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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Chopin (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (1829)

Chopin (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (1829)

i.  Maestoso

ii.  Larghetto

iii. Allegro Vivace

Although Chopin was born near Warsaw his father was actually French, hence the French configuration and pronunciation of the family’s surname, which they never sought to adapt. Fryderyk did however adapt his Christian names for his new location, having been christened Frederic Francois Chopin, which in Polish became Fryderyk Franciszek. His mother and father were both accomplished musicians, and his early talent was nurtured carefully; he gave his first concerts aged seven, and also began composing at this time, although his earliest surviving manuscript is a polonaise written aged eleven.

During his period of study, first for three years from the age of 13 at the Warsaw Lyceum and then at Warsaw Conservatoire from 1826 until 1829, he composed and gave recitals, including playing for the Russian Tsar Alexander I in Warsaw in 1825. He began writing for piano and orchestra as soon as he felt able and his second published work, Variations on ‘La Ci darem la mano’ (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), Op 2 (1827, published 1830), inspired one of the most famous musical tributes ever; when Schumann, an exact contemporary of Chopin and also already a major pianist and composer, first heard the work in 1831 he exclaimed: ‘Hats off gentleman — a genius!’ The two piano concertos were written in 1829—30, but the majority of his work was for solo piano, although there was one piece for cello and piano inspired by a friend, which would be followed in 1846 by a wonderful Cello Sonata.

His piano works developed a uniquely lyrical and florid style, influenced greatly by Polish national dances such as the polonaise and the mazurka, and achieved a wonderful balance between simplicity and virtuosity — he was particularly inspired by hearing the flamboyant and impossibly virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini in Warsaw in 1829, writing a set of piano variations entitled Souvenir de Paganini in tribute, and the two have much in common in terms of their exploration of the heart of their respective instruments and their melodic gift, if not in terms of performing personality.

Chopin was to write peerless sets of Etudes, Polonaises, Mazurkas, Waltzes, and Nocturnes (the latter following the model of the Irish pianist John Field), and from 1835 until 1839 he wrote a series of twenty four Preludes, Op 28, one in each key, which in turn provided models for composers such as Rachmaninov, Debussy and Shostakovich. In 1838—9 while staying in Majorca with the writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, known as Georges Sand, in the early days of their ten—year relationship he wrote the famous ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, Op 28 No 15, which expresses the desperation of days of rain on an isle which they had hoped would be a sunny tonic for his always-delicate health. He was to die aged 39 in 1849, probably of tuberculosis; one of the earliest—ever photographs was taken of him, looking very ill and within weeks of his death.

As with Beethoven, the Second Piano Concerto was actually the first to be written, in 1829, and, like its companion, No 1 in E minor, Op 11, (1830), it has occasioned all sorts of patronising comment about its orchestration, and, as Mahler did with Schumann’s symphonies, some have seen fit even to reorchestrate the concertos; the great musical commentator Donald Francis Tovey, writing in 1936, neatly sums up an attempt on No 2 by one Carl Klindworth, whose richer reorchestration also needed the piano part to be revised. Tovey writes: Chopin’s orchestration….is an unpretentious and correct accompaniment to his piano writing. We may be grateful to Klindworth for taking so much trouble to demonstrate this. Even today cuts are often made in some of the purely orchestral passages, but tonight we shall play the work uncut

The orchestral introduction draws us neatly into the two main themes, the first in the strings, and the second in the woodwind. The piano enters in forthright fashion, and takes charge of proceedings, its role beautifully described by Tovey as ‘the perfection of ornament’. The movement follows sonata form in a satisfying exposition – development – recap – coda structure.

The Larghetto, greatly admired by both Schumann and Liszt, bathes us in heart-easing warmth in the orchestra and filigree in the solo part, but midway a dramatic recitative over extended string tremolando takes us into a shadowy world of disquiet, before the initial material returns.

The final Allegro Vivace begins as a conversational waltz and develops into a rondo, one of the episodes drawing on Chopin’s love of mazurka, the accompaniment including strings playing col legno (with the wood of the bow). Eventually a horn call signals the scintillating coda, which brings to an end a graceful and beautiful concerto.

Notes by HDJ

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