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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GIOACCHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Overture: The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813}

GIOACCHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Overture: The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813}

Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; 2018 sees the 150th anniversary of his death, but the same century-and-a-half anniversary of his last major work took place in 1979! A leap-year birthday, he became famous in his early 20s after only five actual 29 February birthdays, and retired from composing – bar a few smaller-scale works – in 1829 aged officially 9, but actually 37, by which time he had written no less than 38 operas. Subsequently he became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos.

 His masterpiece The Barber of Seville was written and premiered in 1816 when he was only 24 (6) and in 1817 he completed no’ less than  three operas, including The Thieving Magpie; where certain . geniuses such as Beethoven laboured long and hard over their creations, chipping and  honing their way towards perfection, Rossini achieved a reputation as one of the most prodigiously swift of all composers, although he was also known for world-class laziness, and the tale he told of the composition of the Thieving Magpie Overture is a prime example.

Very often he recycled material from other compositions for his overtures but on this occasion he chose to write one which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately he left it rather late: I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening in the theatre itself (La Scala, Milan) where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stage hands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below . . . In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window.

Rossini’s operas tend to fall into two categories – Opera Serio or ‘serious’ operas (such as Semiramide, whose overture MSO performed last November) and Opera Buffa or ‘comic’ operas. Some, a mixture of seria and buffa, are known as dramma giocoso (from which we get our word ‘jocose’ – ‘given to jocularity’) and L’ltaliana in Algeri falls into this category .

Written, it is said, in a mere eighteen days by the 21-year-old Rossini, the opera is unusual in that the composer made the decisi’n to ask a colleague to write all the recitatives, which no doubt accelerated the composition process. Its premiere took place in Venice on 22 May 1813, the very day upon which one

Richard Wagner was born in ·Leipzig, and a fortnight after the birth of Johannes Brahms in Hamburg. The Italian Girl was an instant success, although Rossini still continued to revise it as it made its way round Europe, finally reaching London in 1819. The plot concerns the Bey Mustafa who, bored with his harem, instructs his Italian servant Haly (Ali) to find him an Italian girl, but Ali’s find, a shipwreck victim called Isabella, is more than a match for him, and she succeeds not only in humiliating him but also in reconciling him with his favourite consort, Elvira.

As with The Thieving Magpie overture above, Rossini wrote an original overture rather than recycling other material, and The Italian Girl has become one of his most popular. The slow introduction begins with deadpan pizzicato upper-strings but a note of humour arrives soon with several nods in the direction of the shock tactics employed by Haydn in his Surprise Symphony (No 94). The surprise chords continue into the start of the Allegro, where the woodwind begin to distinguish themselves with rapid tonguing in a characteristically perky opening theme, shortly taken up by the strings. A short example of Rossini’s trademark crescendi leads us to the first crisis involving scything scale-passages and trumpet fanfares . Soon a neat little bridge passage in the cellos leads us to the crisply elegant second subject, introduced by the oboe and answered by the flute, then a conversation between first and second violins and woodwind heralds a fully-fledged crescendo lasting eighteen bars and culminating in a dramatic climax. A short recitative for the firsts takes us into the recap of the main themes and finally a triumphant Coda.

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FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847)  Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847}

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844}

  1. Allegro molto appassionato
  2. Andante
  3. Allegretto non troppo – Allegro mo/to vivace

One of the greatest prodigies in composing history, Mendelssohn at the age of only 16 had penned his Op 20 Octet for strings, one of the very greatest chamber works in the entire canon, and followed this up with Op 21, the truly magical Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, aged 17. It has always been fashionable to say that, following this precocity, Mendelssohn never quite made the most of his potential, but the masterworks written within a few years of his early death aged 38, including the wonderful Italian Symphony {1842) and Violin Concerto (1844), completely belie this.

Visits to Scotland and to Italy  whilst on his European Grand Tour had produced memorably characteristic works, but it was his friendship with the violinist Ferdinand David which inspired his finest concerto, one of the greatest and best-loved of all violin concertos, which combines in its three movements the elegant virility  of the Italian Symphony, the tenderness of many of his Songs Without Words and the elfin delicacy of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. 

As a teenager Mendelssohn had written a violin concerto in D minor which is now seldom heard, but when, as Conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (still today one of the world’s leading orchestras), he appointed David Konzertmeister (Leader) in 1838 he was so impressed that he promised the violinist a concerto. Since he did not have practical experience as a violinist himself he sought David’s advice many times during the composition of the work which, despite the finished product’s apparently effortless flow and elegance, actually took him some six years; in promising David the concerto he wrote ‘I have one in E minor running through my head….and the beginning does not leave me in peace.’ Eventually the work was premiered by David on 13 March 1845 in the Gewandhaus, although it was conducted not by the composer but by the Danish composer I conductor Niels Gade, and Mendelssohn continued tweaking it almost until the moment the first rehearsal began. Far from being the product of a faded genius who had forgotten how to be original, the E minor reaches into the heart of the instrument, putting it in the same class as the concerto of Beethoven and subsequently those of Max Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Brahms amongst 19th century works for the instrument. No self-respecting soloist can afford to be without it in his or her repertoire, and it remains one of the most-recorded concertos of all.

It also embodies what at the time was a unique structure. 19th century accepted concerto form involved a substantial orchestral introduction to the first movement, usually exposing the themes which the solo part subsequently develops, but in the Mendelssohn the opening theme is announced immediately by the soloist following only a moment of restless atmosphere-setting. The positioning of the cadenza is also unique for its time; this was usually an opportunity for the soloist to extemporise on the themes of the first movement just before the final coda, but here the cadenza arrives midway through the movement at the end of the development and leads into the recap. It is written out completely by the composer and no alternative has ever  successfully  been  substituted;  Tchaikovsky’s  violin  concerto  would  use this model later in the century, while the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms would place the cadenza later in the movement and offer more freedom to the soloist. Later, at the first movement’s conclusion, Mendelssohn asks the bassoon to hold a long B, which leads seamlessly into the Andante. This too is ground-breaking, and possibly shows Mendelssohn mischievously putting paid to audiences’ propensity to applaud between movements (a habit which has returned more recently!). Finally, there is a brief Allegretto which offers a bridge between the second and third movements; once again this retains the rapt continuity of the work for the listener.

  1. The themes of the sonata-form first  movement  will  no  doubt  be  familiar, from the burnished passion  of the  soloist’s  opening  E-string melody, through the beautiful interplay between solo and woodwind within the second subject and the quicksilver passagework of the development and the cadenza, to the scintillating coda. The Andante’ s outer sections sing  with  heartfelt  lyricism while the soloist’s shimmering  double-stops in the central section take us into more uneasy mood. Finally, following the Allegretto bridge, the finale dances with the same light-footed brilliance as Mendelssohn had found  in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the E major key exploiting  the  brightest resonances within the  solo  instrument  and the  orchestral  counter-melody  to the soloist’s effervescence  a matter of sheer joy.

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