LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37 (1800-1803)

i. Allegro con brio    ii. Largo     iii. Allegro

As the foremost pianist of his day and already flexing his compositional muscles Beethoven was inevitably going to compose vehicles for his own performing genius. By 1800 he had composed eleven of his eventual complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique, Op 13 (1798), together with the first two piano concertos, the Second in B flat, Op 19, written first, (1795), but published second, and the First in C major, Op 15, (1800), carrying the piano concerto genre beyond the perfection of Mozart into new territory.

The young composer had made an extensive study of the piano works of Mozart and was fully aware that he was the composer to carry the torch forward. In particular he greatly admired Mozart’s tragic C minor piano concerto, No 24, K491, and its influence is clear in Beethoven’s own C minor concerto, his only minor-key piano concerto, at least in the first movement. In fact C minor became a talismanic key for him, Op 37 one in a line of major works in the key which include their own brand of Beethovenian anguish, including the Pathétique piano sonata, the Eroica Symphony’s Funeral March, the Coriolan Overture and the Fifth Symphony.

The date of composition of Op 37 has been open to some conjecture; it’s thought by the eminent Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper that the first sketches date back as far as 1796, although it’s most likely that it was largely written in 1800 at a similar time to the composition of Prometheus and of the First Symphony. What is known is that the premiere did not take place until 5 April 1803 with the composer himself as soloist despite the onset of his deafness; the Second Symphony was premiered in the same concert. In common with many of Mozart’s concerto premieres, and despite the fact that the body of the work was some three years old, Beethoven performed his solo part largely from memory; his turner-over for the evening, one Ignaz von Seyfried, later confirmed that the solo part in front of Beethoven consisted of little more than a collection of brief squiggles which reminded him of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Of course the solo part had definitely been crystallised by the time of the work’s publication in 1804, and included Beethoven’s own cadenzas, which remain the most commonly performed today. The concerto was dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a great friend of Beethoven and a fine pianist and composer himself.

The hushed opening of the Allegro con brio sets an atmosphere of quiet menace, promising an orchestral introduction of volatility. The first extended forte brings a taste of the major key, but it doesn’t last long. The second subject, however, brings a more classical duet in the major between the first clarinet and first violins over a lyrical accompaniment. The end of the orchestral exposition brings a challenge to the piano which is accepted forthrightly, and the solo part leads a second exploration of the main themes, but seems intent on calming some of the angst of the first. The development is largely reflective, then the recap carries us to Beethoven’s cadenza — here the piano pulls no punches, acknowledging the more trenchant aspects of the movement; the coda begins sublimely with the piano quietly floating descending arpeggios over hushed, sustained chords and purposeful timpani, but brings us shortly to a suitably turbulent ending to the movement.

In contrast, the Adagio brings one of Beethoven’s most beautiful and heartfelt slow movements in the surprising key of E major, the piano musing by itself over the introspective opening theme before the orchestra bathes itself warmly. Woodwind solos in subsequent material are accompanied by the piano, and on its journey to its seemingly peaceful conclusion the movement sees continued sharing between piano and orchestra of the roles of prime mover and accompanist.

The finale is an ebullient Rondo despite returning us to C minor. Once again the soloist introduces the rondo-theme, then hands it to the orchestra. The episodes take us into a variety of moods, but the general atmosphere is genial, although later on there is a mysterious fugal episode in the minor. Finally a brief, flashing cadenza introduces a scherzo-like coda in C major, Presto, in an entirely new time signature — 6/8 — its humorous touches bringing an effervescent end to a concerto which began in potential tragedy.

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LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus, Op 43, (1801)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus, Op 43, (1801)

As a musical giant who, despite all the trials and tribulations of his life, sought to change the musical world with what could be thought of as an incendiary talent, it seems more than fitting that Beethoven should find himself writing a ballet based on the legend of Prometheus.

