PROGRAM NOTES | Thu July 30 | 7:30 pm
Copyright Susan Halperin
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, in D Major, Op. 61
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna)
Late in 1806, Beethoven paused while working on Symphony No. 5 to write a violin concerto for the Viennese violinist Franz Clement (1780-1842). He had known Clement since 1794, when he was himself just one of many brilliant young pianists in Vienna and had sent the fourteen-year-old violinist a letter of endorsement and encouragement. By the time of the writing of the concerto, Clement had played in London under Haydn, acquired an official position at court and had been appointed leader (that is concertmaster and conductor) of the important new Theater an der Wien.
We no longer know what Clement’s playing was like then, but Beethoven presumably did, for Clement had led the orchestra in the first production of Fidelio in 1805, and the Violin Concerto was almost certainly written to suit his style and skills. However, there are clear signs that Clement did not live up to his former performance level or his reputation and that he ultimately disappointed Beethoven. In 1813, when Weber became head of the Prague Opera, he hired Clement, but quickly found his playing unsatisfactory. In 1824, Beethoven took great pains to avoid having him as concertmaster for the first performance of the Ninth Symphony. Clement died in poverty.
Beethoven usually assembled his serious works slowly and painstakingly, but he wrote the Violin Concerto quickly, even hurriedly, for a performance at a concert Clement gave on December 23, 1806. The work was not finished until the last moment, too late for the soloist to rehearse it with the orchestra, but Clement had no doubt familiarized himself with his part during the writing. As shocking as that may seem now, it was not an uncommon situation for the work only to be finished just before its first performance, although even then, it was acknowledged to be an undesirable practice. Other common practices of the time would also surprise the modern concertgoer: the first movement of a concerto was played before intermission and the others after. For a real showpiece, Clement played a work of his own composition, holding the violin upside down!
After the first performance one reviewer wrote, “Concerning Beethoven’s Concerto, the judgment of connoisseurs is unanimous. Its many beauties must be conceded, but it must also be acknowledged that the endless repetition of certain commonplace passages may become tedious. It must be said that Beethoven could better employ his talents by giving us works such as the First [and Second] Symphonies, the charming Septet and others of his earlier compositions.” [Abridged] One wonders if the critic then took into account that he heard this difficult new composition in a hasty reading rather than a studied performance. The Concerto, for whatever reasons, was slow in making its way into the world. It was not until years later, when Joseph Joachim began to play it all over Europe, that it became an accepted and respected staple of the repertoire, recognized as the masterpiece it is.
Beethoven headed his manuscript with a punning inscription that can be rendered in English as “Concerto clemently written for Clement,” but he published the work in 1808 with a dedication to a childhood friend, Stephan von Breuning. In 1807, the Italian composer-pianist Muzio Clementi, who had become a wealthy publisher and instrument-maker in London, persuaded Beethoven to rewrite the Violin Concerto’s solo part for piano, which he said would be much easier to sell, but that version of the work has never become popular.
The Violin Concerto is a huge work, longer than anything Beethoven had written until then except the Eroica Symphony. Its number of musical ideas is not large, but each is considered at such great length that the whole assumes a monumental size. The five strokes of the timpani that open the first movement, Allegro non troppo, are at once a quiet demand for attention, the start of the opening theme and a motto-like rhythmic element that pervades the movement. The slow movement, Larghetto, is a set of variations on a theme that can sound like a halting recitative or a flowing melody. The movement runs without pause into the final rondo, Allegro, a brilliant, exuberant virtuoso piece.
The score calls for flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Symphony No. 5, in C Minor, Op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven
Fellow composer Robert Schumann gave Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 the greatest praise possible when he wrote that although it is often heard, yet it “still exercises its power over all ages, just as those great phenomena of nature that, no matter how often they recur, fill us with awe and wonder. This symphony will go on centuries hence, as long as the world and world’s music endure.”
