Program Notes: Beethoven and Rachmaninoff

Program Notes: Beethoven and Rachmaninoff

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Full program notes:

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opus 21

Felix Mendelssohn grew up in the most cultivated household in Berlin, and it is a measure of the Mendelssohn family’s sophistication that one of their recreations was reading Shakespeare’s plays together in the Schlegel-Tieck German translation. Fanny Mendelssohn later remembered the impact of one play in particular: “We were saying yesterday what an important part the Midsummer Night’s Dream has always played in our home ... We were really brought up on the Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Felix especially made it his own...”

Felix indeed “made it his own” during the summer of 1826, when the 17-year-old composer wrote an overture to that play that remains today the finest music ever inspired by Shakespeare.

Young Mendelssohn captured the spirit of Shakespeare’s play perfectly. The instant this music begins, we feel ourselves transported to the woods outside Athens, where Puck flits mischievously through the forest, the “rude mechanicals” rehearse their play and lovers are mysteriously transformed.

The beginning is magic. Four soft chords lift us into the land of make-believe, and a glistening rush in the violins suggests the gossamer flickering of tiny wings. All seems set when, over heavy stamping, the orchestra shouts out a vigorous tune that ends with a great hee-haw. This is the braying of Bottom, the rustic actor who is transformed into an ass. A cascade of shining chords leads to a surprise—a false ending—and after returning to the flickering “fairyland” of the beginning, the Overture vanishes on the same four chords with which it began.

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Concerto No. 1 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792, not quite 22 years old and completely unknown. Though he wanted to be a composer, he established himself first as a pianist in his adopted city. The Viennese, used to a gentler keyboard style, were amazed by the power and expressiveness of Beethoven’s playing, and he made his early reputation in Vienna for his ability to improvise.

Beethoven may have been a confident pianist, but as a composer he was much less sure of himself, particularly with the specter of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos behind him. Mozart had raised the piano concerto from a mere entertainment vehicle to the sophisticated and expressive form in which he composed some of his greatest music, and Beethoven recognized that any concerto he wrote would have to meet that standard. Not surprisingly, the influence of Mozart’s piano concertos can be felt very firmly in Beethoven’s First, premiered in 1798.

The First Piano Concerto’s opening movement, marked Allegro con brio, begins very quietly with the simplest of figures; yet seconds later this very figure thunders to life with all the power one expects from Beethoven. Violins sing the flowing second subject, and then the piano enters with entirely new material. The writing for piano here is graceful and accomplished, but—as in Mozart’s concertos—not particularly virtuosic: the emphasis is on musical values as an end in themselves rather than on virtuosic display.

Solo piano opens the Largo with that movement’s main idea, melodic and extremely ornate; the solo clarinet assumes an important role in this movement with a part so expressive that at moments the music is reminiscent of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Solo piano again opens the concluding Allegro scherzando, and its lively rondo tune is quickly answered by the boisterous orchestra. Along the way, Beethoven offers the soloist two brief cadenzas.

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born: April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia
Died: March 28,1943, Beverly Hills, California

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27

One of the most surprising things about Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony is that it was written at all. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was a debacle, plunging the composer into a depression so profound that he wrote nothing for several years thereafter. It wasn’t just that the public didn’t like it, or the critics, or his friends, or his colleagues. No one liked it, including its own author. A long series of treatments involving hypnosis by a Dr. Dahl brought him to the point where he could write his Second Piano Concerto, completed in 1900. But it was ten years before Rachmaninoff could face the prospect of writing another symphony. And at first, he told no one about his endeavor.

a success from the start

He had moved to Dresden at the time, in the fall of 1906, to escape the demands of public life in Moscow, where he was in constant demand as a pianist, conductor, committeeman, guest and collaborator on all things musical. The stately old city, where Rachmaninoff and his wife had spent their honeymoon several years earlier, appealed strongly to the composer. Also, the peace and anonymity he found in Dresden were conducive to artistic creativity. His Second Symphony was fully sketched by New Year’s Day of 1907. Revisions and orchestration took place over a longer period, both back home in Russia and during a return visit to Dresden. Rachmaninoff conducted the first performance, which took place on January 26, 1908, in St. Petersburg. He also led the Moscow premiere a week later, as well as an early American performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in November 1909. In each case the audience responded enthusiastically, and the symphony has enjoyed an unbroken run of popularity to this day.

The score was published in 1908, but then the manuscript went missing for nearly a century. Musical sleuths rejoiced when, in September of 2004, it turned up in a cellar in Switzerland. Until then, it was the only Rachmaninoff manuscript not accounted for, making it all the more tantalizing as a prize find. Rachmaninoff specialist Geoffrey Norris notes that “quite apart from the score’s potential monetary value, its significance for musicians and scholars is priceless, because, with the hundreds of emendations, crossings-out and annotations that Rachmaninoff made on the manuscript, it gives clues to his earlier thoughts on the symphony, possibly revised in the light of performances he conducted in Moscow and St. Petersburg before publication.”

the music

largo – allegro moderato. Most of the symphony’s melodic material derives from a single motif, heard in the opening bars in the somber colors of low cellos and basses. In a multifarious variety of guises and transformations, this “motto” haunts the entire symphony in both obvious and subtle ways, infusing it with coherence and compelling impetus. After its initial statement, the motto passes to other instruments, eventually giving birth to a sinuous violin phrase, which grows to an impressive climax as it weaves its way through lushly orchestrated textures and luxuri- ant counterpoint. Following the slow introduction, the main Allegro moderato section of the movement is ushered in with a shivering, rising figure in the strings. Violins then spin out a long, winding, aspiring theme based on the motto. The delicate, gentle second theme, divided between woodwinds and responding strings, also derives from the motto.

allegro molto. The second movement, a scherzo, is built on the motif of the Dies Irae, the medieval Gregorian chant for the dead. Four horns in unison proclaim a boldly exuberant version of the Dies Irae, which itself has its seeds in the symphony’s motto. (This motif was used in the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.) Two contrasting ideas of note are the warmly flowing lyrical theme for the violins and a brilliant fugato section that demands the utmost in virtuosity from

adagio. The third movement is one of the lyric highlights of all Rachmaninoff. No fewer than three gorgeous melodies are heard, beginning with one of the most popular ever written. Following immediately on this theme of great repose and tranquility comes one of the glories of the solo clarinet repertory—an extended theme full of ardent longing.

allegro vivace. The enormously energetic finale too is a broadly expansive movement, beginning with a boisterously robust idea that might easily conjure up the spirit of a carnival. This is followed by a dark, grim, march-like episode, then by another of Rachmaninoff’s most famous themes—a magnificent, soaring affair that sweeps onward over an expanse of more than one hundred measures. Rachmaninoff’s longest, grandest, most expansive symphonic work ends in a veritable blaze of sound.


Minnesota Orchestra Staff