Regardless, Beethoven was able to complete his fifth piano concerto during this tumultuous year. The work received its premiere in Leipzig in November 1811 and was enthusiastically received, as recounted in a review of the event:

It is without doubt one of the most original, imaginative, and most effective, but also one of the most difficult of all existing concertos…. The crowded audience was soon put into such a state of enthusiasm that it could hardly content itself with the ordinary expressions of recognition and enjoyment.

It was at the Vienna premiere a few months later that a French soldier in the audience was moved to shout “C’est L’Empereur!” giving the work its lasting—though somewhat ill-fitting—sobriquet.

What to listen for

  • First movement: the epic opening consists of three powerful chords in the orchestra, interspersed with brilliant, improvisatory passages in the piano.
  • Second movement: the middle section of this exquisite movement features extensive piano trills that hearken back to similar devices in the first movement.
  • Third movement: towards the end of the high-spirited finale, listen for the timpani accompaniment to the piano solo, which reproduces the rhythm of the main theme’s melody.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi