Ludwig van Beethoven finished writing the “Emperor” in 1909, shortly after he’d been jilted by the love of his life.
That makes a difference in how Jonathan Biss will perform the concerto at the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s season opener Friday, Sept. 25. For this pianist, the music and story are one, and Beethoven’s life is as much a part of the music as the melodies.
It’s why Biss teamed up with the Curtis Institute on a series of courses exploring the composer’s sonatas within the context of his life and wrote the essay, “Beethoven’s Shadow,” for Amazon Kindle.
“It would be naive to say that Beethoven’s life and music are not connected,” Biss says, speaking from a hotel room in London.
From England, he traveled to Berlin for a performance before coming to Baton Rouge.
“It’s going to be culture shock going from Germany to Baton Rouge, because they’re so different,” Biss says. “But I’m ready. It’ll be my first visit to Louisiana, and I’m excited.”
Beethoven, Biss says, was an intense person. Everything about him seemed heightened, amplified. This may have been connected to Beethoven’s bouts of anger that multiplied as his hearing faded.
“A lot of people become musicians because they need music in their lives,” Biss says. “Beethoven was the extreme example of this, because he continued composing even after losing his hearing. In a letter to his brother, he wrote that the only thing keeping him alive was his expressive need for music.”
Biss’ mission to understand Beethoven is an ongoing quest to do justice to great music, a goal he considers somewhat unattainable.
“But any other approach would be unthinkable,” he says. “If I ever stop finding music challenging and life-altering, I’ll stop and become an accountant.”
Biss grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, in a home filled with musicians. His parents are violinists, and his brother also played piano. He and his mom perform on stage twice a year.
“Our choosing the piano wasn’t by design,” he says. “For me, pursuing the piano was a lot easier, because I was able to find my own path in music.”
His path has meandered through a field of composers, yet it somehow keeps returning to Beethoven.
“In classical music, you don’t choose Beethoven, it chooses you,” Biss says. “The force of his personality is so intense — what he feels, you feel. This is the rule, not the exception.”
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36” also is on the orchestra’s opening night program, but the “Emperor” definitely will take center stage. Beethoven originally titled the piece “Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73.” The concerto’s English publisher, Johann Baptist Cramer, later called it “Emperor,” as it is known in classical circles today.
“It’s such an appropriate piece for opening night, because there’s so much joy in its expression,” Biss says.
Yet the woman Beethoven loved called off their romance two years before the “Emperor.” It’s said he fell in love again during those years, this time to Therese Malfatti, the supposed dedicatee of “Für Elise.”
Biss has discovered that these and other life events are all connected to Beethoven’s music. “His world was so unbelievably different from ours,” he says. “To understand the music that came out of that world, we need to understand what’s behind the score and between the notes.”