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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FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Symphony No 8 in B minor, D.759 (Unfinished) (1822)

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Symphony No 8 in B minor, D.759 (Unfinished) (1822)

 i.    Allegro moderato

ii.    Andante con moto

Schubert was the son of a Viennese suburban schoolmaster who was poor but enlightened, so although the composer’s early life was deprived in terms of a comfortable home, by the age of 11 he was a chorister in the Imperial Chapel and receiving a sound training from Beethoven’s teacher, none other than the composer who had been Mozart’s great rival, Antonio Salieri. Even at this early age the creative fires burned within Schubert particularly in the field of setting poetry, and although his first official works date from the age of 15, sketches for songs have been found from his time in the Chapel which fed into mature compositions. By the age of 18 he had already written nearly a quarter of his eventual nine hundred-plus works, including dozens of Lieder (Art-songs) and five delectable, Mozart-inspired symphonies, but life remained difficult, however, partly because he found it hard to make money from his talent. The only performances of his works which he was able to obtain were by local amateur artists, which earned him little or nothing; in addition his health was poor and he had to be supported financially by friends, which caused him severe depression. He also failed to establish what might have been at least some regular income since he had a complete aversion to teaching music, although he had been a schoolteacher for a while as a teenager.

 

Nevertheless music poured from him almost as if he knew all along that his time on earth would be limited, and he graced almost every genre from chamber music and song to religious music and even opera, together with symphonic orchestral music – although wouldn’t it have been wonderful, given his exalted gift for melody, to have had a Schubert concerto or two?

 

In 1821 he made extensive sketches for a 7th Symphony, in E major, but failed to complete it – so in fact there are two Schubert Unfinished symphonies. There have been a number of completions of No 7, although some editors have actually numbered the B minor symphony as No 7we know the B minor as No 8 from the original version of the most comprehensive catalogue of Schubert’s works, that by the scholar Otto Deutsch, published in England as recently as 1951, but revisions of Deutsch are suggesting now that No 8 really should be No 7 – old habits die hard however! Incidentally, Deutsch’s chief challenge was that only about a hundred of the composer’s works were actually published in his lifetime. In fact we owe the discovery of many of his works to musical detectives such as Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms and our own Sir Arthur Sullivan, who on a trip to Vienna in 1867 unearthed no less than six of the nine symphonies and a number of other works. The Great C Major symphony, No 9, had been found mouldering in a drawer by Robert Schumann in 1838 ten years after Schubert’s death.

 

So, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Some eighteen years after Beethoven’s Eroica had broken the symphonic mould, now came Schubert’s B minor in a new mould all of its own, in its way an elemental experience just as potent as the Eroica. The scarcely-relieved tragedy of the first movement and the bleak lyricism of the second offer a complete emotional experience, heralding the burgeoning Romantic movement. Its apparent structural incompleteness has always been an enigma, however, particularly since Schubert lived for a further six years after its composition. Theories abound. Was he just too busy to complete it? Was the onset of the syphilis from which he was to suffer for those last years of his life a debilitating force just at the wrong time as he worked on the latter movements? It seems the theory that he came to feel that the work was perfect in only two movements does not hold water – for one thing it ends in the wrong key, E major, only part-way through what might have been projected as a symphonic key-structure – so it seems most likely that the work remains incomplete by accident.

Reinforcing this theory is the fact that, having dedicated the work to the Graz Musical Society, Schubert somewhat ill-advisedly gave the score as it stood to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a member of the Society, but Hüttenbrenner failed to pass the score on and only revealed that he had it 43 years later in 1865 when he was 76 and, perhaps, realised that he ought not to reach the end of his life without revealing his secret, in case the work proved to be a masterpiece. His confidant was the conductor Johann von Herbeck, a staunch advocate of Schubert, who would conduct the premiere in December 1865, but even he refused to acknowledge the lack of subsequent movements and apparently added the hopelessly inappropriate finale of the D major Third Symphony.

