Classical IV: Knights in Shining Armor

“Knights in Shining Armor” features Bruckner’s epic Symphony No. 4 “The Romantic,” with its underlying program of medieval knights, nature, hunting, and birdsongs. The concert opens with the overture of Beethoven’s only opera, the story of the heroine Leonore who rescues her husband from death in a political prison.

Ludwig van Beethoven
(December 16, 1770-March 26, 1827)
Leonore Overture No. 3, op. 72
(1805)

The range of expression of Beethoven’s instrumental music and its impact on Western music occasionally raises the question of why he did not compose more operas.  Experts on Beethoven have suggested several reasons, including a lack of commissions for operas, less success with idiomatic vocal writing, and hearing loss as discouragement for composing in a genre that requires more collaboration with others.  The fact remains, however, that when he did commit to writing an opera, he threw himself into it fully.

Fidelio, originally titled Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love), is Beethoven’s only completed opera, begun in 1804 and premiered in Vienna on November 20, 1805. The work is part of a musical genre called Singspiel (“song-play”), a type of opera that resembles a musical theater production today, even including spoken dialogue instead of recitatives.  The plot tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named “Fidelio,” rescues her husband, Florestan, from death in a political prison. The scenario fits Beethoven’s political views: a story of personal sacrifice, heroism, and eventual triumph.  With Napoleon marching across Europe (and occupying Vienna at the time), it is not surprising that the composer was inspired to undertake this project.  Beethoven continued to revise the opera for several years, with a final version premiering on May 23, 1814, also in Vienna.  In all, there were three completed versions, the first two (1805 in three acts, 1806 in two acts) under the title of Leonore, and the 1814 version as Fidelio.

For the 1806 version, Beethoven composed a new overture, now known as Leonore Overture No. 3. In all, there were four different overtures, but No. 3 is considered the best.  Leonore’s heroism is celebrated in true Romantic fashion, with beautiful singing melodies and loud fanfares.  The overture summarizes the story. It begins with Florestan in the dark prison.  Happy memories and hope are felt in a brighter section in the music.  Leonore’s efforts to disguise herself and get closer to rescuing her husband are gradually rewarded.  Trumpet calls announce the approach and then the arrival of the governor who will give Florestan a reprieve, but Leonore must still save him from a desperate attack by the jailer who unjustly imprisoned him.  Her husband is released and love triumphs again.

Josef Anton Bruckner
(September 4, 1824-October 11, 1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major WAB 104, “Romantic”
(1881)

Bruckner was an Austrian composer and organist, best known for his symphonies and sacred music. He was born into a family of schoolteachers, and music was an important part of his upbringing.  He showed promise, and when his father died when he was 13, Anton was sent to a monastery to become a choirboy.  His interest in music grew and he began landing organist jobs.  He eventually moved to Vienna to perform, teach, and compose.  He admired the music of Richard Wagner and, as he studied it, felt increasingly humbled, even unworthy as a composer, which led to much self-doubt and, consequently, many revisions of his compositions.

His works, the symphonies in particular, had detractors who criticized their large size and repetitive nature. On the other hand, he had many encouraging admirers, including his friend Gustav Mahler.  He completed nine symphonies and portions of two others over 30 years, and they are considered part of the final phase of Austro-German Romanticism.  In many ways, his style is defined by his use of timbre/tone color, possibly a result of being an organist, with shifting block orchestration, surprising harmonic changes, and the development short motives instead of using longer, more clearly identifiable melodies.

Symphony No. 4 is dedicated to Prince Konstantin of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, and was premiered February 20, 1881, in Vienna with Hans Richter conducting.  Apparently, the work was begun as early as 1874, but periods of self-doubt, especially after lukewarm receptions of other works, led to long periods of revision.  Even after its premiere, this symphony received additional revisions as late as 1888.  The subtitle “Romantic” was given by the composer, derived from a program evoking images of the countryside with, in his words, “medieval knights, castles, hunting, and other things.”

In the first movement, the sun rises gradually, but eventually appears triumphantly and the day begins optimistically.  A jolly second theme reassures everyone that it is a pleasant day.  The music is unhurried as it moves through numerous peaks and valleys.  Musical ideas are passed around to all sections and cast in different harmonic and timbral settings, even played backwards and upside down.  The movement closes with the orchestra in full voice.

The second movement is a song, a prayer, a serenade; it is also a walk in the medieval countryside.  Equally unhurried, the mood is more subdued, with a slow, lyrical melody and “forest murmurs” in the orchestra, complete with horn calls nearby and in the distance.  The various twists and turns are surprising but in a subtle context.  Eventually, the music gets louder and more insistent, peaks, and then returns to the subdued lyrical melody, this time decorated with bird calls from the winds.  After one more climax, the movement ends gently.

The rousing hunt in the third movement (Scherzo) begins in the distance and arrives quickly at full strength.  The knights seem to come and go, giving chase to whatever they are hunting.  The middle section provides a little respite, but soon the hunters are off again.  The trio section provides even more respite with a folk-like ländler. The knights, now fully rested, go off again, bringing the movement to a triumphant end.

The fourth movement is a compendium of Bruckner style traits, a series of episodes that appear to be in no hurry to be finished until they explore every last possibility.  Like the first and third movements, the finale begins in the distance and uses fanfare figures to introduce the musical materials.  After a while, the first theme from the first movement reappears, if only briefly, and everything grinds to a halt. A more subdued section follows, vaguely reminiscent of music heard previously.  The fanfares return abruptly, but then so does the subdued, lyrical music.  The rest of the movement examines the two themes in alternating episodes, recasting the ideas in different harmonizations and combinations of instruments, turning the motives upside down, and changing the volume and overall mood.  After one final buildup like the beginning, the piece ends with great fanfare and flourish.

With so much emotion and variety, it is hard to imagine a composer filled with self-doubt composing such confident music, but Symphony No. 4 was the first of Bruckner’s symphonies to achieve significant public success, and remains among his most popular and frequently performed works. 

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2018