Winter Concert: All of the Beethoven

Beethoven: Egmont Overture

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3

Beethoven: Symphony No.5

December 2019 at 7:30 p.m.

Program Note: All of the Beethoven

Beethoven: Egmont Overture

Egmont, Op. 84, by Ludwig van Beethoven, is a set of incidental music pieces for the 1787 play of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It consists of an overture followed by a sequence of nine pieces for soprano, male narrator, and full symphony orchestra. (The male narrator is optional; he is not used in the play and does not appear on all recordings of the complete incidental music.) Beethoven wrote it between October 1809 and June 1810, and it was premiered on 15 June 1810.

The subject of the music and dramatic narrative is the life and heroism of a 16th-century Flemish nobleman, the Count of Egmont. It was composed during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, at a time when the French Empire had extended its domination over most of Europe. Beethoven had famously expressed his great outrage over Napoleon Bonaparte’s decision to crown himself Emperor in 1804, furiously scratching out his name in the dedication of the Eroica Symphony. In the music for Egmont, Beethoven expressed his own political concerns through the exaltation of the heroic sacrifice of a man condemned to death for having taken a valiant stand against oppression. The Overture later became an unofficial anthem of the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

Beethoven composed Klärchen’s songs, “Die Trommel gerühret” (“The drum is a-stirring”) and “Freudvoll und leidvoll” (“Joyful and woeful”), with the Austrian actress Antonie Adamberger specifically in mind. She would later repeatedly and enthusiastically recall her collaboration with him.

The music was praised E.T.A. Hoffmann for its poetry, and Goethe himself declared that Beethoven had expressed his intentions with “a remarkable genius.”

The overture, powerful and expressive, is one of the last works of his middle period; it has become as famous a composition as the Coriolan Overture, and is in a similar style to the Fifth Symphony, which he had completed two years earlier.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3

The Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1800 and was first performed on 5 April 1803, with the composer as soloist. The year for which the concerto was composed (1800) has however been questioned by contemporary musicologists.[1] It was published in 1804. During that same performance, the Second Symphony and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives were also premiered.[2] The composition was dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. The first primary theme is reminiscent of that of Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto.

Beethoven: Symphony No.5

Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, Germany December 16, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria March 26, 1827)

Just for a moment, travel back in a mental time machine.  Imagine yourself transported into the large, unheated Theater an der Wien where Ludwig van Beethoven premiered his Fifth Symphony on December 22, 1808, at what must have been one of the most extraordinary concerts in history. The marathon program included the celebrated yet volatile composer’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80; the Fourth Piano Concerto; parts of the Mass in C; and with several other works or improvisations, all by Beethoven.  Vienna was in the grip of exceptionally cold weather that year; there was a malfunction in the heating system of the hall, and contemporary reports mention that the musicians were woefully under-prepared. Yet it was in that hall that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony first leaped into the consciousness of listeners with its ominous, soon-to-be notorious knock of fate.

Anton Schindler, the infamous embellisher of all Beethoven truths, was Beethoven’s on-again, off-again assistant for many years during the last part of the composer’s life.  It was Schindler who insisted that Beethoven once said of his Fifth Symphony “Thus Fate knocks at the door!”  Unfortunately, Schindler’s well-documented unreliability makes it prudent to question if this was actually the composer’s own statement or yet another of Schindler’s erroneous elaborations or mistaken attributions.   In reality, it was one of Beethoven’s students, Ferdinand Ries, who mentioned to Beethoven that the opening sounded to him as if it were fate knocking at the door.  Evidently, Beethoven received this reaction with sarcasm; one can only guess that the composer would be astonished that his student’s fleeting impression has become so thoroughly associated with his great work.

Beethoven began to sketch Symphony No. 5 early in 1804, immediately after completing the Eroica.  He continued to work on it sporadically for the next four years and completed the work in early 1808.  How wild the driving Fifth Symphony must have sounded to an audience that did not meet it as the most familiar of classical masterpieces. Instead listeners in the freezing Theater an der Wien that day encountered this aggressive, melancholy piece for the first time immediately following the spaciousness and warmth of the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Pastoral Symphony.  As Schindler noted, “the reception accorded to these works was not as desired, and probably no better than the author himself had expected. The public was not endowed with the necessary degree of comprehension for such extraordinary music, and the performance left a great deal to be desired.”

