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Program Notes: October 25, 2008

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58

Allegro moderato
Andante con moto
Rondo: Vivace

Ludwig van Beethoven

(born 1770, Bonn, Germany; died 1827, Vienna, Austria)

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 is not flashy, full of bravura or piano pyrotechnics. In fact, one of its most endearing marvels is how quiet it is. What makes this one of the masterpieces in the repertory is the groundbreaking way that Beethoven crafts its quiescent beauty.

The biggest surprise comes in the opening 13 bars. After many years of hearing piano concertos by Haydn and Mozart, the music world of 1806 – when Beethoven wrote this work – knew that a proper concerto begins with a bold introduction by the full orchestra. Only after the orchestra has introduced the themes and settled down, only then does the solo piano enter with the first major theme. But in Beethoven’s Fourth, everything is different. The piano begins this concerto, quietly and tenderly, as if starting in the middle of a private rumination and giving us only half a theme as the soloist thinks it over. Next, the strings take up a slight variation of the piano’s G major phrase, playing even more quietly – and in the distant key of B major. After this marvelous opening, we won’t hear the piano again for nearly 70 bars, until the orchestra has finished its introduction proper. But so conspicuous is the piano’s virtual presence that we feel as though it is a part of things all along. When the piano finally returns, it does so by completing a phrase that the winds have left unfinished. By this point Beethoven has quietly undone nearly all the inherited conventions of a piano concerto. With the piano and orchestra now woven together, the music is free to develop its themes with utmost grace and charm – mostly quietly. A delightful cadenza leads to a sunlight-soaked ending.

The second movement is a different kind of marvel. Conventionally, the middle movement would be in a simple song form, or a theme and variations. Instead, Beethoven creates a moving dialogue between hope and hopelessness. Unison strings forcefully speak a stark first phrase. The piano replies softly in wisdom and beauty, in a song with its own quiet force. Thus begins a dialogue between strings and soloist – a conversation between stridency and quietude – in a musical structure that, if not entirely new, is crafted with brilliance. The piano’s gentle steadiness eventually coaxes the strings into harmony with it, allowing for a brief moment of pianistic rhapsody. When the two voices join again, a supreme calm prevails, preparing for the concerto’s finale.

The finale is one of the most joyous movements of any concerto. Beethoven uses the old structural convention of a rondo, but he plays with it ingeniously. The first theme, beginning quietly, brims with excitement and playfulness. Ebullient trumpets and timpani appear for the first time in the concerto. In a colorful dialogue, the piano sparkles in its high register as the divided violas play an evened-out version of the main theme. This magical moment returns, transformed, in the ending coda as a “call and response” between the bassoons and clarinets, and deep tones in the pianist’s left hand. The finale then catapults to its exhilarating end.

Symphonie fantastique (Episode in the Life of an Artist) H. 48, Op. 14

  1. Dreams – Passions
  2. A Ball
  3. A Scene in the Country
  4. March to the Scaffold
  5. Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath

Hector Berlioz

(born 1803, La Côte-St.-André, Isère, France; died 1869, Paris)

When the Symphonie fantastique premiered in 1830, with Berlioz conducting, he insisted that a literary program be distributed to the audience (that translated program is reprinted below). He explained that the program was “…indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work.” The story tells of a troubled young artist who sees a woman who embodies all his ideals in a mate, and he becomes disturbingly obsessed with her. Both the thought and a musical representation of his “Beloved” plague him ever more intensely. Berlioz calls the thought and the melody a double idée fixe (obsession; literally, “fixed idea”). He becomes so sure that his Beloved does not return his passion that he tries to poison himself with opium. The dose is too low to kill him. Instead, it plunges him into horrible dreams in which he murders his Beloved and then witnesses his own execution, followed by a hellish funeral attended by witches and ghouls.

Astoundingly, the symphony’s program was semi-autobiographical. In 1827, Berlioz’s fascination with Shakespeare led him to attend a performance of Romeo and Juliet by a visiting English troupe. There he saw for the first time his own Beloved, the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. After 3 years of obsessing about Harriet, Berlioz wrote his symphony to get her attention. He continued to obsess for 3 more years, until they married in 1833. Unlike his symphonic hero, Berlioz’s obsession did not end in murder or attempted suicide. Rather, the marriage ended in divorce in 1844.

As extraordinary as its program may have been, the symphony’s music makes it one of the most eyebrow-raising works ever composed. Berlioz pioneered the idée fixe – a musical representation of the Beloved, “passionate, noble and shy” – as the unifying theme of a whole symphony. We hear it first about 10 minutes into the first movement. For a theme that will hold a symphony together, it is a bit odd. It is about 7 bars of a disjointed and almost un-melodic melody. It reappears in many contexts, surrounded by ingeniously bold, sometimes wild, harmonies.

The symphony is a masterpiece of opposites. As he creatively develops motives that range through a host of extreme emotions, Berlioz nonetheless maintains a pacing and balance that are spellbindingly controlled. The symphony’s instrumentation and orchestration would transform sound possibilities for a century to come. Twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen said that the Symphonie fantastique first made other composers genuinely aware of orchestral timbre. Extremely precise about the colors he wanted, Berlioz scored for a range of then-unusual instruments and for new and different playing techniques. For the first time, for example, we hear four timpanists creating chords (thunder in the third movement). In the fifth movement, Berlioz scores for ophicleides (a predecessor to the tuba). Messiaen’s own case in point was the church bells in the last movement. These were shockingly new in a symphony, but without them, we might never have heard the famous 18 tuned anvils in Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold (1869) or the wonderful array of instruments in Gustav Mahler’s symphonies (composed 1888-1910) – mandolins, sleigh bells, and a giant wooden box hit with a hammer.

Berlioz’s first three movements are full of wonderful surprises, both musical and sonic, but the last two movements truly topple music history’s expectations. Part IV, the March to the Scaffold, is as graphic as any music composed until, perhaps, Schoenberg and Webern at the turn of the next century, and certainly more fun to hear. The depiction of the artist marching to the guillotine is as tense and horrifying as the story told by Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) or Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942). Berlioz’s music evokes the terror, pain, even the excitement of being led through the mocking and jeering crowds toward decapitation. In Part V, the Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath dance, Berlioz brilliantly parodies the tune of the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), an ancient chant from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. He captures the sinister perversion of the ghouls’ and monsters’ grisly celebration. All through the movements, the idée fixe weaves incessantly, obsessively, in and out, again and again, in one guise or another, miraculously unifying the symphony. Even an obsession can be transformed into great art.

Hector Berlioz’s Program for the Symphonie fantastique

I.  Dreams – Passions. The composer imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer has called the vague des passions [the wave of passions], sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before his mind’s eye, that image is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the character he attributes to her.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant recurrence, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolation – this is the true subject of the first movement.

II.  A Ball. The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

III.  A Scene in the Country. Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches [simple herdsman’s song] in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. –But what if she were unfaithful to him! –This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

IV.  March to the Scaffold. Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march, the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

V.  Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath. He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque; it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – A roar of joy at her arrival – She takes part in the devilish orgy. –Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae [a hymn sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], the witches’ sabbath round dance. The sabbath dance and the Dies Irae are combined.

— Max Derrickson