LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Leonore Overture No. 3, op. 72b

Background

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 27, 1827. He began composing Fidelio—a German adaptation by Joseph Ferdinand Sonnleithner of a French libretto, Léonore, ou L’Amour conjugal, written by J.N. Bouilly and successfully set to music by Pierre Gavaux—early in 1804, completing the composition the following year. The opera was produced unsuccessfully on November 20, 1805, considerably pruned and performed again on March 29 and April 10, 1806, at which time he introduced the overture now known as Leonore No. 3. A thorough reworking of text and music made in 1814 was successfully performed at the Kärntnerthor Theater in Vienna on May 23 of that year. The score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 14 minutes.

About the Music

Beginning with a slow introduction that slips surprisingly from the tonic C major to a dark B minor and then to A‑flat  (where Beethoven briefly quotes Florestan’s aria “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen”), it takes some time for Beethoven to return to his home key for the Allegro and the main body of the movement.

The Allegro presents music of tense excitement not found in the opera itself, then modulates to a bright E major for the secondary theme (Florestan’s aria again, stated by clarinet). The taut development leads to a climactic gesture borrowed from the opera—an offstage trumpet signaling the arrival of help and the downfall of the villainous Don Pizarro’s murderous intentions.

Though Beethoven eventually felt that this overture did not serve his purpose in its original form, it has remained one of the favorite individual examples of his “heroic” period. Gustav Mahler, feeling that the Leonore No. 3 deserved to be heard more often than it was, began the practice of using it as an orchestral interlude between the two scenes of the opera’s second act, a practice still often followed today. But there, too, it vitiates the brilliance of the public celebration of the tyrant’s downfall by letting us hear it in purely instrumental music before we have a chance to see it on the stage. So in the end, the best place to encounter this overture is in the concert hall, where it superbly encapsulates the essence of Beethoven’s only opera.

 

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37

Background

Sketches for this concerto appear as early as 1796 or 1797, though the principal work of composition came in the summer of 1800. It may have been revised at the end of 1802 for the first performance, which took place in Vienna on April 5, 1803, with the composer as soloist. Some time after completing the concerto—but before 1809—Beethoven wrote a cadenza, possibly for the Archduke Rudolph; most modern soloists play that cadenza. In addition to solo piano, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 34 minutes.

One morning during the summer of 1799 Beethoven was walking through the Augarten, an elegant park on an island in the Danube, with Johann Baptist Cramer, one of the most brilliant pianists of his day. As the two men were strolling they heard a performance of Mozart’s C minor piano concerto, K.491. Beethoven suddenly stopped and drew Cramer’s attention to a simple but beautiful theme introduced near the end of the concerto and exclaimed, “Cramer, Cramer! We shall never be able to do anything like that!” Opinions differ as to exactly what passage affected Beethoven so strongly, but there is no doubt that Mozart’s C minor concerto was one of his favorite works, and echoes of that enthusiasm are clearly to be found in his own C minor concerto, which was already in the works.

Beethoven withheld performance of the concerto for three years. When the premiere finally took place, it was part of a lengthy concert that Beethoven himself produced to introduce several of his newest works, on April 5, 1803. The last rehearsal, on the day of the performance, was a marathon affair running without pause from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., when everyone broke for a lunch provided by Prince Lichnowsky, after which the oratorio (Christ on the Mount of Olives) was given still another run‑through. It is a wonder that any of the performers could manage the actual concert, which began at 6 p.m. and proved to be so long that some of the shorter pieces were dropped. The fact that Beethoven made the program entirely of his own works—and then charged elevated prices for tickets—clearly indicates that he expected the power of his name to work at the box office, and so it seems to have befallen, since he cleared 1800 florins on the event.

Ignaz Seyfried, the Kapellmeister of the Theater-an-der-Wien, had a special reason to remember the evening clearly:

In the playing of the concerto movements [Beethoven] asked me to turn the pages for him; but—heaven help me!—that was easier said than done. I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most on one page or the other a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory, since, as was often the case, he had not had time to put it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages and my scarcely concealed anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly and he laughed heartily at the jovial supper which we ate afterwards.

Seyfried’s explanation for the empty pages in the solo part—that Beethoven had not had time to write it out—seems unlikely. It is much more probable that his failure to write out the solo part reflected his desire to keep the concerto entirely to himself. He was still making his living in part as a piano virtuoso, and the pianist‑composer’s stock‑in‑trade was a supply of piano concertos that he and he alone could perform.

