Program Notes from An All Beethoven Program
Masterworks I
September 17, 2016 | 8 p.m.
Theater at North, Scranton
September 18, 2016 | 3 p.m.
The Kirby Center from Creative Arts, Wyoming Seminary, Kingston

 

By Peter Wynne

We open the 45th season of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic with an all-Beethoven program as the orchestra and our music director, Lawrence Loh, explore three works by one of classical music’s greatest composers.

 

We begin the program with the overture to Beethoven’s only full-length ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus,”  and follow it with his third piano concerto with pianist Shai Wosner at the keyboard. After intermission, we wind things up with the “Eroica” Symphony, the composer’s third outing in the symphonic form.

 

Beethoven in the Early 1800s

The three works on our bill premiered in just over four years at the start of the 19th century: the ballet on March 28th, 1801; the concerto two years and eight days later, and the symphony two years after that — on April 7th, 1805. And yet the three inhabit very different musical worlds.

 

Beethoven (born Bonn, 1770; died Vienna, 1827) had come to Vienna from Bonn in 1792, and he had quickly gained the patronage of several important noblemen — Prince Karl Lichnowsky, Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz and Baron Gottfried van Swieten among them.

 

By 1800, he had established a reputation as a piano virtuoso and had written a number of well regarded chamber works and two piano concertos. The people who counted in Viennese musical circles could clearly see that this young man from the Rhineland was on the verge of a major career.

 

Beethoven soon could boast to a friend, “My compositions bring me in a great deal, and I can say that I have more commissions than I can fulfill. I have six or seven publishers for each one of my works and could have more if I chose. No more bargaining; I name my terms and they pay.”

 

By the end of the year 1800, he had gotten a commission for a major orchestral work, the ballet whose overture opens our program. The Creatures of Prometheus” was a hit, with 14 performances at the imperial court theater in the spring of 1801 and another 13 performances the following season. The score was the composer’s first big popular success.

 

But things were not as rosy as all this would suggest. Several years earlier, the composer had noticed a buzzing in his ears and, by 1798, he was clearly losing his hearing. Within three years, he was mentioning this in letters to friends, swearing them to secrecy.

 

By 1802, having retreated to Heiligenstadt, a rural village just outside Vienna, Beethoven grew so distraught over his situation he evidently considered suicide. He wrote a will, usually called the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” that left his meager estate to his brothers, Carl and Johann, and he prefaced the document with a description of the anguish his infirmity was causing him:

 

“…It was impossible for me to say to men, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ How could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection…

 

“…What a humiliation, when someone stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing… Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but a little more and I would have put an end to my life. Only art withheld me; it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence…”

 

Among the works that helped keep him alive was the concerto on our program. Beethoven kept sketchbooks in which he wrote down musical ideas as they came to him, and ideas for what would be his third piano concerto began appearing in those sketchbooks as early as 1796. However, the composer didn’t set to work on the piece until autumn 1799, essentially completing the first movement by April 2, 1800. Beethoven then set the endeavor aside, returning to it in 1802, then setting it aside once more before finishing it in 1803, when he premiered his Opus 37 concerto to mixed reviews on April 5th that year at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.

 

But even as his hearing deteriorated and his depression deepened, Beethoven was looking to the future. As early as the summer of 1801, he had written an acquaintance that he had grow dissatisfied with his early works and, by 1803, he was confiding to a friend, “I am by no means satisfied with my work up to now, and I intend to make a fresh start from now on.” That “fresh start” would take shape in his “Eroica” Symphony, his Symphony No. 3.

 

The “Eroica” would mark the beginning of what musicologists call Beethoven’s “Middle” or “Heroic” period, which would continue into the early 1820s. That term, “heroic,” incidentally, has been less favored in recent years because many of the works Beethoven produced during this time would hardly qualify as “heroic.”

 

Beethoven experienced a spiritual rebirth as he launched himself into this new stage of his career, and something analogous was going on in music, particularly in France. A revolution there had swept away the country’s monarchy, and its composers were sweeping away musical classicism and helping launch the romantic movement in music, with its emphasis on dramatic expression.

 

Beethoven absorbed the innovations of the French Revolutionary composers — François Gossec, André Grétry and Étienne Méhul among them — and his musical idiom changed as he turned away from the legacy of Mozart and Haydn. His so-called “Middle” period, would established his reputation as a great composer, and the “Eroica” Symphony is reckoned the first major work of this period.