Following this early indifference, the public only gradually began to come to terms with the Fifth. One of its earliest proponents, the poet and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, wrote in his famous review of 1810 in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, “How this magnificent composition carries the listener on and on in a continually ascending climax into the ghostly world of infinity!…the human breast, squeezed by monstrous presentiments and destructive powers, seems to gasp for breath; soon a kindly figure approaches full of radiance, and illuminates the depths of terrifying night.”

It is in this Symphony in C minor that the listener encounters the genius of Beethoven through the musical manifestations of the composer’s intimate thoughts, his secret sorrows, his intensely concentrated rage, his dejected reveries in macabre juxtaposition with his bursts of enthusiasm.  C minor was a very significant key to Beethoven, and it is appropriate to speak of a C minor “mood” when talking about his works.  By the time Beethoven wrote Symphony No. 5, he had already published a C minor violin sonata (Op. 30, No. 2), a string trio (Op. 9, No. 3), a string quartet (Op. 18, No. 4), a piano trio (Op. 1, No. 3), a piano concerto (Op. 37) and two piano sonatas (Op. 10, No. 1 and Op. 13, the Pathetique).  These C minor works are all particularly dramatic, threatening and rather defiant in character.

The Fifth Symphony, however, while perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this mood, is more sophisticated than the earlier works in that it plays on the repeated juxtaposition of C minor and major.  The sense of a “power struggle” between tonic minor and major is played out across the entire symphony in a kind of musical competition between the forces of darkness and the avenging nature of light.

What makes the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony so dramatic and memorable is the violent contrast between the urgency of the knock-like eighth notes and the ominous freezing of motion in the unmeasured long notes.  The music starts out with a wild outburst of energy and then immediately crashes into a wall of musical stasis. Seconds later this same set of two measures is repeated, and then the whole movement takes flight from this germinal idea.

The second theme is announced by a horn call and, at first glance, it seems more tranquil.  However, deep in the orchestra’s cello and bass sections the initial rhythmic motive quietly yet persistently makes itself heard.  Everything about this movement is concentrated and intense and revolutionary.  After the development, a small oboe cadenza momentarily interrupts to herald the recapitulation of this sonata-form movement.

Reposeful lyrical contrast sums up the second movement of this symphony.  Where the first movement was fire and breathless excitement, the second is all tender gentleness.  Many versions of this melody appear in Beethoven’s sketchbooks, proving that he worked hard and long on the concepts behind this theme and variation movement.  Two beautiful themes intertwine and are varied in rondo-like fashion throughout the movement.  Listen carefully to the gently rising second theme in the clarinets and note the subliminal appearance of the fateful short-short-short-long rhythmic pattern reflected even in this oasis of peace.

The tripartite scherzo follows.  The main idea is based on an ominous arpeggio figure, but we hear also the omnipresent “Fate” rhythm, exactly as we heard it in the first movement. The central section, which replaces the customary trio, is a pounding fugato beginning in the cellos and basses and then running through the rest of the orchestra.

Of particular structural interest is the inter-linking bridge passage that connects the last two movements. Over the atmospheric thrum of the drum heartbeat, the music climbs inexorably toward the tremendous assertion of C major triumph at the start of the finale. Probably one of the best musical depictions of “out of the darkness came great light,” this transition from one movement to the next is spooky and exhilarating all at once.

The epic grandeur of the finale, now with martial trombones, piccolo, and contrabassoon added to provide greater orchestral depth and color, has irresistible drive and sweep.  That eventual victory is still some way off is suggested by the return of the ominous scherzo figure during the extended development.  In the end, after a long concluding passage of vigorously reiterated cadential chords ending with the single note C played fortissimo by the full orchestra, one senses that with faithful persistence, good triumphs over even the darkest fate in Beethoven’s world.