The Greek God Prometheus, one version of mythology has it, looked down from Mount Olympus and saw that humanity was struggling in ignorance, so he stole fire from the Gods to pass down – as interpreted by the Greek writers he gave not only the gift of fire itself but also by extension culture and scientific knowledge. As a punishment Prometheus was sentenced to be bound to a rock and subjected to having his organs eaten by an eagle by day only to have them replenished overnight ready for the next attack. Eventually he was freed as one of the Twelve Labours of Heracles.

Sadly, Beethoven’s life somewhat mirrored that of Prometheus — his music was one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed upon humanity, but his deafness and other physical suffering might be interpreted as a punishment from the Gods for his temerity.

Late in 1800 in Vienna Beethoven was approached by the composer and dancer Salvatore Vigano who had been commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa to produce a ballet for the Court Theatre. Vigano had chosen the story of Prometheus but realised that whilst he was confident of his choreographic ability, the composition needed a greater talent.

Vigano’s scenario adapted the myth of Prometheus and borrowed that of Pygmalion to bring the work into a more suitable form for the ballet conventions of the time. In his libretto Prometheus, an artist, dies and is resurrected to create two inanimate figures, a man and a woman, whom he brings to life with the fire he has stolen. He helps civilise them through music and art before proudly presenting them, his creatures, to the Gods. If all that sounds familiar, it explains firstly why Mary Shelley subtitled her novel Frankenstein ‘A Modern Prometheus’, and, secondly, the derivation of the title of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.

Normally Beethoven was a slow and painstaking composer but he worked uncharacteristically quickly for the ballet, which came to be called The Creatures of Prometheus. Beethoven wrote the Overture, plus an Introduction, fifteen movements and a Finale, and the ballet was premiered in March 1801, but in truth his score, the only complete ballet score he ever wrote, was too powerful and difficult to choreograph.

Latterly the Overture is the only section from the ballet which is heard regularly, except that in 1802 Beethoven recycled one of the themes from later in the ballet to become the Eroica Variations and Fugue for solo piano, Op.35, and elevated it still further in 1804 to form the skeletal core theme of the finale of the Eroica symphony.

The Overture, in C major, begins with a slow introduction; the opening chords declare the serious intent of the piece but the general tenor of the introduction is one of aspiration. The sonata-form Allegro arrives shortly with a perpetuum mobile, hushed to begin with, then bursting into life with the full orchestra. Woodwind introduce the jaunty second theme, but drama with complex key changes and vivid dynamic contrasts is not far away in the remainder of the development. The lengthy recap eventually brings us to a satisfying coda and a triumphant conclusion.

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LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat (Emperor) (1809)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat (Emperor) (1809)

i.Allegro

ii.Adagio un poco mosso

iii.Allegro

Beethoven’s reaction to Napoleon’s self-anointment as Emperor of France in 1804 was unequivocal; he scratched out the dedication he had intended for his epoch-making Third Symphony, saying ‘So – he is human after all,’ and changed it to ‘Eroica’ (‘Heroic Symphony’) – in memory of a Great Man’. One can easily imagine, in that case, what his reaction would have been if he had known that his final, and grandest, piano concerto would posthumously be known as the Emperor. The nickname probably stuck after the piano-maker and composer JB Cramer (1771-1858) described the work as ‘an emperor among concertos’, admittedly a fitting tag for such an aristocratic work.

 

There was nevertheless an imperial connection, since in mid-1809 while Beethoven was in Vienna the city surrendered to Napoleon’s forces, and the work was written during the French occupation of the city and dedicated to his patron Archduke Rudolph. However, having struggled increasingly to perform his own works for piano and orchestra, Beethoven reluctantly realised when the premiere of the E flat Concerto was imminent that his deafness was now far too advanced for him adequately to present the complexities of the ensembleafter this he would write no more for concertante forces, preferring to trail-blaze in the solo piano and chamber repertoire. The concerto was premiered in Leipzig on 28 November 1811 by Friedrich Schneider, and its Vienna premiere would be given the following spring by the celebrated virtuoso and teacher Carl Czerny. 