Symphony No. 5 has always been popular and recognizable because of the famous four-note phrase with which it opens. Since Beethoven composed the symphony, critics and commentators have attempted to give that phrase some programmatic significance. Beethoven’s not altogether trustworthy friend, Anton Schindler, presumably quoted the composer as saying it represented Fate knocking at the door. Schindler, however, had a reputation for not letting facts get in the way of a good story, and the conversation in which he quoted Beethoven took place years after Beethoven finished the symphony, which makes it a bit suspect anyhow. Accounts also mention that Beethoven would say nearly anything to rid himself of annoying questioning about his compositions; nevertheless, this statement began a never-ending stream of interpretations of the symphony.
Whether it has a programmatic significance or not, unquestionably the phrase has definite importance musically, and it recurs throughout the entire symphony. The repetition of this phrase differs from a later named technique called “cyclical form” in which a well-defined melody is stated in one movement, and retaining its original identity, is quoted and reused in another. Beethoven’s method is to use his musical phrase as a germinal idea that generates new phrases, which resemble the original, but are not identical with it. He begins with G and E-flat for the notes of the opening motive: these are two of the three notes that make up a C minor chord. This way he establishes the key of his symphony, and he announces a rhythmic motif, which repeats throughout the work, uniting the symphony’s four movements.
Beethoven began to compose Symphony No. 5 in 1804, just after finishing Symphony No. 3, but put it aside to finish the Symphony No. 4, and after that, he worked simultaneously on the next two symphonies. He completed Symphony No. 5 early in 1808 and Symphony No. 6 in autumn of the same year. On December 22, 1808, he gave a concert in which his latest works were premiered. The program included Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, the concert aria Ah, Perfido!, a Latin hymn, the Sanctus from the Mass in C Major, a fantasia for piano solo, the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80, for piano, chorus, and orchestra, and Piano Concerto No. 4. Beethoven conducted and also played the solo piano parts for this monumentally long concert. Since he completed Symphony No. 5 almost at the same time he finished the F major Symphony No. 6, (the Pastorale), at the premiere, the Pastorale bore the number 5. A contemporary observer said the concert lasted for over four hours. The occasion was memorable and stressful: the theater was unheated, the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and the soprano soloist had a bad case of stage fright. The orchestra stopped mid-composition several times, and the soprano soloist who sang Ah, Perfido! was given a sedative for her nerves; nevertheless, Symphony No. 5 soon gained its designation as a masterwork. Somewhere between performance and publication, Beethoven renumbered the two symphonies. The C minor became Symphony No. 5, and the F Major became Symphony No. 6; thus, they remain today.
Beethoven perhaps intended the opening movement, Allegro con brio, to be mysterious yet powerfully dramatic. The thematic statement of the famous four-note motif appears first in the clarinet and violins; in the recapitulation, the whole orchestra joins in with the same figure. An unexpected oboe cadenza at the end of the movement, according to the late Michael Steinberg, has a special function, serving both to disrupt and to integrate. The contrasting slow movement, Andante con moto, plainly and distinctly sets forth a long melody as its principal subject; then a series of variations follow. Mystery dominates again in the third movement, a scherzo, Allegro, which runs without pause directly into the noble finale, Allegro which introduces the sound of the trombone to the orchestra for the first time in the history of music. Piccolo and contrabassoon also participate in the finale. Steinberg described the last movement as a motion “into the sureness and daylight” with its transition into the major key. He summed up Beethoven’s achievement succinctly, “The victory symphony was a new kind of symphony, and Beethoven’s invention here of a path from strife to triumph became a model for symphonic writing to the present day.”
Over the years, two critics in particular have in some way grasped the essence of this symphony with few words. Amadeus Wendt wrote: “Beethoven’s music inspires in its listeners awe, fear, horror, pain, and that exquisite nostalgia that is the soul of romanticism.” E.T.A. Hoffmann called the symphony “one of the most important works of the master whose position in the first rank of composers of instrumental music can now be denied by no one… It is a concept of genius, executed with profound deliberation, which in a very high degree brings the romantic content of the music to expression.”
Symphony No. 5 is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. The piccolo, contrabassoon and trombone only play in the last movement, where they greatly enrich the sound of the orchestra.