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Program Notes: October 18, 2003

"All Beethoven, All the Time"

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 to an alcoholic and difficult father. Though the son's childhood bore hardship, he excelled early at music, was tutored in the great works of Bach, studied with Franz Josef Haydn, and met the "King of Music," Mozart. Young Beethoven was a virtuosic pianist and improviser, and his compositional gifts matured quickly. His unique style as performer and composer made a strong impression on the elite circles in Vienna, where he studied with Haydn and made his home for the rest of his life, and his popularity won him ample patronage.

It is difficult to imagine the music world devoid of Beethoven, so strongly did his compositions impact those to follow. Even in his lifetime, he was roundly regarded as a genius and heralded as the greatest composer living. Yet we also remember Beethoven as the embittered man who shook his fist at Fate, who struggled madly at life-as the composer who went deaf.

Essential to an understanding of Beethoven's life and works is knowledge of his Heiligenstadt Testament. In 1802, at age 31, after learning of his progressive hearing loss, Beethoven wrote, "If death should come before I have had the opportunity to develop all my artistic powers, he will, despite my severe lot, arrive too soon for me. I would have wished to encounter him hereafter; yet even so, I am content: does he not free me from endless suffering? Come, whenever you wish: I approach you with a resolute heart."

A complicated and self-tormented man, indeed, yet his works stand colossally over Western music, testaments to triumph and freedom in their purest form. His opera Fidelio symbolized to Beethoven, perhaps as no other of his compositions to date could, the beauty of the human spirit that so imbued his creativity.

Leonore Overture No. 3

Ludwig van Beethoven

Leonore is the heroine of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. Dressed as a boy under the nom-de-guerre "Fidelio," Leonore courageously rescues her husband from the prison where he is being held a political prisoner. The story was based on the real-life experience of French author Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. Beethoven recast the setting to 17th Century Spain because of the political upheavals occurring in France at the time.

The Theatre an der Wien commissioned the opera in 1803. Staging it proved difficult, and most new performing venues mandated revisions. Beethoven eventually wrote four different overtures. He preferred to call the first three "Leonore" rather than "Fidelio." He composed Leonore No. 3 for the 1806 revival.

The most loved of the four overtures, No. 3 borrows primarily from the beautiful aria in which the prisoner, Florestan, beseeches the heavens for freedom. One of the overture's most profound moments is the off-stage trumpet calls heralding Florestan's release. That Leonore No. 3 lends itself to being performed independently as a concert piece is a credit to Beethoven's sense of form and drama. Wagner commented that In the time and tide of Western music, admittedly this work had a resounding impact, and in the words of musicologist Bernard Jacobson, "The profoundly inward-looking style of this music established Tristan as the single most influential work of its time, weakening the grip of the classical key system and presaging the atonal explorations of the 20th century." Leonore No. 3 was "less an overture to a music drama than a music drama itself."

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Opus 73 ("Emperor")

Ludwig van Beethoven

As with many of us, most of my early experiences with classical music began with Beethoven. As for the beloved Emperor Concerto, I was 15, and my mother, ever the saint, took to buying each new LP offering of the Funk and Wagnall's Greatest Classics Series, available at the grocery store, of all places! When I heard the Emperor Concerto I was instantly hooked, whistling the themes as I walked to the bus stop, tapping my pencil on my desk during English class, my attention miles away, with that amazing music creating a separate universe. The rich, expansive opening movement captured me first. It would be years before the melting second movement and exuberant finale created their own impact.

Beethoven composed his final piano concerto in 1809, near the end of a decade of remarkable output and musical growth. The years 1800-1810, called Beethoven's "middle period," produced many of his masterpieces: piano concertos 4 and 5; symphonies 3, 5, and 6; the Triple Concerto; several of his best chamber works for piano; and the opera Fidelio. The source of the sobriquet "Emperor" remains the stuff of legend. According to an apocryphal anecdote, unverified and ironic, an officer in Napoleon's army attended an early performance of the concerto. It so moved him that at the last chord he stood and exclaimed, "This is the Emperor!" Beethoven's displeasure with Napoleon aside, the title seems altogether appropriate for such a majestic work as Concerto No. 5.

The concerto is a beautiful example of how Beethoven's creative process matured during his middle period. While his works remained rooted in classical formal structures, he began to add drama, more adventurous harmony, deepening sonorities for orchestra and piano, and a vastness of architectural structure. Most agreeable, perhaps, is that in this period and in this concerto, Beethoven's expression speaks of larger-than-life themes, great achievements, and emotions as far and as deep as the human experience.

The first movement, Allegro, is an extraordinary utterance. From the start, Beethoven conveys a sense of heroic scale. He treats the piano less as a championed soloist than as another sonority within the orchestra, aiding in developing themes. Although several appropriate moments offer themselves, this movement never allows the piano a traditional full-out cadenza. This sonata-form movement leads us down many paths of extended themes, but always sustains the initial feeling of inherent greatness.