Having created a unique soft opening to the Fourth Concerto, Beethoven begins the Fifth with another masterstroke;  three regal chords, in the home key of E flat, then the subdominant (A flat)  and then the dominant (B flat), each provide a springboard for the piano to announce its presence with massive cadenza-like split-chords, before finally propelling the orchestra into the exposition of the main themes, the first virile, the second quietly military. The piano’s re-entry is almost self-effacing – a lyrical version of the muscular first subject – but its stature increases until a second exposition arrives with the piano an equal partner. The development is based almost exclusively around the first subject, in particular the fragment of dotted rhythm. With the recap of the exposition there comes the expectation of a cadenza for the soloist, but this does not materialise. Instead there is a thoroughly majestic coda, the soloist riding above the military dotted rhythms with glittering arpeggio figures.

The slow movement is in the remote key of B major, its initial mood not unlike that of Mozart’s Concerto No 21 in C, K467. Strings then added woodwind create a dream-like atmosphere, which the piano continues in ruminative triplets, shortly developing into similarly thoughtful semiquavers. As in K467 time seems to stand still, and even at its height the movement remains restrained. Eventually a sustained B in the orchestra is gently nudged down to a Bb by the horns, returning us to the key of E flat, and the piano quietly explores what, moments later, bursts into life as the dynamic Rondo theme of the finale. Between incarnations of the theme the episodes visit sometimes more lyrical territory, but the movement as a whole is some of the most genial and effervescent music Beethoven wrote. Eventually the piano subsides accompanied by timpani, before setting off on waves of mercurial semiquavers which rush the orchestra into the exultant last few bars. 

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LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No 7 in A major, Op.92 (1813)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No 7 in A major, Op.92 (1813)

  1. Poco sostenuto Vivace
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto
  4. Allegro con brio

In 1811, some three years on from his 1807-8 triumphs  with the Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies Beethoven was feeling weighed down by his usual ill­ health and decided to visit the spa town of Teplitz, in what is now the Czech Republic, for a boost. It was obviously extremely effective, since he began work on what was to be one of his most dynamic works, the A major Symphony, which Wagner was famously to describe as ‘the Apotheosis of the Dance’. Its galvanizing and unremitting energy leaves no room for a slow movement, the Allegretto scarcely allowing any relaxation.

Another factor in the creative process for the work may well have been the fact that at this point Beethoven, often infatuated.with unattainable females, was even more sorely afflicted than usual by a lady who has become known as the ‘Immortal Beloved’. Indeed while he was in Teplitz Beethoven wrote the mystery woman a long, heartfelt love-letter, although he seems not to have posted it – it is conjectured that the two had a passionate but short­ lived affair in Prague immediately before the composer set off for Teplitz, but also that there were barriers to their permanent relationship in terms of relative social standing.

Completed in late 1812, the work was premiered in Vienna on December 8, 1813 (some seven months after the first performance of The Italian Girl) at a charity concert – promoted by Johann Maelzel, inventor of the metronome – for soldiers wounded in the victorious Battle of Hanau, with Beethoven himself conducting, despite his deafness; suitably, the evening also included Beethoven’s Battle Symphony: Wellington’s Victory. The concert coincided with the turning of the tide in the war against Napoleon; the Emperor’s flight from Moscow in 1812 had been followed by further defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. In  June, the Duke of Wellington had defeated Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, in the northern Spanish town of Vittoria, hence the Battle Symphony; in short, there was celebration in the air in anticipation of Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, and the Seventh Symphony certainly taps into this.

