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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga

The Promenade Ticket

During the current BBC Prom season
we're looking back to
A.H. Sidgwick's memories of
Edwardian summer evenings spent at the
Queen's Hall, Langham Place


This week: Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto
dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph of Austria

which Stephen Hough will be playing tomorrow evening, August 14th


'Friday 26th October. I have been listening to the Fifth Concerto, and am going to say exactly what I think. If you dislike rhapsody omit... The introduction is a sublime piece of comic dialogue. "Ho!" says the orchestra, on a magnificent chord [E flat major]. "Yes," replies the piano, ranging over four-and-a-half octaves, "but I am also a man of my hands: kindly listen to this little hint of what we are going to do." "Ha!" says the orchestra, on a still more magnificent chord [A flat major]. "Try once more," replies the piano, ranging over five-octaves-and-a-third; "listen carefully, and I will make my hint a little plainer." "Hoo!" says the orchestra, now thoroughly roused [B flat dominant seventh]. "I will just do a trifle more to make it quite clear that I am master," says the piano; "listen carefully; are you ready?" "Yes," answer the strings, pizzicato. "Go," says the piano, and they are off.

'The main theme of the first movement is purely classic - firm and finely tempered as a line of the Æneid. Indeed, it always awakes in me the memories of ancient republics; it is valour, virtus, alpha rho epsilon tau eta , made audible - the spirit which animated the great fighting and governing nations. If you want its analogue in literature you must look for it in the epitaph of Simonides on the dead at Thermopylæ, or the equally splendid words of Thucydides about the burial of the dead at Marathon. The title "Emperor" [not Beethoven's] applied to this Concerto is generally deemed a vulgarism; but if you think back to the origin of the word it is not unfitting. You can see the Roman legions, after some incredible feat of organized courage and endurance, hailing their leader with uplifted swords to the shout "Imperator."

'The second theme covers nine bars and uses only five notes. Played with one finger on the piano, it might be thought dull; sung by two horns above the soft heavings of the strings, punctuated by sharp taps on the drum, it suggests everything - the calm that ends all human efforts and the mystery that lies behind them. It is a pure orchestral conception: Beethoven felt this tune through the horns as he felt the ground through his feet, and what you play on the piano is (to put it shortly) something else.

'The theme of the slow movement is beautiful, but something of a relaxation - as often happened in Beethoven's slow movements. No doubt, with the third movement coming, he had to lower the temperature. But it serves as the foundation for astonishing feats by the piano - strenuous and supple and cleanly cut, now meditative, now plaintive, now spirited. The theme is always in the background, but the piano has the front of the stage - which is only another way of saying that it is a Concerto.

'There follows the most electrifying moment of the whole work - the famous semitone drop. The piano - morendo - delivers its final benediction to the theme, and for a bar the bassoons hold the key-note of B. On the next beat they drop to B flat, and at once the whole mood changes. The piano outlines very softly a first sketch of the final[e] theme, pauses for an instant, jumps on to the note of B flat, like a diver on a spring-board, and soars away into the air up the chord of E flat. The strings hurl away their mutes, dance softly down to G by way of a trial trip, and then charge off in pursuit.

'It is the wildest and liveliest of all games. The piano tries to introduce a mild sedative in the form of the second theme, but the strings keep flustering it so that it trips up over its first notes in the most undecorous fashion - and in a passage marked dolce, too. Gradually the most respectable instruments in the orchestra become demoralized, and take a leading part in the revel. The horn - that dignified and romantic singer of other-worldly cantabiles - by letting fall a remark in E flat at the least appropiate moment diverts the piano into a new key [A flat] which it adopts with enthusiasm. The bassoon - the churchwarden of the woodwind - promptly does the same thing on a yet more impossible note [B, oboe doubling at the octave], with the result that the piano jumps into E and remains there, with the pained and surprised signature of E flat staring it in the face. The whole orchestra then begins to play Musical Chairs, and stops suddenly in order to leave the bassoon alone with a silly little bar [290], quite overcome with confusion at hearing its own voice.

'But at the end of the joke comes something different. The drum, which has been acting as general attendant on the revels, suddenly takes the stage, and begins beating the rhythm on a monotone [B flat] with the piano accompanying first in runs and then in chords, getting always slower and softer. It is the old, characteristic shift of Beethoven's mood, the touch of the transcendental: you know it by the sudden arresting of attention, the quickening of your pulses, the indefinable suggestion that all which has gone before is really external, irrelevant. As usual, the veil is lifted only for a moment; it drops, and we conclude loudly and cheerfully with crashes on the chord of E flat.

'This, of course, is only a dull and literal sketch of the main lines of the Concerto: there is endless beauty in detail - particularly the skirmishings of the piano round the theme in the first movement, and the little broken [string] phrases hinting at the return of the theme in the Rondo [bars 319-26]. But, after all, it is a real organic structure, and one has to go first for the main themes, clean and strong and visible as the branches of a beech-tree through all the bravery of spring. Grant me these, and I will discourse endlessly about the details. But perhaps it is better to pass on...'

- A.H. Sidgwick, The Promenade Ticket: a Lay Record of Concert-going, London 1914

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