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The King of the Emperor

Oliver Sears

The King of the Emperor

RTE1, February 3, 2019

I am not exactly sure when I became self-conscious but I do not remember a time without music. My north London upbringing was surrounded by books, art and music and parents who encouraged me to be curious about the world. By the age of seven I had made enough progress on a recorder to qualify for the clarinet, which I had confused with the saxophone. However, the limit of my talent was quickly exposed. My music teacher, Mr. MacGilavray, sat patiently in the corner of his study, his white beard stained with nicotine and errant snuff flecking his trousers. On one occasion he had not stirred in fifteen minutes and, thinking that he had passed out or worse, I  deliberately blew a diabolical note and was relieved to see him splutter into consciousness. My year with him culminated with a rendition of The Bluebells of Scotland that was almost entirely in tune.


Nonetheless, music came to my early life aurally with great facility; as if I was doing the breast stroke across the baptism pool. At home classical music filled the silences at the kitchen table, in the car on the school run; and would filter through the house from the living-room in the evening. Concerts, too, were a frequent part of my parents’ world. In 1980 my mother had bought two tickets for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto number 5 at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, that monument of late sixties brutalism. The soloist was a Ukrainian called Emil Gilels whose recording of Beethoven’s fourth I had listened to so often that I was note perfect. (As I imagine were the neighbours.) But to hear live the fifth, the Emperor, Beethoven’s most iconic concerto, played by my idol was too much to parse. My mother elegantly bowed out and I went with my father.


Beethoven wrote the Emperor in 1810. The romantic piano concerto was born to Mozart, a generation earlier. The second movement of his Piano Concerto 20 is actually called Romanz and Beethoven greatly admired it. Indeed, Beethoven’s romanticism cannot exist without Mozart. The haunting beauty of the second movement of the Emperor, immortalized in Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock represents the human soul of the piece. The first and third movements bookend the concerto with Beethoven’s trademark leitmotiv. In short, the fifth is a masterpiece. To engage fully is a significant commitment. The reward is an impossibly complex sense of euphoria. Somehow one's own personal emotions tap into everyone else's. This is art as the great unifier.


Emil Gilels was born in Odessa in 1916 to a Jewish family. One of his teachers had himself been taught by a student of Chopin. His interpretation of Beethoven, in particular, soon shone. From 1948 many Jews in the Soviet Union had applied to emigrate to the newly formed state of Israel, viewed by the Soviet government as betrayal. Gilels found himself trailed by agents during overseas performances to prevent his defection. While not officially a Refusenik, a moniker given to those Jews who had been refused a visa to Israel, he was deeply disillusioned by the regime. My own mother had survived the Holocaust in Poland, a cultural connection to Gilels that ran deeper than musical admiration.


On the evening of the concert the heavens had opened. There was nowhere to park. We were running late. For the first time I saw my father run and I couldn’t keep up. I tripped on a curb and landed in a waterlogged gutter. My tuxedo sodden, I picked myself up and followed my father into the concert hall. We were just in time. Turning around I spotted a white sign propped up on an easel. I caught my father’s elbow and pointed. ' Tonight’s performance of Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5 will be played by Radu Lupu.' 

Confused and disappointed we took our seats. Had Gilels been refused a visa by the Soviets at the last minute? A common and spiteful act of control by paranoid officialdom. Perhaps he had fallen ill. Whatever the case he wasn’t here and someone else was playing.

Radu Lupu, a Romanian thirty years Gilels’ junior was a rising star on the international circuit. He showed great courage to stand in at the last moment. How to fill the shoes of the maestro? And play to a bitterly disappointed audience? The answer is simple. You play out of your skin. You play for injustice, hope and love. When he drew the crescendo to a close there was a collective gasp in the hall. No sporadic mushrooming of people rising to their feet in applause. The audience erupted as one, roaring its approval. Something unusual had happened that evening. An unexpected cancellation had allowed another artist the space to relax, to channel all his experience through his heart. In the world of the virtuoso that minimally demands technical brilliance this is what defines the exceptional.

Emil Gilels died in 1985, a few months short of his seventieth birthday. Had he been in the audience that night, I wonder what he would have thought.

Oliver Sears

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