Beethoven explained

Boulder Chamber Orchestra’s Saless describes composer’s link to Napoleon

Pianist Hsing-Ay Hsu
Photo by Keith Saunders

Tired of weird spring weather? Bahmann Saless is doing something about it.

The conductor of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) has programmed Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Fifth Piano Concerto, two popular avatars of the composer’s heroic style, for its upcoming concert (7:30 p.m. Friday, May 10, at First Congregational Church in Boulder, Saturday, May 11, in Broomfield Auditorium).

“Both of them are hopefully going to energize us for a fantastic, sunny spring!” he says, full of the optimistic energy that has made the BCO a valued part of Boulder’s classical music scene.

The symphony and concerto are featured on a program that also includes Beethoven’s overture to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. The soloist for the concerto will be pianist Hsing-Ay Hsu, the director of the University of Colorado’s Pendulum New Music Ensemble.

Saless says the all-Beethoven program is “the perfect end to a fantastic season. Beethoven pretty much conquered every island in the musical history globe.” In fact, Saless adds, “he was not only dominant in the music world. I read somewhere that he was the most well-known person on earth during his time.”

Saless identifies two reasons for Beethoven’s dominance during his lifetime and over generations of composers after him. The first is sheer creativity: “He had the ability to completely overhaul the concept of composition and music within a few years of his life, like nobody else ever could.”

And second, “Beethoven could touch our human heart. Nobody ever came close to actually making us feel all the things that he felt: sadness, happiness, craziness, all of that, and the contrast in these feelings came together as a unified piece of music, which is absolutely incredible.”

Saless is particularly struck by the composer’s ability to manipulate his listeners’ emotions, recalling a story told by one of Beethoven’s students, Carl Czerny. Beethoven’s piano improvisations, in the salons and homes of his patrons, were “most brilliant and striking,” Czerny wrote. “He knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that many would break out into loud sobs.” But Beethoven often followed his most moving improvisations with raucous laughter, telling his listeners they were fools for allowing their feelings to be so easily controlled.

If Beethoven was the most famous person on earth, there was at the time another figure of equal renown: Napoleon, who dominated European political life as completely as Beethoven dominated music. It is one of the fascinating coincidences of history that Napoleon’s reign as emperor (1804–15) coincides almost exactly with Beethoven’s “middle period” (1805–15) and what is known as his heroic style.

That heroic style was launched with the Third Symphony, which is called the heroic, or “Eroica” symphony. It is a genuinely revolutionary work that was originally dedicated to Napoleon — until he declared himself emperor and Beethoven famously ripped up the dedication.

The “Eroica” was a turning point in music history as an enormous expansion of the symphony. It was longer, more intense and more dramatic than earlier symphonies.

“The grandeur of every single movement and how different they are is amazing,” Saless says. “You’ve got the heroic first movement; then you’ve got the funeral march. The third movement is rarely talked about, but it is wholly revolutionary with the concept of making you uncomfortable by being unpredictable rhythmically. That is all over the symphony, with the off-beat accents on the second and the third beats. It’s an unsettling yet very satisfying revolution.”

The Fifth Piano Concerto has its own tie to Napoleon. It is known as the “Emperor” Concerto, although Beethoven himself did not give that name. French troops were occupying Vienna at the time of the premiere, and a French officer is supposed to have shouted “Vive l’empereur” (long live the emperor) at the performance.

“The concerto is pretty much a piano concerto version of the Third Symphony,” Saless says. “First of all, it’s in the same key; second of all, it’s got the very same heroic feel and momentum. And it was again one of the these grand pieces with three completely varying movements.”

The concerto marks Saless’ first collaboration with Hsu, who, in addition to leading the new music ensemble at CU, performs widely as a piano soloist and chamber musician.

“She’s brilliant,” he says. “She’s got amazing grace and ridiculous power, which makes her perfect for doing these Beethoven concertos.”

But can Beethoven really banish bad weather? In truth, Saless seems less than certain about the weather. But about the music he has no doubts.

“It’s a dream come true for any orchestra and any conductor to get to do these pieces,” he says, “because there’s just nothing better.”

Boulder Chamber Orchestra plays at 7:30 p.m. May 10 at the First Congregational Church in Boulder, and at 7:30 p.m. May 11 at the Broomfield Auditorium. Tickets are $25. Visit for more information.