Critical response to the concerto at its first performance ranged from lukewarm to cold and in the concerto Beethoven’s playing was apparently not up to his best standards. Perhaps he was tired from the strenuous day’s rehearsal. Still, the concerto quickly established itself in the public favor.

About the Music

In the opening of the C minor concerto, Beethoven lays out all of the thematic material at once in the longest and fullest orchestral statement that he ever wrote for a concerto. The main theme is typically Beethovenian in its pregnant simplicity, outlining a triad of C minor in the first measure, marching down the scale in the second, and closing off the first phrase with a rhythmic “knocking” motive that was surely invented with the timpani in mind. Much of the “action” of the first movement involves the gradually increasing predominance of the “knocking” motive until it appears in one of the most strikingly poetic passages Beethoven had yet conceived.

The soloist enters with forthright scales that run directly into the principal theme, whereupon the real forward momentum begins. The piano exposition restates all the major ideas that the orchestra has already presented but extends the rhythm of the “knocking” motive, which begins to grow in prominence. It completely dominates the development section, twining with other thematic elements. In the recapitulation, Beethoven does not emphasize the knocking. As the cadenza ends, Beethoven (following the example of Mozart’s C minor concerto) allows the piano to play through to the end of the movement, rather than simply stopping with the chord that marks the reentry of the orchestra, as happens in most classical concertos. But it is what the soloist plays that marks the great expressive advance in this score: wonderfully hushed arabesques against a pianissimo statement of the original knocking motive at last in the timpani, the instrument for which it was surely designed from the very start.

The Largo seems to come from an entirely different expressive world, being in the unusually bright key of E major. It is a simple song‑form in its outline but lavish in its ornamental detail.

In his last two piano concertos, Beethoven links the slow movement and the final rondo directly. He has not quite done that here, though he invents a clever way of explaining the return from the distant E major to the home C minor by inventing a rondo theme that seems to grow right out of the closing chord of the slow movement. But Beethoven has not yet run out of surprises; when we are ready for the coda to ring down the curtain, the pianist takes the lead in turning to the major for a brilliant ending with an unexpected 6/8 transformation of the material.

 

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, op. 55, Eroica

Background

The Eroica was composed between May and November 1803, with some further polishing in the following year. It was privately performed in the Vienna town house of Prince Joseph von Lobkowitz, to whom the score is dedicated, in the summer of 1804, Beethoven conducting; the first public performance took place in Vienna on April 7, 1805. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 47 minutes.

Rarely has any composition been so closely entwined with an anecdote about its composer’s life as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and the story of its intended dedication to Napoleon. On the face of it, everything seems direct and simple. Beethoven’s friend, Ferdinand Ries, recalled the incident this way:

In this symphony Beethoven had Buonaparte in mind, but as he was when he was First Consul....I as well as several of his more intimate friends saw a copy of the score lying upon his table with the word “Buonaparte” at the extreme top of the title page, and at the extreme bottom “Luigi van Beethoven,” but not another word....I was the first to bring him the intelligence that Buonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out: “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor. The first page was rewritten and only then did the symphony receive the title Sinfonia eroica.

Stated thus, it appears that Beethoven admired the republican Napoleon, the hero of the French Revolution, and despised the later Napoleon, the emperor and despot. In fact, the composer’s feelings were more ambivalent and fluctuated wildly over many years.

Beethoven’s notion of dedicating a symphony to Napoleon, formed while he was writing the piece in the summer of 1803, had already begun to weaken by October when he found out that his patron, Prince Lobkowitz, would be willing to pay a good fee for the dedication and six months’ performance rights. He then thought of titling the symphony “Bonaparte” but dedicating it to Lobkowitz. This was evidently the state of affairs in May 1804 when Ries brought the disconcerting news that Napoleon had declared himself emperor.

By 1805 war broke out again between Austria and France after a peace that had held since about 1800. A title like Bonaparte would have marked Beethoven as politically suspicious, so on publication in 1806, the work became Sinfonia eroica. The “heroism” involves death as well as affirmation. Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon sees the symphony as Beethoven’s rejection of the heroic ideals of the Revolution that had been spawned in the Enlightenment, owing to the fatal imperfection of the ruler.

