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Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 15, 1922, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with pianist Elly Ney
Two significant events occurred in 1809 in Beethoven’s life, one of which proved extremely beneficial and the other more of a nuisance than anything else. The first was the gift of an annuity contract to ensure that he would maintain his domicile in Vienna; the second was the bombardment and occupation of the city by French forces from May to July.
Toward the end of 1808, Beethoven was offered the position of Kapellmeister at Kassel. The offer of 3400 florins annually with few obligations other than to practice his art was extremely enticing. The prospect of Beethoven leaving Vienna for a position elsewhere, after his failure to obtain provision for his future necessities in his adopted city, was acknowledged as a potential embarrassment to the Viennese. This situation gave him the opportunity to negotiate a contract to his specifications that was agreed to by the Archduke Rudolph (Beethoven’s student) and the two princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky. That Beethoven received what he sought is fully stated in the second paragraph of the agreement: “…only one who is as free from care as possible can devote himself to a single department of activity and create works of magnitude… the undersigned have decided to place Herr Ludwig van Beethoven in a position where the necessaries of life shall not cause him embarrassment or clog his powerful genius.” With the strokes of three pens, Beethoven was granted 4000 florins per annum for life. Thus he stayed in Vienna, producing “works of magnitude” up to his death in 1827.
With the bombardment and occupation of Vienna, Beethoven suffered the pecuniary losses resulting from heavy taxes. What was most difficult for Beethoven to endure, however, was his loss of time in the countryside during the months of May through July; this irritation probably prolonged the composition of the Piano Concerto No. 5, which he most likely completed sometime near the end of the summer.
Beethoven had probably finished the bulk of the Concerto before the French invasion. The integration of thematic materials parlayed between the piano and orchestra carries on the symphonic technique that Beethoven had used in the Violin Concerto (1806). In this Piano Concerto, there are no full-blown cadenzas. The first movement does open with a quasi-cadenza of arpeggios and scalar passages in the piano, first following, and then punctuated by sustained chords in the orchestra; this music is part of the structure of the first movement that indeed returns in the recapitulation. Just before the coda, Beethoven gives to the piano what appears to be a cadenza based on thematic materials with the instructions “do not play a cadenza, but quickly attack the following,” thus transforming this piano solo into a transitional passage leading to the coda proper.
Written in the distant key of B major, the second movement presents a hymn-like structure played by the orchestra, complemented by descending scalar passages in the piano. The disarming simplicity of this movement recalls the sonority and pacing of a Mozartean adagio. The final passage in the solo piano functions as a transition to the Rondo, whose joyous theme is played first by the piano and later by the orchestra. One could say that this Concerto was written during the best and worst of times for Beethoven, but life triumphs in this last movement.
Composer Steve Lacoste is the Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.