The orchestra for the premiere included some of the finest musicians of the day – violinist Louis Spohr, composers Johann Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Antonio Salieri, and the Italian double bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, whom Beethoven himself described as playing “with great fire and expressive power”. The piece was very well received, and the Allegretto had to be encored. Spohr made particular mention of Beethoven’s antics on the rostrum: ‘As a sforzando occurred’, Spohr wrote, ‘he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder … at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air.’ Beethoven himself described the work as ‘one of the happiest products of my poor  talents.’

The opening Poco sostenuto is on a huge scale – in fact it was the largest symphonic introduction to  date. Both grand and portentous, its ideas are arresting, but scarcely related to what follows. A tentative dialogue between woodwind and strings signals the transition into the buoyant, almost rustic first subject of the Vivace. The angular dotted rhythmic and melodic shapes are all-pervading – the only moments of repose come, unusually, in the development section. The coda is extraordinarily exciting, horns blazing.

The  Allegretto,  instantly  popular  in  December  1813,  is  based  round  its opening, purposeful rhythm, over which a rather bleak, melancholic melody is sung, first by the viols and half of the cellos. More lyrical woodwind and horns lighten the mood, accompanied by filigree strings, the biggest climax reached towards the end.

The Presto scherzo is a mercurial, swirling tour-de-force, like the first movement irrepressible in its dancing energy. The Trio section presents an Austrian Pilgrims’ hymn, initially presented by woodwind over tranquil strings. Shortly the full orchestra makes it a triumphant paean. The movement overrides the conventional form of Scherzo -Trio Scherzo, the Trio returning for a second outing later in the structure.

As if enough energy has not yet been expended, the Allegro con brio bursts into life with Bacchanalian fervour, insistent semiquavers and off-beat accents giving a relentless but exhilarating progress through sonata-form – exposition of two main themes (the second returning to obsessive dotted rhythms), development, recap and a viscerally exciting coda, once again with heroic brass.

The work is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with two trumpets, unusually only two horns, and timpani, plus strings.

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LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op 58 (1808)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op 58 (1808)

  1. Allegro moderato Andante on moto         iii . Rondo (vivace)

 Theatr an der Wien, Vienna, 22 December 1808 – one of the most momentous evenings in the entire history of music. The weather was freezing, but Beethoven, increasingly and cataclysmically deaf, seized the opportunity to premiere no less than three of the greatest works ever committed to paper before or since, an, not satisfied with that, introduced several other works which were scarcely less eminent. During the four hours’ duration of the concert the shivering audience was privileged to witness the world premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Piano concerto, together with those of the Choral Fantasia and a number of songs. The concert was also hugely important as the very last occasion on which Beethoven, scarcely able to hear anything, performed as a concerto soloist, also presenting the solo piano part in the Choral Fantasia, although given the conditions, it was a wonder that any of the musicians could play at all.

The first two of Beethoven’s piano concertos had appeared some years before whillst he was still in possession of his full aural capacity, the Second in B flat, written first but published second, and the First in C major carrying the piano concerto genre beyond the perfection of Mozart into new territory. The Third Concerto, in C minor, had appeared in 1803 during the gestation period for that titan of symphonies, the Eroica when Beethoven had scarcely recovered from the desperation he had experienced when he realised his hearing was beginning to fail, and that concerto explored a degree of angst common to many of his works 1 C minor, notably the Pathetique Piano Sonata, the Eroica‘s funeral march, the Cariolan Overture and the Fifth Symphony.

The G Major Concerto however, is still more miraculous. The opening, intoned quietly and seriously by the piano alone, to be answered just as seriously by the strings of the orchestra as they set off the opening exposition, remains virtually unique in the piano concerto canon, and presages a concerto in which there is just as much serenity .as there is torment. Compared with the grandiosity of the Emperor Concerto which would appear in 1811 the Fourth is inward-looking and cerebral, but completely engaging.

