PDF of Programme Notes
An aspiring virtuoso pianist in the early nineteenth century was expected to write concertos, primarily as solo vehicles for the traveling artist. By the age of nineteen, Chopin had written two, but he was not destined to follow the path of the touring soloist. Many hoped that Chopin would one day honour his native Poland with a great national opera, but opera and orchestral music per se never held Chopin’s interest. His métier would always be the piano, whatever the accompanying forces might be. Despite his successful transition to the artistic life of Paris, he would always be proud of his heritage, and would ultimately represent it with forms such as the polonaise and mazurka.
The Concerto in F Minor was actually Chopin’s first, but when a set of orchestral parts went missing, its publication was delayed until 1836, and it has been known as the second concerto ever since. The first performance was with what must have been a small ensemble in the Chopin home in Warsaw, followed by a public performance in the National Theater in April, 1830. Although Chopin’s personal model was the music of Mozart, his concerto writing reflects the “brilliant” style of concerted piano works by the likes of Hummel and Weber then in vogue. His concertos offer a depth of expression which transcends those models and contain the seeds of the smaller forms with which Chopin would make his most lasting contribution to piano literature and to romantic music in general.
For this performance, Dutch composer and arranger Sylvia Maessen has recast the orchestral accompaniment for a chamber ensemble of five winds and five strings. “My aim was to create transparency, lightness, and the possibility of playing the arrangement on period instruments.” She cites a review of a performance of this work in Paris: “On May 20 1832, less than three months after his first concert, Chopin made his second public appearance in Paris, at a concert given by the Prince de la Moskowa for the benefit of the poor. Chopin played the first movement of the concerto, which had already been heard at Pleyel’s rooms, and had there obtained a brilliant success. On this occasion it was not so well received, a fact which, no doubt, must be attributed to the instrumentation, which is lacking in lightness, and to the small volume of tone which M. Chopin draws from the piano.”
That earlier performance in the Pleyel rooms was without accompaniment, and the warmly responsive audience included both Mendelssohn and Liszt. There are precedents for chamber accompaniment of the concerto, including versions for strings alone. Maessen’s arrangement achieves the chamber music balance while retaining the individual colours of the wind instruments and the possibilities of musical dialogue. The first movement follows the formal patterns of concerto style, with the “orchestra” mostly providing a framework for the piano solos. The slow movement has been linked with an early love of Chopin, a beautiful young singer named Constantia Gladkowska. He wrote, “It is perhaps my misfortune that I have already found my ideal, whom I have served faithfully, though without saying a word to her for six months; whom I dream of, to whose memory the adagio of my concerto is dedicated.” This movement shares many qualities with his future nocturnes. The finale, laid out in rondo form, invokes the Polish spirit with stylized and brilliantly but elegantly decorated references to the mazurka.
After completing the monumental Eroica Symphony, Beethoven began sketching a new symphony in C minor that would eventually become the well-known Fifth. This would be laid aside along with the developing “Razumovsky” Quartets in the summer of 1806 to work on an entirely new symphony in B-flat, the Fourth. A visit to the summer residence of Count Franz von Oppersdorf, who had his own orchestra capable of performing Beethoven’s Second Symphony, resulted in this commission. Because of its relatively relaxed character, its classical framework and conservative instrumentation, and its placement between two iconic siblings, Schumann would later aptly describe the Fourth as “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse gods.” This pattern of alternating characters in his symphonic output continued for the rest of Beethoven’s life. The first performance of the Fourth Symphony took place in March, 1807 at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, in a programme including the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Coriolan Overture.
The Adagio introduction begins in an atmosphere of unusual mystery created by its unsettled tonality, with a highly innovative transition to the Allegro vivace. Against a sustained tonic note B-flat, various tonalities are explored, like groping in darkness, returning repeatedly to an ambiguous G-flat. The issue is settled when a searing F-major seventh chord decisively erases the G-flat and launches the sparkling Allegro vivace. At the end of the development, the “problem note” from the introduction returns in its enharmonic form of F-sharp. The strings repeatedly attempt to use this note to veer off into B major, but each time the timpanist quietly but firmly asserts the tonic key of B-flat. Finally, the entire ensemble is convinced to join forces for the recapitulation. Beethoven gives the timpani a new level of responsibility in this symphony; apparently he was satisfied with the result because his next symphonic work, the Violin Concerto, begins with a timpani solo!
The Adagio is in a serenely expansive rondo form. Its broad cantabile principal theme is punctuated by a rhythmic accompaniment figure that evolves through the movement; even the timpani gets its turn. The Allegro vivace (labelled Menuetto in some editions) is a scherzo in a newly expanded formal pattern Beethoven would use throughout his middle period: the slightly relaxed and playful Trio (Un poco meno allegro) appears twice, creating a five-part arch-like structure for the movement.
The breathtaking finale (Allegro ma non troppo) is a near perpetual motion; even the lyrical second theme seems restless. Listen carefully for the recapitulation: the bassoon sneaks the bubbling main theme in before the orchestra can catch up. In the coda, Beethoven borrows a trick from Haydn’s playbook, “the excellence of which lies in its badness,” according to Tovey. The theme is slowed significantly, then teasingly drawn out in fragments, like a scrap held before a hungry dog. After a good joke there’s always someone who laughs first. This time, it’s the bassoons, violas, and cellos driving merrily to the finish.