Another “fatal imperfection” played an increasing role in Beethoven’s consciousness in these years: the physical infirmity of deafness, of which the composer had been gradually becoming aware for some time. He first revealed the awful secret to two of his close friends in the summer of 1801. Although sometimes merry enough in this period, Beethoven suffered from wide emotional swings and at least once contemplated suicide. In October 1802 he wrote a lengthy personal statement, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, placing responsibility for his apparent misanthropy and willfulness on the increasing awareness of his infirmity (this was a little disingenuous considering the stories of his moods and stubbornness even from childhood.)

In reaction to the devastating approach of deafness, Beethoven turned to creation; in fact he began an extraordinarily fertile period, one in which he composed most of the works that have generated our popular view of the composer wresting control of his fate from a malign universe. And the first of these new and overpowering works was the Third Symphony.

About the Music

Early listeners were astonished by the symphony’s unusual length, almost twice as long as any written to that date. The answer has to do with the proportions, which have changed in a vital way that is made possible—even necessary—by a new kind of melody.

In earlier classical symphonies, the lion’s share of the time is allotted to laying out the main thematic ideas and the tension inherent in their key relationships (this is the “exposition”) and the resolution of those tensions (the “recapitulation”). The development section, which comes in between and takes the musical discourse through a series of modulations ultimately returning to the home key, was usually shorter, and the concluding coda, which simply reaffirmed the home key, would be shorter still.

In the Eroica, these proportions underwent a dramatic change. Although the exposition and recapitulation remained roughly the same size, the development became the longest section of the movement; and the coda, far from being a perfunctory closing fanfare, was almost as long as the exposition. How was this possible? The answer lies in the concentration of the musical ideas and their harmonic implications. The first movement of the Eroica has not one single theme that stands complete in and of itself. The very first theme is Mozartean for its just eight notes. But Beethoven’s theme continues—and gets “caught” on its tenth note, a C-sharp not part of the home key. Left dangling uncomfortably and unexplained at the end of the phrase, this C-sharp generates an unusually lengthy musical discourse to explain its meaning.

The troublesome note appears in every conceivable context, as if Beethoven is trying to suggest each time, “Perhaps this is its true meaning.” In the exposition, it is a C-sharp (which is to say that, when it resolves, it moves up to D); in the recapitulation it functions as a D-flat (the same pitch, written differently) by moving down to C. Finally, in a two-fisted way that we recognize as characteristic of the “heroic decade,” Beethoven offers a direct challenge: after ending the recapitulation with a solid return in the home key of E‑flat, the entire orchestra suddenly jumps to a loud D-flat chord. The glove has been cast into our faces: here is the direct confrontation of the home key with its most problematic element. What are we to make of it? Beethoven makes of it a new developmental section of great breadth that finally leads triumphantly back to the E-flat, having exorcized that disturbing, out-of-place note. Only now, at the very end of the movement, do we hear the opening musical theme presented four successive times as a complete melody without that troubling C-sharp.

Each of the other movements is justly famous in its own right. The Adagio assai generated heated discussion as to the appropriateness of including a funeral march in a symphony. No attentive listener can fail to be moved by the shattering final measures in which the dark march theme returns for the last time, truncated, broken into fragments in a dying strain: a convincing demonstration of the power inherent in the music of silence. Beethoven’s comment upon hearing of the death of Napoleon in 1821 is well known: “I have already written the music for that catastrophe.”

The scherzo’s whirlwind of activity scarcely ceases for a moment. All suggestion of the traditional third-movement menuetto vanishes before a torrent of rushing notes and irregular phrases. The three horns have an opportunity to show off in the Trio.

The last movement builds a set of variations from a tune taken from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. For the finale of the symphony, Beethoven sometimes used the theme’s bass line, sometimes its melody, in variations full of witty and felicitous touches. The finale starts out as nothing more than a cheerful little tune varied in charming and characteristic ways. A fugal section in the center of the movement gives it some density, and the wonderfully expressive oboe solo, accompanied by clarinets and bassoons in the Poco Andante just before the final rush to the end, lends an unexpected poignancy. The conclusion, with virtuosic outbursts in the horns and energetic fanfares for the full orchestra loses nothing in the way of rousing excitement, no matter how many times we hear it.

Many years later (though before he had composed the Ninth Symphony), Beethoven maintained that the Third remained his favorite of all his symphonies; in saying this, he was no doubt recognizing what listeners have felt ever since: that in the Eroica they first know the mature Beethoven, the composer who has held such a grip on the public imagination and on the attention of later composers.

 © Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)

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