 

As Beethoven worked on the symphony, perhaps from the get-go, he determined to dedicate the piece to Napoleon and to even name it after him. The composer was a believer in humanitarian ideals and saw in the French Revolution a genuine effort to achieve the goals of classical democracy. As leader of the revolutionary party, Napoleon was the embodiment of those ideals, a modern Prometheus working to bring liberty, equality and fraternity to all.

 

However, in the spring of 1804, Napoleon declared himself emperor. Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries brought the news to the composer and related the scene that followed in a biography written years later:

 

“Beethoven held [Napoleon] in extremely high esteem at that time and compared him to the greatest Roman consul. I and several of his closer friends saw this symphony lying on his table, already copied out in score; at the very top of the title-page was the word “Buonaparte” and at the very bottom “Luigi van Beethoven” — and that was all…

 

“I was the first to bring him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself emperor — whereupon he flew into a rage, shouting, ‘Is even he nothing but an ordinary man! Now he will also trample upon human rights and become a slave to his own ambition; now he will set himself above all other men and become a tyrant.'”

 

Beethoven went to the table, Ries continued, grabbed the top of the title-page, tore it in two, and threw it to the floor. That original manuscript has long since disappeared, so it’s hard to know how accurate Ries’s account might be, but there’s no doubt that when the symphony was published, it was presented as an “Heroic Symphony Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.”

 

Beethoven ended up dedicating the “Eroica” (that’s “heroic” in Italian, by the way) to his music-loving patron Prince Lobkowitz. The work premiered privately at the prince’s palace in Vienna during the second half of 1804, with the composer conducting, as he would at the symphony’s first public performance at the Theater an der Wien in 1805.

 

Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus,” Op. 43

The Creatures of Prometheus” was actually Beethoven’s second excursion into the field of ballet. The year before he settled in Vienna — while still back home in Bonn — he had written the score for a quarter-hour-long ballet. Called a “Ritterballet” — a “Knights’ Ballet” — it was choreographed and produced in 1791 by Count Ferdinand Ernst von Waldstein, who was one of Beethoven’s most important patrons in the city of his birth.

 

The playbill for the first performance didn’t name a composer, and people initially credited the music to the count himself. Waldstein had been very kind to Beethoven, taking him to Vienna in 1887 and arranging for him to meet Mozart. And soon, the count would be packing him off to the Austrian capital for good and, as always, with introductions to the fanciest people in town.

 

Flattering royalty was always good policy even for a closet radical like Beethoven, so in 1800, after he had completed his Septet in E-flat for woods and strings, he had sought and gotten permission to dedicate the score to the Austrian empress, Maria Theresa. The gesture quickly paid off.

 

Later that year, dancer, producer and choreographer Salvatore Viganò devised the scenario for a ballet based loosely on the story of Prometheus, the Greek minor deity who stole fire from the gods, gave it to mankind and was sorely punished for doing so.

 

Viganò, a nephew of composer Luigi Boccherini, intended his new ballet as a salute to Maria Theresa and asked around the court whom he might bring in to score the piece. Someone suggested Beethoven; the composer was approached, and he accepted the commission.

 

Beethoven’s score for The Creatures of Prometheus” included 16 dance numbers, an overture and an introduction and takes about an hour and ten minutes to perform. The score had some lovely music, and Viganò’s choreography found instant favor. The ballet was a hit, but Viganò and his works soon fell out of style, and Beethoven’s score was forgotten, except by the composer, as we’ll see a bit later.

 

The overture is in an abbreviated sonata form and begins with the orchestra sounding a brief series of staccato chords before settling down into an introduction and then presenting the first theme, which is a flurry of scales given at the start to the strings alone.

 

The second theme is more delicate, the melody introduced by a pair of piping flutes. The exposition is not repeated as it would be in a symphony, and the development section is brief. The recapitulation, however, is extended to considerable length with a long coda.

 

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

Beethoven was still very much under the influence of Haydn and, especially, Mozart in the 1790s, when he completed what we reckon as his first two piano concertos — No. 1 in 1797 and No 2 some two years earlier. (He’d actually composed another concerto as a 14-year-old for which only the piano part survives.) But as the new century began and the composer got started on the piece we’ll hear on this program, he was heading in a new direction.

