MISSOULA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA CONCERT
March 8 & 9, 2014
Overture to Egmont
Composed in 1810 for the Vienna premiere of Goethe’s play, Egmont, this short overture traces the play’s narrative in evocative musical language.
Piano Concerto No. 4
Beethoven’s most lyrical and introspective concerto is also one of his most revolutionary works, eschewing many conventions of concerto form.
Excerpts from Fidelio
Beethoven’s only opera is generally considered difficult to stage due to its lack of theatricality. But as these excerpts make clear, it boasts plenty of great music.
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage
Two poems by Goethe inspired this miniature masterwork, which captures the beauty of the calm sea and the thrill of sailing.
A paean to art itself, this majestic work may sound familiar: Beethoven later applied many of the same techniques in the finale of his Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.”
In 1810, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) met a gifted young composer and writer named Bettina von Arnim. Knowing that von Arnim was a close friend of the revered German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Beethoven performed for her two songs that he had written, based on Goethe’s poetry.
Subsequently, von Arnim wrote a letter to Goethe in which she quoted Beethoven’s own words: “Music, verily, is the mediator between the life of the mind and the senses.”
Today, we all take Beethoven’s words for granted. We expect great music to not only connect with our intellectual sense of order, but also resonate emotionally.
It is easy to forget that Beethoven’s words were actually rather revolutionary for the time — even by his own prior approach to music-making.
Born in 1770, Beethoven had come of age in what we now call the Classical era, a time when composers such as Haydn and Mozart were revered for music that employed formal structures, clear distinctions between melody and accompaniment, and simplified textures.
Beethoven, though, had a different idea. His notion of music embraced narrative structures that bent (or broke) formal rules and employed increasingly exotic harmonies, greater dynamic range, and unusual textures and instrumentation. These characteristics would eventually become central to the Romantic conception of music.
We often think of Beethoven simply as a writer of great music. We mustn’t forget that in a time of great social and political upheaval, he was an artistic revolutionary as well.
Overture to Egmont
In the wake of Napoleon’s brief occupation of Vienna in 1809, the director of that city’s famed Hoftheater announced he would stage revivals of two plays that dealt with occupation by a foreign dictator: Schiller’s “William Tell,” and Goethe’s “Egmont.” Beethoven — already hailed as the leading composer of the day — was commissioned to write an overture and incidental music for the latter production.
The overture that Beethoven produced would eventually become one of his most famous short works — and an important bridge between his earlier, Classically influenced music, and his later, more narrative approach to music. Indeed, while it mostly follows traditional form, the overture is so shaped by the narrative of Goethe’s play that it could almost be viewed as a tone poem.
In the dour opening chords, we feel the pessimism of the oppressed people of the Netherlands, whose plight is the subject of the play. Count Egmont appears, rebellious and optimistic; but he is soon imprisoned and sentenced to death. Then, a vision appears to Egmont, foretelling the liberation of the Netherlanders through his death. Emboldened, Egmont embraces his fate. A moment of dramatic silence depicts the hero’s execution; then, true to the prophecy, his people rise up and claim their liberty in an exhilarating climax.
Piano Concerto No. 4
Scholars have long grouped Beethoven’s music into three fairly distinct periods: The early works, influenced deeply by the formalism of Haydn and Mozart; a middle period from 1803–1814, characterized by bold, large-scale works that explored themes of heroism; and a late period in which his music gained added expressive depth and flexibility.
Still, and perhaps not surprisingly, some individual works within these periods defy those broad generalizations. Such is the case with the Fourth Piano Concerto.
When Beethoven began writing it in 1805, he had already produced several works of unprecedented scale and power: the muscular Third (“Eroica”) Symphony; the epic, virtuosic “Waldstein” Sonata; and his only opera, Fidelio, which explicitly explored themes of heroism.
