Program Notes: Jan Lisiecki Plays Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto

June 8, 2022

Symphony No. 5 in D Major

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney; died August 26, 1958, in London

Symphony No. 5, which critics extolled as the peak of Vaughan Williams’ achievement as a symphonist, has a much gentler, more contemplative aspect than its predecessor. Perhaps he intended it to bring comfort and solace to Britain in war, or maybe he thought of it as a prophecy of the peace to come. 

A Preludio, Moderato, begins the symphony with a horn call answered by a string figure, and the two short motives soon become the thematic foundation of the whole work. The brief rhapsodic Scherzo, Presto has lightness and subtlety, with two contrasting sections. The third movement, Romanza, Lento, begins with a quotation from The Pilgrim’s Progress: “Upon this place stood a cross, and below a sepulchre. Then he said, ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by His death.’” The last movement, Passacaglia, Moderato, contains a set of continuous variations on a repeated ground bass. The music grows in power and jubilation until, as an early reviewer said, “it seems to fill the whole world with its song of good will.” 

The Symphony is lightly scored for an orchestra of two flutes, oboe and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.


Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”)

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna

Beethoven wrote his final piano concerto, Piano Concerto No. 5, known by its subtitle ‘Emperor,’ in Vienna during the time that Napoleon’s troops occupied the city. While Beethoven was composing this work, he felt tortured by the noise of the shell of howitzers at a time when he was already suffering from hearing loss.

Except for the first orchestral chords, the soloist begins the Allegro first movement. The piano introduction is a huge rhapsodic flourish, a kind of cadenza, that Beethoven wrote out completely rather than leaving it to the soloist’s invention. The orchestra later introduces the thematic subject matter of the movement. Ofen, the orchestra has the task of developing the themes, with the difficult piano part an accompaniment, a musical mannerism that Brahms would later adapt. Breaking tradition, Beethoven wove the cadenzas into the score as an integral part, giving the music continuity, while denying the soloist opportunity for impromptu virtuosic display. 

The slow movement, Adagio un poco mosso, has muted strings playing a hymn-like melody, which the piano answers. At the center of the movement, the strings announce a sequence of quasi-variations on the theme. Finally, the piano quietly plays a figure that gives intimations of the exuberant theme of the last movement, but then suddenly transforms it into the joyous main theme of the Rondo finale, Allegro, ma non troppo, which begins without a break. In this finale, the piano delivers and develops the exhilarating themes in what has been called the “most spacious and triumphant of concerto rondos.” Beethoven here has written a combination of sonata and rondo forms. At the end, the kettledrums quietly mark the rhythm of the first subject to accompany the piano’s soft chords.

The Emperor Concerto is Beethoven’s last piano concerto, although he continued to compose for another twenty years. Some believe that perhaps he never composed any more piano concerti because his days as pianist had forcedly come to an end because of his deafness. 

Piano Concerto No. 5 is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, kettledrums, and strings.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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