Upon this shining hill of the first movement then dawns another light, the expressly tender Adagio. Here the piano acts as narrator, with the orchestra adding its backdrop of softly muted color. Beethoven creates a moment of sunrise, gentle, giving, embracing. It is surely one of the loveliest movements in all music.

Upon the meditation of the calm Adagio comes an afterthought. The piano tentatively begins a new tune, almost as if it were noodling through a breathtaking notion but were not yet ready for its full impact. In short order, however, the bridge from the Adagio is crossed and the splendidly energetic Rondo Finale dances free. The orchestra and piano share the movement's many varied themes and variations, abundant with a sense of exhalation and joy.

During the closing moments, the piano finally gets its cadenza, of sorts, but with an unexpected accompanist, the timpani. What a wonderful, novel moment this is, as the piano and kettledrums slowly wind down from the movement's exuberance. As tempo, time, and harmony finally come to a halt, a last joyful exclamation ends one of music's most cherished concertos.

Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Opus 93

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven composed his Eighth Symphony during the summer and fall of 1812. For the piece's 1814 premiere, it had the misfortune to be paired with a performance of the popular Symphony No. 7, and criticism of the new work was harsh. Critics still condemn the symphony as a throwback to older forms and styles. To this there is some truth, but it is Beethoven's last word on the old classical sonata form that he had learned from Haydn and Mozart and used in his own earlier symphonies. The Eighth is really a jovial stab at the old classical forms to which he bids adieu. To the criticism of its premiere, Beethoven protested in irritation that his Eighth was actually much better than his Seventh. Ever since, however, the Eighth has suffered from the greatness of both its predecessor and its successor, the incomparable Ninth.

The Eighth Symphony played a part in my early musical life. This symphony was the first set of classical records that I ever bought, for $3 in a church basement bazaar near Christmas. I didn't realize that 78 rpm recordings still existed. Playing these records at 33 1/3 rpm made for an awful listen. Still, there was charm, and, when I finally and less-than-brilliantly adjusted the speed on the record player, I was captured. Perhaps it was the sheer need to know that Beethoven couldn't possibly have written something that terribly slow, never mind the low octaves.

After a 4-year hiatus from writing symphonies, Beethoven composed both the Seventh and Eighth in 4 months. A remarkable achievement-the Seventh, dramatic, fiery, ground-breaking, and the Eighth, more joyful and quick-witted.

The Eighth opens with good spirits, and the robust contentment continues throughout: The Allegretto is built around a musical joke. There is no real slow movement. The Finale is kept off-balance by a coda longer than the rest of the movement.

The delightful second movement Allegretto is Beethoven's nod to his friend Johann Maelzel. Though it appears that Maelzel was a bit of a charlatan, he revolutionized musical performance by inventing the chronometer, a predecessor to the metronome. For whatever reasons, Beethoven was taken with the man, and in homage he wrote the Allegretto with the effect of an ever-ticking metronome in the constant staccato of the winds. It is a movement full of good humor, with passages seemingly wandering off, displaced in their octaves, like a drifting music student, ever to come back to the tick-tick of the incessant metronome. This movement could not differ more from the Seventh's dark, deep Allegretto. Hector Berlioz said that the Eighth's Allegretto was "one of those works for which there is no model and no match: it falls, complete, out of heaven into the mind of the artist."

After a scherzo-like second movement, one might expect a slow, meditative third movement. Instead, in the Eighth's Tempo di Menuetto, Beethoven fondly recalls the minuets of Haydn and Mozart. The movement is a trifle quirky in both its theme and its development, a friendly jab in the ribs, but completely satisfying.

Starting quietly, with a brimming energy, the Finale breaks loose with an ebullient outburst. The themes generally play out in the same pattern of a controlled, sometimes even calm moment, followed by a burst of uncontrolled enthusiasm. Throughout, we have a sense that the orchestral train wants to derail. Beethoven uses a technique that will return vibrantly 12 years later in the Ninth Symphony: octave pitches in the timpani, and many timpani rolls. But he saves his best jab for the coda, the ending that reestablishes the original key. Not only does the "ending" eclipse in length all the material that precedes it-a gross structural imbalance-but it harks back to old days and old endings. Finales for centuries past had ended with a mighty pounding of the last few chords over and over again, not unlike a large banner being raised to shout, "We're now finished! Finished! Finished!!" In the best humor, Beethoven extends this banner long into the night, giving us the dominant C Major chord only six times, but the tonic F Major chord no less than 45 times.

There is no reason to argue over whether the Eighth Symphony is better or worse than the Seventh. It's the spirited Eighth, wonderful in its own right, an assured and reassuring contrast to the terrible angst that Beethoven had expressed a decade earlier in his Heiligenstadt Testament.

— Max Derrickson