 

It seems that the score entrusted to Hüttenbrenner comprised the two movements we know, together with some sketches for a third movement, the first two pages in full score and the remainder in short score, missing most of the Trio section. It seems also that these pages were torn from the main body of the score and found separately. In fact in 2003 the MSO gave the first British performance of a completion of the Scherzo and Trio by Laurence Wright, a former teaching colleague of MSO principal trumpet Bob Steele. Sketches possibly for a last movement were, it is thought, pressed into service instead for his opera Rosamunde. There have been many completions of the latter two movementsbut the overwhelming majority of performances present the two movements alone as an organic whole, the first orchestral evidence of Schubert’s very own, hugely powerful voice.

 

Allegro moderato: Cellos and basses intone a darkly tragic prelude to the bleak first subject, which is sung by oboe and clarinet accompanied by muttering strings. Drama simmers close to the surface, but as a crisis finally materialises, made still more powerful with the addition of trumpets, trombones and timpani, the horns and bassoons offer some solace, introducing the lyrical second subject, first in the cellos. Peace reigns only briefly, however, and after the exposition repeat the development takes us into desolation and anguish. Following the recap of the main themes the coda finishes the movement almost in nihilism.

 

The Andante once again offers some comfort at the start, horns and bassoons introducing the consolatory first theme against a lyrical counter-melody in the cellos, but the mood changes rapidly into anger, and then becomes bleaker as the first violins are left alone to herald anxious syncopation as a bed for questioning woodwind, and soon conflict rules.  Finally the work ends in cold-comfort, perhaps revealing the composer’s sense of impending doom.

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FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847) Overture: The Fair Melusine (1833-5)

The Fair Melusine is one of Mendelssohn’s less well-known works, but it does help to illustrate the fact that if only the composer had been in a position to designate this and similar works, such as The Hebrides, as Symphonic Poems rather than merely Concert Overtures he would have been thought a pioneer of the genre. Of course The Hebrides ranks with the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a work of complete genius, but Melusine, subtitled The Mermaid and the Knight, has undoubted virtue in conveying a more peaceful seascape and the melodrama of a narrative derived from legend.

 

The work was commissioned in November of 1832 by the Philharmonic Society of London, which had nurtured a special relationship with Mendelssohn; in fact under the terms of the commission three works were requested for a fee of a hundred guineas, but such was the warmth with which Mendelssohn reciprocated that four were provided, the other major work in the four being the Italian Symphony. Melusine was designed as an overture to an opera by Conradin Kreutzera project which had been rejected by Beethoven; unsurprisingly the opera has disappeared without trace.

 

The plot concerns Melusine, a mermaid, who has the gift of becoming human for most of every week, desiring to taste the pleasures of human life, and marries Knight Raimund on condition that he does not seek her out on a Saturday, the day she reserves for aquatic activity. Eventually, of course, her secret is discovered and Raimund loses her back to the seain the original legend the two are reunited in death.

 

The overture was finished by November 1833 and first performed in London in April 1834, but the response was lukewarm and Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, also a gifted musician and whose opinion he relied on implicitly, suggested that he could make improvements. By November 1835 he had completed a revision, which is the version in which the work has been heard ever sinceMendelssohn asked the Philharmonic Society to destroy the first version, but this was never accomplished. The new version met with much greater success, the composer Robert Schumann praising Mendelssohn for his ‘characteristic poetic grasp’ and his ‘alluring’ portrait of Melusine. The work as a whole epitomises Mendelssohn’s elegance without perhaps distilling the last degree of his genius to the same extent as those works mentioned above.

 

 

In fact musicologists have been of the opinion that the opening seascape, with rippling wind and strings, influenced Wagner’s portrait of the Rhine and the Rhinemaidens in the first instalment of his Ring cycle, The Rhinegold. Greater drama ensues with dynamic rhythms portraying the tempestuous relationship, before a more elegant secondary theme sheds a more romantic light. Midway Melusine returns to the sea for her Saturday sojourndrama returns, rising to a stirring climax as Melusine’s identity is revealed. Sadly she slips back into her watery home. 

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