The Coriolan Overture was composed in 1807 for a revival of a contemporary play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771-1811). It is likely, however, that Beethoven was also familiar with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, since he was well acquainted with Shakespeare’s other works. There is a reference to Romeo and Juliet in Beethoven’s first string quartet, and he at one time considered writing an opera on Macbeth with Collin as librettist. There is no question that Beethoven intended his music to convey the character of the story to which it was attached. The eighteenth -century tradition of interchangeable opera overtures musically unrelated to the work that followed was fading fast. This is, as Lewis Lockwood has put it, a tone poem, “before the term came into existence.”
The Roman general Caius Marcius, having defeated the Volscians at Corioles, is given the heroic title Coriolanus. In the Roman senate, he seeks the consulship, but his refusal to condescend to the public (the plebeians) creates a political firestorm resulting in his rejection and exile. Seeking vengeance, he conspires with his former enemies the Volscians to destroy Rome. He resists all appeals for mercy, until his mother and wife come to him and finally convince him to desist, and Rome is spared. Only they have the power to reach his conscience. In Shakespeare’s text he says to these women: “All the swords in Italy, and her confederate arms, could not have made this peace.” This personal conflict between his avowed warrior persona and his inner vulnerability is the point of the story. In Shakespeare, Coriolanus is killed by the Volscians, but in Collin’s play he kills himself, unable to reconcile the crisis. Wagner thought Beethoven’s overture represented a particular scene in Shakespeare’s play when the tension is at its highest: the angry Coriolanus poised for vengeance, the pleading for his mercy, the resulting crisis.
The stark unison C’s and dramatic chords at the beginning create the illusion of a slow introduction, but the marking “Allegro con brio” applies throughout the overture. This material will return at key structural points in the sonata-form movement. The agitated main theme clearly represents the arrogant warrior in conflict, whereas the lyrical and tender second theme portrays the mother appealing to his merciful side. Unlike the Egmont Overture, there is no victorious ending; Coriolanus’ theme simply loses energy and unravels — similar to the end of the Marche funebre in the Eroica Symphony — signifying the collapse of Coriolanus’ spirit.
Beethoven was already a devoted admirer of Goethe when he was commissioned by the Bergtheater in Vienna to write incidental music for the tragic play Egmont. Goethe’s work had been published in 1788, and the music was requested for a revival.
The drama and Beethoven’s music, comprising an overture and nine additional pieces, were performed for the first time together in June, 1810. The play’s theme of heroic resistance to foreign tyranny was dear to Beethoven’s heart and his political sympathies. He had recently dealt with a similar subject in his opera Fidelio. He may also have been thinking of his Flemish ancestry. It was also timely for the Viennese, who had recently endured occupation by Napoleon’s armies. Beethoven later wrote to the author: “ This glorious Egmont which I read so ardently, thought over and experienced again and gave out in music — I would greatly like to have your judgment on it and your blame, too.” Goethe replied, not having heard the music but acknowledging the favourable comments he had received from others.
The drama takes place in sixteenth-century Brussels, when the Netherlands was ruled with an iron fist by Spain and the Inquisition actively persecuted Protestants. The Flemish nobleman Count Egmont, although a Catholic himself and loyal to the Spanish throne, pleads on behalf of his countrymen who threaten rebellion, but is betrayed by the repressive Duke of Alba. Despite Egmont’s moderate approach, he is arrested and sentenced to death. His beloved Clärchen unsuccessfully attempts his release, and in despair commits suicide. While languishing in prison, Egmont has a dream in which Freedom appears in the form of Clärchen, who assures him that his death will result in freedom for the people. As she holds a crown of victory over his head, a drum-roll awakens him. It is morning and the drums draw closer as Alba’s soldiers arrive to take Egmont to his execution. The hero proudly accepts his sacrifice, knowing it will result in his country’s freedom: “Friends, raise your courage! … And to save all that you hold most dear, fall faithfully, as I give you the example.”
After composing all the other incidental pieces for Egmont, Beethoven wrote the Overture last, summarizing Egmont’s story within the structure of sonata form. The introduction, Sostenuto ma non troppo, establishes the atmosphere of tragedy with the sombre key of F minor and a tense and rhythmically memorable theme, alternating with plaintive responses. A lyrical theme develops and accelerates into the Allegro, with an ominous descending line in the cellos evocative of struggle and repression. The material from the introduction reappears in the new tempo as the second theme, fortified by horns, seeming to represent Egmont himself, his courage and his pleas. The final appearance of this theme — perhaps the final words of the hero quoted above — is cut short, symbolizing the moment of Egmont’s death. Four quiet woodwind chords portray the departure of his spirit, leading to the Allegro con brio, which begins pianissimo and quickly rises to a stirring conclusion. This is the Victory Symphony, which will also close the play after the death of Egmont, his martyrdom immortalized as a glorious victory.
In this performance, the two overtures will be played together without interruption, as Bruno Weil proposed, “A little symphonic poem: the portrait of the two tragic heroes.”
©Allen Whear 2013