Classical I: The Eroica

Our Heroic season begins with two works by Beethoven, each initially dedicated to historic heroes: Egmont, whom Beethoven admired, and Napoleon, who inspired and then disappointed the composer once Napoleon declared himself Emperor. Two heroes of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra, Hal Ott and Jill Whitman, will perform Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp.

Ludwig van Beethoven
(December 17, 1770-March 26, 1827)
Egmont Overture, op. 84

Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna in May 1809 created many problems for the city.  After he finally left a few months later, the director of the Hoftheater, Josef Härtel, arranged for a series of revivals of dramas by Schiller and Goethe, and it is no surprise that two plays he chose dealt with the oppression of noble people by a foreign tyrant and their eventual freedom—Schiller’s William Tell (1804) and Goethe’s Egmont (1788).  Härtel asked Beethoven to write the incidental music for Egmont; the music was composed between October 1809 and June 1810 and premiered on June 15, 1810. 

The subject of the music and dramatic narrative is the life and heroism of 16th-century Dutch nobleman Lamoral, Count of Egmont (1522–68).  Egmont was a loyal subject of Philip II of Spain yet opposed the Spanish repression of the Netherlands.  Egmont was captured and executed as a traitor for conspiring against the regime.  In the music for Egmont, Beethoven exalts the heroic sacrifice of a man condemned to death for taking a valiant stand against oppression.  The incidental music consisted of an overture followed by a sequence of nine pieces for soprano and orchestra. The overture is powerful and expressive, one of the last works of Beethoven’s middle “Heroic” period, and one of his most popular concert works.

The overture begins slowly and ominously, letting the listener know that this is serious business.  Gradually, things become more restless and a fast section is launched.  Beethoven’s music reflects the conflict and duality of Egmont’s situation—the desire to be loyal to a country or leader, but the recognition of the dangers that tyranny brings.  Both are fully explored, and heroic fanfares and flourishes mark the triumph of what is right.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(January 27, 1756 – December 5, 1791)
Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra, K. 299/297c

The mid-1770s saw the maturing of Mozart’s musical voice.  During this time, he made important progress in refining his formal structures, especially in concertos.  In these works, often written with his own performing skills in mind, he took important steps to integrating soloist(s) and orchestra such that concertos became less presentational and more conversational.  More sophisticated developments took place in the 1780s, but the works of the previous decade have a freshness and facility that appealed to audiences everywhere.

The Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra is one of only two true double concertos that he wrote, as well as his only piece of music for the harp. Its unique sounds and appealing tunefulness have made it one of his most popular concertos.  Mozart wrote the piece in April 1778, while in Paris. It was commissioned by Adrien-Louis de Bonnières, Duke of Guînes, a flutist, for himself and his oldest daughter, Marie-Louise-Philippine, a harpist, who was also taking composition lessons from the composer.

The first movement is, as usual, fast and forthright in expression. The orchestra introduces the thematic materials of the movement, and then the soloists elaborate on them individually and together. The flute dominates throughout, while the harp mostly provides timbral contrast, taking an occasional turn in the forefront.  After a cadenza for both soloists, the movement ends optimistically.  The second movement is slow and lyrical. After a short introduction, the soloists take the simple, lovely melody and develop it through several variations, with occasional interjections from the orchestra.  The movement features another cadenza and ends gently with a final statement of the lyrical theme.

The third movement is titled “Rondeau,” which suggests a recurring theme in alternation with contrasting material.  The overall musical shape, however, is more like an arch, without a regular recurrence of the opening theme.  The soloists and orchestra interact with considerable nuance and sophistication, and the piece ends with a return of the main melody and final fanfare.

Today, this elegant work is often played by chamber orchestras since a smaller accompanying ensemble creates fewer balance issues. It is also often played by orchestras to display the talents of their own flutists and harpists.

Ludwig van Beethoven
(December 17, 1770-March 26, 1827)
Symphony No.3 in E-flat, op. 55 “Eroica”

Beethoven’s reputation as one of the greatest composers in Western music was cemented before his death, something very few composers at the time could claim.  Obviously, the culture of the early 1800s was filled with political and social unrest, and Beethoven’s instrumental music tapped people’s emotions in ways that produced both common understanding and empathy, as well as deep personal responses.  While previous opera composers (including both Mozart and Haydn) began the transition from the elegant, rational 18th century to the stormy, emotional 19th, it is Beethoven’s instrumental music that energized and completed it.

In orchestral music, no piece represents this transition better that Beethoven’s “Eroica.”  The story of the piece’s original dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte is well known, as is Beethoven’s disillusionment with the self-annointed Emperor and subsequent decision to rename the piece for a generic “hero.”  The energy of the work was also fueled by Beethoven’s realization that his hearing problems were irreversible and bound to get worse.  Yet, where Symphony No. 5 five years later explores the dark side of Fate, the Third Symphony rings of optimism, determination and power.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the expansive first movement—the first two chords shock the listener to attention and then short thematic ideas are passed from instrument to instrument, section to section, building to an extraordinary climax.  While there are tender, lyrical moments, the power and determination never weaken.  The slow movement must have surprised the audiences of the time—a funeral march was not typical, particularly one of this length and complexity.  A trio section calmly reviews the hero’s accomplishments with dignity, but death is permanent and the return of the march is inevitable. 

The optimism of the third movement, with brisk tempo, energetic figures, and eventual hunting calls, is a dramatic contrast to the march.  In the final movement, the drama and power of the first movement return, with a set of variations leading to a significant climax—in seeming to run out of ideas, he resorts to a final fugue, which adds to the depth and substance of the drama.  Finally, a long series of repeated chords, inconceivable in the 18th century, bring the work to a satisfying, if not exhausting close.  Because of what has happened in music history since, much of the significance of this work can be lost on today’s audiences, but the audiences of the time would no doubt have been quite shell-shocked.

As is the case with all performances of Beethoven symphonies conducted by Lawrence Golan, tonight’s performance will follow Beethoven’s instructions regarding tempo. While some sections may sound quite different to listeners accustomed to famous recordings of the mid- to late 20th century, these tempos represent the composer’s true intentions.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2018