The Fourth Piano Concerto contrasted sharply with those works. From its very first notes, the Concerto evokes a sense of lyrical serenity that sets it apart from any other large-scale work — from that or any period — that Beethoven wrote.
That very characteristic makes the Fourth Piano Concerto one of Beethoven’s most revolutionary compositions. After all, the traditional concept of a concerto was as a showpiece for virtuoso soloist with an aggressive first movement; a lyrical second; and a fast, exuberant finale. In place of that formula, Beethoven gives us a first movement characterized by intimate lyricism and exploratory fantasias. Then comes a second movement in which piano and strings play against each other, never disturbing each other. In the finale, swirls of notes from the piano bring the music back to a more extroverted mood, culminating in a galloping burst of vitality.
Prisoners’ Chorus and “Mir ist so Wunderbar” from Fidelio
Given the stature of Beethoven in the history of classical music, it might seem surprising that his only opera, Fidelio, is not performed often. Here is a work that combines Beethoven’s revered skills as a writer for voice, his urge toward musical drama, and the very themes of individualism and liberty that inspired many of his greatest instrumental works.
Alas, for all its merits, Fidelio is a problematic opera. Beethoven struggled with the particular dramatic requisites of the theatre. At key moments in the opera, his music overwhelms or stalls the action. Fidelio can, at times, feel like a choral symphony with people moving around, a work for the concert hall rather than the stage.
Too bad, because in this opera there is much great music. One of the most lovely excerpts is the Act I quartet, “Mir is so Wunderbar” (“A Wondrous Feeling Fills Me”). Here, the characters Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco, and Jaquino sing an exquisitely delicate ensemble about Marzelline’s love for Fidelio. Another sublime moment comes at the end of Act I with “O welche Lust” (“Oh What a Joy”), better known as the Prisoners’ Chorus. In this joyous song, a group of political prisoners relish a moment of freedom in the garden.
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage
In 1814, Beethoven decided to set two short poems by Goethe for chorus and orchestra. The result was one of Beethoven’s most pictorial, atmospheric works, a perfect realization of Goethe’s evocative descriptions of a sailor’s angst at the sight of a windless sea, and the joy of sailing homeward under fresh winds.
Despite this music’s impressive parentage, it has largely fallen into obscurity — though not for lack of musical merits. At just seven minutes in length, yet requiring a full orchestra and chorus, “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” is simply difficult to program into a concert. But as you’ll hear, this is Beethoven at his most rousing.
Nobody ever accused Beethoven of thinking small. Still, when he began plans for a major concert of entirely new music in 1808, the scale of the undertaking was nothing short of mind-boggling.
On the program would be two never-before-heard symphonies – the Fifth and the Sixth – plus the Fourth Piano Concerto (which, though finished two years earlier, had not been performed publicly), a vocal aria, a hymn for chorus and soloists, a sanctus for those same forces, a fantasia for piano; and, lastly, as described in the program: a “Fantasia for the Pianoforte which ends with the gradual entrance of the entire orchestra and the introduction of choruses as a finale.”
All told, it was a concert of at least four hours.
It did not go well.
“Many a failure in the performance vexed our patience in the highest degree,” wrote the composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who attended the concert.
It didn’t help that Beethoven himself mucked up the final piece on the concert, the “Choral Fantasy” that we will hear tonight, by repeating one section on the piano while the orchestra moved on – “which sounded not altogether edifying,” wryly noted the composer Ignaz von Seyfried, also in attendance at the concert. “A trifle too late, the concertmaster…noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out drily: ‘Again!’”
That the “Choral Fantasy” was ever heard of again is thus a testament to the fine music wrought in this hastily prepared, unusually orchestrated showpiece. Built on the foundation of Beethoven’s earlier song, “Gegenliebe,” the “Choral Fantasy” in turn set the stage, both in its handling of diverse musical forces and its overall character, for Beethoven’s grandest musical statement of all: the final movement of his Ninth Symphony.
- Joe Nickell