Classical VI: Beethoven Bash

Our season finale is a Beethoven Bash, celebrating both the 250th birthday of one of history’s greatest composers and the 50th anniversary of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in the Capitol Theatre.

Ludwig van Beethoven
(December 17, 1770-March 26, 1827)
     Beethoven’s music tapped people’s emotions in ways that produced common understanding and empathy, as well as deep personal meaning. The combination of familiar musical elements such as harmony and structure with new dramatic contrasts in timbre and volume and monumental proportions served as the primary transitional force from the elegant, rational eighteenth century to the stormy, emotional nineteenth.

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
     In 1791, as Mozart’s life ended in Vienna, Beethoven’s career had just begun. His initial reputation was as a creative piano virtuoso and improviser. The premiere of his Third Piano Concerto was planned for April of 1800, but he did not finish it in time. Reviews and accounts of the actual premiere in 1803 suggest that it still wasn’t completed even then. Ignaz von Seifert, the Theater an der Wien’s conductor, turned pages for the composer/soloist and left this account:

I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs, wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set 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 concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly and he laughed heartily at the jovial supper which we ate afterwards.

     In the first movement, the orchestra presents both themes very deliberately, ending its exposition with strong chords. The piano then assumes the primary role with equal force, handling the themes easily and responding to the orchestra’s occasional interjections. The development is an interesting conversation between soloist and orchestra, with the piano generally leading the musical discussion. The conversation continues in the recapitulation, and after a cadenza the orchestra and soloist end together forcefully.
     The piano begins the second movement alone with a hushed, noble mood. The orchestra joins with a lovely response. In the middle section, one can almost hear the composer improvising on the musical material, with occasional duets with members of the orchestra. After a short cadenza, the music dies away peacefully. The beginning of the final rondo is a bit unsettled. The minor harmony creates a dramatic foundation for the energetic rhythms and flashy melodies. After a series of starts and stops, the movement finally settles into a jaunty dance, occasionally contrasted with a smoother, less intense dance. In the end, the jaunty dance is recast as a happy tune, and the concerto ends in a flourish.
     In this concerto, one can feel a bridge being built from Beethoven’s earlier music that is reminiscent of Mozart to the “heroic” works that would soon appear.

Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
     Coming only four months after the powerful and relentlessly energetic Seventh, the elegance and good humor of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony make it an interesting contrast. Its cheerful mood masks several unpleasant aspects of Beethoven’s life at the time. In addition to family problems, his health was poor, his deafness had progressed significantly, and a mysterious relationship with a woman referred to as the “Immortal Beloved” ended. Despite these trying circumstances, this Symphony is the composer’s most delightful and humorous.
     The first movement begins optimistically in full voice. While the orchestration is reminiscent of Haydn and Mozart, the more complicated harmonic vocabulary, the more active use of winds and brass, and the variety in rhythm remind us that this is Beethoven. The themes are shared freely, and the quiet ending is a delightful surprise.
     The second movement is believed to be an affectionate parody of the “chronometer” (an early version of the metronome) recently invented by Johann Maelzel. There is no evidence corroborating this story, but whatever the inspiration, the incessant “ticking” of the winds is almost comical, and the mechanical rhythms, the surprising contrasts in dynamics, and passing around of the melodic materials contribute to the humorous character.
     The third movement is a traditional minuet, seemingly presented tongue-in-cheek. It follows the typical form, though some entrances, especially in the brass, sound like the composer is poking fun at musicians who may occasionally miscount their rests. The trio features a gentle horn duet with clarinet obbligato.
     The fourth movement starts fast and soft, drawing the listener in, and then explodes in sound. A lively opening theme is contrasted by a more lyrical contrasting theme. These two are then developed for a while with the first theme eventually emerging victorious. As the recap transpires, one senses that things are winding up as expected, but the music suddenly stops as if confused which way to turn to find its way home. Then, Beethoven takes the listener (and the first theme) on a tour of harmonies, eventually settling on F major. An oddly humorous ending highlights each section in the orchestra one last time, and then confirms the piece is over with an extended final cadence.
     The premiere took place on February 12, 1814, in Vienna, in a concert that included the Seventh Symphony and his popular “Wellington’s Victory.” The reviews were not as enthusiastic as one might expect, perhaps because of the Eighth’s lighter character juxtaposed to the more extroverted Seventh. When asked why the Eighth was less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven is said to have replied, “because the Eighth is so much better.”

Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80 (“Choral Fantasy”)
     Composed right in the middle of his “Heroic” period (1803-1814), Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” is one of his more unique works. Its premiere must have been very interesting—a benefit concert in Vienna on December 22, 1808, that also included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the concert aria “Ah, perfido,” two movements of the Mass in C major, and the Fourth Piano Concerto. Beethoven wanted a flashy finale to the concert that combined the three featured sounds of the evening (piano, orchestra, and chorus), and this piece was apparently written to fulfill this purpose. According to accounts, Beethoven himself played the piano part and the opening solo offers an example of his improvisational style (at the premiere he apparently did improvise this section).
     There is some question to the authorship of the poetry used, though now generally attributed to Christoph Kuffner (1780-1846), and apparently it was written after the music for the choral parts had been composed—thus, the words had to be fitted to the music. Due to limited rehearsal time, the performance was quite below expectations—accounts mention the piece having to be stopped and restarted, with players, including the composer/pianist, getting lost on repeated sections, etc. The final choral sections have been compared to the later, more profound Ninth Symphony, and the similarities are enough to warrant it—after an opening piano cadenza, there is a set of variations carried forward by the soloist and orchestra (even with a Turkish march), culminating in the chorus singing about love, joy and universal brotherhood.
     While the connection is undeniable, it is interesting to listen to this section knowing the Ninth is still twelve to fifteen years off. It also is easy to understand the purpose of the piece—to bring a concert of monumental proportions to a fitting close. Whether viewed as a “test” piece or on its own merits, the “Choral Fantasy” is a remarkable piece of music.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2019