 

In the two outer movements of his Concerto No. 3, Beethoven achieves striking drama and captures both the stormy and the heroic qualities he found in the key of C minor, a key he would use in several of his most significant works, including his Symphony No. 5. And as the first movement progresses and through the length of the concerto, really, Beethoven so fully integrates piano and orchestra we no longer have the extended, distinctly two-sided conversation that earlier concertos had presented.

 

The composer sets his middle movement in E major, which is harmonically distant from C minor and represented a significant departure from the concerto practice of the his day. Beyond that, the soloist presents the slow theme and its accompanying melody before the strings begin playing — no typical orchestral “tutti” here — and does much the same in the final movement.

 

And yet Beethoven didn’t leave classicism and Mozart entirely behind. He kept the traditional three-movement concerto format (fast-slow-fast movements) and even wrote a rondo finale, something frequently heard in concertos of the day. The orchestra Beethoven used was essentially like the one Mozart had specified for any number of his late piano concertos.  Moreover, Beethoven’s first-movement finale echoes the same moments in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, a work Beethoven greatly admired and which is also in C minor.

 

The world premiere of the concerto — on April 5, 1803, at the  Theater an der Wien — was far from a grand success. The reviews were lukewarm at best, and the quality of the performance no doubt was largely to blame. The first performance was offered in a concert that also included Beethovens first two symphonies and his oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” With the exception of the first symphony, all of these works were new to both the public and the orchestra, which had only a single rehearsal on the day of the concert to get ready many pages of unfamiliar music.

 

To make matters worse, the Theater an der Wien was locked in fierce competition with Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater, which had imperial-government support and was run by a nobleman, Baron Peter von Braun. When von Braun got wind of Beethoven’s concert plans, he decided to schedule a performance of Haydn’s oratorio, “The Creation,” that same evening at the Kärntnertortheater. Von Braun promptly went out and hired all the best orchestra players available, so when Beethoven and Emanuel Schickaneder, who was the impresario at the Theater an der Wien, went out looking for musicians, all the people they wanted had  already been snapped up by von Braun and they had to settle for a pack of second-string musicians.

 

The single rehearsal began at 8 in the morning and ran non-stop for seven hours, resuming after a brief lunch break for another go at the oratorio. All of this left very little time before the performance began, at 6 in the evening. Beethoven had been awake at  daybreak writing out the trombone parts for the oratorio and, when time came to perform the concerto, that score proved far from complete.

 

Beethoven’s friend Ignaz von Seyfried, who was a composer of light opera and resident conductor at the Theater an der Wien, agreed to be Beethoven’s page turner, usually an easy task for a good musician. This time around, however, he found the experience more than a bit unsettling.  He later recalled that page after page of the score was blank, except for occasional scribbling that to him looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Evidently these markings meant something to the composer, who was performing nearly the entire solo part from memory, but they were totally unintelligible to von Seyfried.

 

The flummoxed von Seyfried was sure he was going to miss decisive moments, but Beethoven gave him a surreptitious glance whenever he was at the end of one of his unwritten passages and the performance proceeded without a major hitch. At supper with  von Seyfried after the concert, Beethoven laughed heartily as he recalled his friend’s anxiety. The composer finally wrote down the solo part — from memory, to be sure — some 15 months later, when his pupil and secretary, Ferdinand Ries, was preparing to play the concerto at one of Vienna’s public parks, the Augarten.

 

Its birth pangs aside, Beethoven’s C-minor concerto, No. 3, has long since been regarded as the work where the composer came into his own, stylistically speaking, where we can see his approach to composition, now with its drama, contrasts and rich textures, pointing to the masterpieces he would produce in his Middle period.

 

  1. Beethoven introduces his opening movement (Allegro con brio) with the longest orchestral tutti he ever wrote for a concerto. The strings, playing in unison, immediately present the main theme; violins and clarinet then introduce the lyrical second theme in a contrasting major mode. The piano finally joins the orchestra in transforming and expanding the two themes. The composer builds his development section from bits of themes heard in the exposition. The full orchestra restates the main theme to begin the recapitulation. The lyrical second theme and other melodies quickly follow, but presented more dramatically than they had been earlier on. At length, the solo piano launches into the cadenza, which becomes something of a development section for the instrument, at least as Beethoven wrote it. The orchestra then returns to help bring the movement to a climactic finish.

