Program Notes - October 23, 1999 Concert
("Contemporaries and Namesakes")
Overture to Les Deux Journées (The Water Carrier)
In the first decade of the 1800's, Europe and the Western world of music were immersed in an extraordinary production of great classical music. At this time, Italian composer Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore Cherubini (1740-1842) was in Paris struggling to gain a position of respect in the music world. It would take another 15 years before he would gain prominence. This is not to say, however, that his music was not well received or considered excellent. Political swayings of the day played havoc on many composers. His operas in this period were often social statements over the current geopolitical climate. ``Les Deux Journées" was one such opera in this genre called ``escape" opera, in which the hero escapes political persecution -- popular yet peripheral at the time.
Les Deux Journées (The Water Carrier) gained immediate acceptance upon its premiere in 1800, but the grand opera houses werre closed to Cherubini at the time, limiting the opera's exposure. The overture has remained in the concert hall though. Mendelssohn wrote in 1834 that ``the first three bars are worth more than our entire repertoire." Wagner admired the opera as well, and said that ``the whole of the drama is contained in the overture." Beethoven was well aware of Cherubini's works, and it is noted that his opera Fidelio reflected Cherubini's style. When asked once who was the greatest living composer other than himself, Beethoven hesitated slightly, and then exclaimed ``Cherubini!" The overture may rival some of the masterpieces of Rossini, yet contains a refinement and dark drama to it.
Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 57
Ludwig Spohr premiered his second concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in E-flat Major, Op. 57, at one of the first music festivals in Frankenhausen in 1810. It was radiantly received, and critics claimed ``it belongs to the most perfect works of this kind."
German composer Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859) was a violinist, composer, conductor, innovator, and political activist. His contemporaries often remarked on the towering stature of his malistic, democratic and liberal beliefs, as well as his 6'7'' frame. He can be credited with pioneering use of the baton with an orchestra, inventing the chin rest for the violin, and introducing rehearsal letters in printed music. He rose above being simply a virtuoso violinist who wrote violin concertos; he scored 13 operas, 17 overtures and symphonies, 15 violin concertos, 4 clarinet concertos, and numerous chamber works. Still, as popular as Ludwig Spohr was during his lifetime, his works were written in the age between stalwart classicism and the burgeoning romantic period, and in the currents of history, his bourgeois style was one that was somewhat laid aside. It is only recently that more of his works are being resurrected, to the delight of concert audiences.
Spohr was no stranger to Beethoven, naturally. In 1814, Spohr was the orchestra leader at the Theater an der Wein in Vienna, the scene of many of Beethoven's concerts, and the two composers met and maintained a friendly collegial relationship. In 1845, Spohr was in charge of the inauguration of the festival for the Beethoven Monument in Bonn.
The Concerto is structured in a no-nonsense classical style; three movements -- fast, slow, fast; the finale being a rondo. This is the blueprint for countless classical concertos. Of note, however, is Spohr's use of the polonaise, or dance-like form, for his rondo finale. This form was less often used, but harkens back to Beethoven's use of that form (alla polacca) in his Triple Concerto written several years earlier.
There is good reason that this work received such heavy praise in 1820. Like Carl Maria von Weber, Spohr was respected for his inventiveness and forward looking harmonies. Spohr blends a chromatacism (such would later be exploited in the romantic era) with a flowing serenity. Of particular note is the solo part for clarinet, which is extremely well suited to the instrument and highly virtuosic. The finale, for example, gives the impression that the solo part is near delirious, yet the entire piece falls easily on the mind. Theis is what makes the works of Ludwig Spohr so ingenious; a notion for high virtuosity paired with serene ecstasy.
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
The fact that beginning in 1798 German composer Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827) learned that he was becoming deaf only adds to the dramatic creation of the Fifth Symphony. Several years before the premiere of the Fifth in 1807, Beethoven penned the Heiligenstaadt Testament to his brothers. This letter makes it clear how the condition was a shattering colossus to him. He contemplated suicied, and cried out at his fate. Yet, as is so evident in his compositions, Beethoven not only broke free of the restraints of his oncoming deafness and despair, but went on to create in the first decade of 1800 man of his most cherished masterpieces.
Here describes the extraordinary and captivating opening four bars of the first movement (Allegro con brio): three rapid notes on the fifth of the key (c-minor) moving down to the single third of the chord, a pause, then the same motif placed on the fourth down to the second note of the key. That is the theme. What follows is unbelievable. More than any other symphony, the Fifth represents motivic development refined down to just these four opening notes, and an entire symphonic treatment is derived. This four note cell, after the opening bars, then races out into the stark pathos of the composer's genius. Virtually every bar to follow will contain this basic motif, yet the entire movement exquisitely demonstrates something much deeper and with startling profundity.
Often chronicled in this way, the Fifth opens with Beethoven's awareness of his traumatic Fate, or perhaps more so the relentless sure of Fate on all of Mankind. The second movement (Andante con moto) is a prayer theme followed by variations in an attempt for reconciliation or resignation. The third movement (Allegro), a scherzo, harkens to the sinister struggle with the presence of Fate, yet is set up to cave into the magnificent fourth movement (Allegro), which is a glorious hymn of freedom and light as Fate is confounded and Mankind is victorious.
Perhaps the singular moment in Western movement is the bridge between the sinister third and the massively powerful finale. As the scherzo dies away, a sound bed of murkiness and dark colors is sustained as the kettle drum taps out a rhythm that alludes to the first movement. This musical scene is often called the dawn before the sunburst. The kettle rhythms accelerate and the orchestra begins to charge headlong into a glorious burst of sound and energy in the fourth movement. There is no match in all of music to this one breathtaking moment of anticipation toward the glorious arrival of the new theme. It defies the imagination.
The psychological program is undeniable, but we should recall that Beethoven wrote in a period in which the program (or underlying story) of the music was far inferior to the thematic and structural development of the music itself. This is a classical piece. Yet, it is just this tempering of classical craft and formula with a titanic message that makes this symphony one of the most powerful pieces of music ever written, and which would irreversibly change the music world to come.