Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 ‘Emperor’

After the most wonderful semester of my college career, in the summer of 1975, I returned to my home town of Mishawaka, Indiana. On weekends I would accompany my friends, Eric Tollar and Gary Endicott, over the border to Michigan where the legal drinking age was 18. Often we’d start out at Tollar’s house. Tollar’s dad was a taciturn engineer and I can’t remember him ever addressing more than a sentence or two in my direction.

Maybe he thought I was a bad influence on Eric. Eric had been the valedictorian the class ahead of mine in high school and he went to Purdue University to major in math. That was a good guy thing to study. Here I came bringing over most of the new records I had discovered the semester before at Indiana University, exposing his son to all that sissy music. Eric you see, coming from a more affluent family than mine, had a stereo that his parents had bought him for the exorbitant price (for 1975) of $900.

Eric’s room was in the attic, which his father had converted into a nice living space. We’d go up there before one of our drinking binges and listen to Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Montiverdi. His father sat in the living room below smoking camels, drinking Scotch and watching Lawrence Welk. What a terrible disappointment that must have been for him.

Eric’s dad had also bought him a used Ford Mustang fastback, which we used to take on our excursions to Michigan. It never got us any girls, however. The reason was that we spent all of our time in the bar trying to get as drunk as possible while discussing philosophy, literature and music. At that time, Eric was a sneering and atheistic cynic. Having a huge IQ also gave him the right, in his own mind, to make fun of most people of lesser intelligence. I enjoyed sitting and asking naïve questions or provoking him by gainsaying his opinions. It was almost like having a private tutor, in the old-fashioned sense, and I learned so much from him as well as honed my own wits in our outings.

One night we got tired of the bar where we started and moved to another one right on the state line, which had the reputation of being a good pick-up joint. By the time we got there it was around one in the morning and the place was nearly empty. We had a few beers and left. When we got into Eric’s car, we discovered he had left the lights on and the battery had gone dead. The parking lot was empty so we couldn’t get a jump. After wringing his hands for a while, Eric finally decided to call his dad. Goddamn if the old man didn’t hop in his car and drive on up.

We waited in silence for the next half hour until he arrived. Gary and I knew what our dads would have reacted if we had woken them up at such an ungodly hour to tell them we were out drinking and had left the light on. We would have been dead meat, but we didn’t know how Tollar’s dad would react. Tollar was silent on the matter.

When Eric’s dad arrived he jumped out of his car and strode over to his son’s car, barely acknowledging us. He tried starting the car. Then he popped the hood and poked around for a while. “It’s not the battery. Starter’s bad. Let’s go.” He hopped into his car and he sped off. It was one of the spookiest rides of my life-drunk or sober. No one said a word and the old man drove like a bat out of hell. He looked straight ahead the whole way home and passed people on the right who were slow getting of the mark at stop lights. Back at Eric’s Gary and I got our cars and no one said anything as Eric’s dad strode into the house with Eric following behind.

Eric’s basement had an old piano and a television that could pick up channels from Chicago. Sometimes after a night of drinking, we’d come back and watch old movies. Eric had taken a few years of piano lessons and sometimes spent his spare time working on a classical piece. I had loaned him my sheet music to Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp Minor. He said it was incredibly difficult, but he did manage to get through the opening, which I think is one of the greatest ominous statements in all of music.

What I really liked about visiting Eric’s, of course, was his fancy stereo. It had huge speakers that brought a whole new dimension to the music I had only heard on my tinny old stereo. Eric especially liked piano music and we spent a good deal of time trying to find the perfect recording of a piece. Eric, being a math major, wanted to find the most precise, elegant and technically perfect performance. He liked the German performers-Kempff and Richter-who recorded on Deutsche Gramophon. I preferred the more Romantic interpreters-Rubenstein, Entrement, and Van Cliburn.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 was one of the pieces we became fascinated with that summer. My memory fails me as to the precise semester, but I saw this concerto performed at Indiana University by a doctoral student. Now all music is fun to watch performed live, and this is especially true of concertos in which a soloist plays against the orchestra. And of all the concertos, those for piano I reckon to be the most exciting to watch, because the performer can bang on the keys and release so much passion and energy.

I haven’t listened to the Piano Concerto No.5 for a number of years-maybe 10. But as I sit here now, writing today’s entry on a subway car hurtling along underground, I hear the last joyous movement playing in my head and can still picture that female piano major tackling the piece and her sense of triumph as she finished the last movement and stood up to face the cheers of the audience.

I can hear from its orchestration that it lies close to Beethoven’s 6th and 7th symphonies, though predating the latter. The third movement has a galloping cadence which, despite a mournful second theme, carries you along the entire way in a state of bliss.

Listening to this piece again makes me think that composing music must be the ultimate in artistic experiences. Music is unique among the arts because it deals primarily in the fourth dimension. For some reason, it also has a synaesthetic effect. That is, you perceive it aurally, but it has the ability to make your neurons fire in the same cadence of the rhythm and you end up tapping your foot. A composer, taking the sounds he hears in his head, can recreate those sounds in a way so that you hear them as well, and so, there is also a sympathetic effect as well: musically actually takes you into the head so you can experience the reality of another human being.

So that is how I know, from listening to the last movement of his Piano Concerto No.5 that Beethoven was, deep down, a joyful and happy person. Of course, he wrote passionate and heart-rending music that-because of his deafness-makes all of us think of him as a tragic figure. But how life-affirming and altruistic to take one’s profoundly moving emotions, both sad and happy, and bring them out for others to hear. If my mind spun out such wonderful music, I’d be a very happy person indeed.

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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