The first movement exposition proceeds with a restrained romanticism, which the solo then begins gilding with glittering passage work. The second subject once aga1.n sees the piano decorating the melodic line. Shortly the development sees dyna 1c arpeggios in the solo set against swirling orchestration carrying us through a myriad of keys before the recap again takes into the slightly more remote territory of the opening exposition. After the massive, improvisatory cadenza (Beethoven’s own), the coda when it comes muses for a moment, then rounds off the movement with almost military precision, a pre-echo of the Emperor concerto.

The brief Andante con moto explores unique ground again; the strings offer a terse challenge to the soloist in angular dotted rhythms, whereupon the piano, completely alone, responds quietly and thoughtfully as if seeking to calm the orchestra. Further cycles of this dialogue follow, until the piano finally succeeds and the strings’ mood changes to one of anticipation, which leads straight into the quietly military but also light-hearted beginning of the final Rondo. The piano gives its own gloss on the rondo theme, then the orchestra bursts with a much louder version. The episodes explore many moods with the piano and orchestra often in equal partnership. Eventually the final solo cadenza leads to the coda, at first reflective, then impish, then finally triumphant.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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Beethoven  (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Many composers in the nineteenth century were to be inspired by Shakespeare, from Berlioz (Beatrice and Benedict, Romeo and Juliet), to Tchaikovsky (Hamlet, another great Romeo and Juliet,) to Verdi (Falstaff), and it might be thought that Beethoven’s Coriolan was an early example, drawing on the harrowing tale of the Roman Coriolanus, whose revolt against the Roman establishment had resulted in tragedy, but in fact his inspiration was a play written in 1802 by an Austrian Civil Servant, one Heinrich Joseph von Collin, a friend of the composer but – somehow – unaware that Shakespeare had written his version in 1607. The source for both plays was the true story of Caius Martius as told in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans; some five hundred years BC, he rose to fame by sacking the Volscian city of Corioli, enemy of Rome, and was honoured with the name Coriolanus and the status of Consul, but then through arrogance lost the loyalty of the Roman Senate and people and defected to the Volscians. Intent on destroying Rome, in both plays he is persuaded against an attempt by his mother Volumnia; however, in Shakespeare’s play the Volscians perceive his betrayal as treason and murder him, whilst in Collin’s Coriolan is stricken by remorse at his failings and takes his own life.

Collin’s play was first performed on 24 November 1802 in Vienna and remained current for some three years, but a brief single-performance revival in 1807, possibly to try Beethoven’s overture as a prelude to the play, was eclipsed by a rising tide of admiration throughout Germany for Shakespeare’s version, and Collin’s play disappeared virtually without trace.

Beethoven, fascinated firstly by the conflicts of loyalty which faced Coriolanus / Coriolan and the personal flaws which proved his downfall, and secondly by the relationship between the Consul and his mother, decided to write the work despite the fact that no further performance of the play was officially planned; there was no commission and there would be no incidental music, unlike the circumstances surrounding the composition of his music for another political play, Egmont, two years later.

Thus, in effect, Coriolan was written as a stand-alone concert item, and its gravitas and subject-matter raise it to the status of an early tone-poem in all but name. Beethoven clearly also identified with Coriolan’s anger and desperation, his deafness, which had caused him to contemplate his own suicide in 1802, having by 1807 become almost complete.

The work, in the tragic key of C minor, could scarcely begin more dramatically or with more searing intensity; the strings then set off a darkly conspiratorial figure which will pervade much of the piece. Two species of muscular tied rhythms fight each other – one imagines that Brahms must have admired this piece as these passages surely presage similar muscularity in the later composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. A lyrical theme depicts Volumnia’s pleading with Coriolan to avoid attacking Rome, but music of complete defiance soon dismisses it. More conspiracy ensues with lower strings and bassoon working away underneath, but once again this is rudely thrown aside. The structure of the piece is sonata form; the exposition of the material to date leads to a development and then a recap, before the crisis is reached and the opening string theme is unravelled in desolation by the cellos as Coriolan’s life ebbs away.                                     

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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