 

  1. The solo piano opens the nocturne-like middle movement, which is marked “Largo.” The mood is gentle and pensive, often sounding like the setting for a lover’s serenade in an opera. Midway through the movement flute and bassoon share a lovely murmuring duet, accompanied by plucked strings and piano arpeggios. After a brief cadenza, piano and orchestra quietly join forces then end the movement with a startlingly strong final chord.

 

III. The third movement (Rondo: Allegro) begins almost as if it were connected to the largo and has all the high spirits of the traditional rondo finale and more, including a fugal passage and hints of sonata form. Only as the movement draws to a close does Beethoven abandon C minor for the rollicking C-major conclusion he has been aiming for through the length of the concerto.

 

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Opus 55, “Eroica”

When the “Eroica” Symphony premiered privately at the Lobkowitz palace in Vienna,  one of the people on hand was the Saxon diplomat Georg August Griesinger. Back in Saxony, Griesinger had been friendly with Gottfried Härtel, head of Breitkopf & Härtel, the Leipzig music publisher. And back in the 1790s, when Griesinger went to Vienna, Härtel had asked him to help negotiate a contract with composer Joseph Haydn. Now, having heard the “Eroica,” Griesinger was writing his Leipzig friend: “Here is more than Haydn and Mozart, here the symphony-poem is brought to a higher plateau!”

 

And Griesinger knew whereof he spoke: The “Eroica” did mark a dramatic advance beyond the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart and pointed the way for Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz and Brahms, not to mention Beethoven himself. In terms of musical variety and length — it was the longest symphony written up to that time  — the “Eroica” was the first of its kind, and yet Beethoven stuck closely to late-Classical models in using a four-movement structure and an orchestra that differs from the standard Classical ensemble only by the addition of a third french horn.

 

Still, if the exposition section of the first movement is repeated, as Beethoven wanted, that movement alone is half as long as an average mature Mozart or Haydn symphony. And if the funeral march of the second movement sounded like something from an opera, nothing like it had been heard before in a symphony.

 

  1. The opening movement, marked “Allegro con brio,” is full of surprises. The introduction, for example, is reduced to two striking chords which usher in the principal subject of the movement in a sweet cello melody. At least five more themes turn up over the course of this much extended movement, all of them just as vigorous and succinct.

 

  1. The second movement (Marcia funebre: Allegro assai) is built around a somber marching tune played first by the violins over a hammering drum-like bass. Most of the movement is in minor key, but there are major-key passages where the tone markedly brightens. At the end of the movement, the opening theme returns, broken into fragments.

 

III. The mirthful, energetic Scherzo, marked “Allegro vivace,” contrasts sharply with the preceding movement and is interesting rhythmically in that it can be counted in two or three. The contrasting “trio” section gives Beethoven’s trio of horn players the chance to show their mettle.

 

  1. The Finale (Allegro molto) is a set of variations on a theme first heard in the finale of “The Creatures of Prometheus.” Some musicologists suggest that the principal themes of all the movements are derived from this one theme, that the entire symphony is in some sense a set of variations on that Prometheus theme and that the ballet was the ultimate inspiration for the symphony.

 

If Napoleon had been the inspiration, as the original title might have suggested, Beethoven’s making the second movement a funeral march, then following it with a merry scherzo and a triumphant finale wouldn’t make much sense. But if the symphony parallels the story of the ballet, things begin to add up.

 

The version of the myth used for the ballet had the titan Prometheus breathing life into pair of statues, making them humans, albeit ignorant savages. The titan entrusts their education to Orpheus and the Muses, and it’s Melpomone, the muse of tragedy, who slays Prometheus as punishment for creating mankind. However, Apollo realizes that humans really aren’t so bad and restores Prometheus to the world of the living. The humans, now “humanized” by the arts and sciences, are ready for the journey of life.

 

In schematic terms, the plot can be summarized as heroic action followed by death, resurrection and triumph, and the four movements of the symphony can be summed up in the same fashion. In this light, the “Eroica” Symphony is not the life story of Napoleon or some other “great man,” so much as it is an allegory in music about heroism, including the composer’s own in facing deafness, thoughts of suicide and finding a new life and triumph in his art.