Full program notes:
Beethoven Marathon: A new path
In May 1803 Beethoven had just come through a devastating experience—the realization that he was going deaf had driven him to the verge of suicide—but he resumed work, and life. To a friend, Beethoven confided: “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.” Over the next six months, he sketched a massive new symphony, the Third.
Beethoven had intended to dedicate this symphony to Napoleon, whose reforms in France had seemed to signal a new age of egalitarian justice. But when the news reached Beethoven that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor, the composer ripped the title page off the score of the symphony and blotted out Napoleon’s name, angrily crying: “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!” Just as Napoleon transformed the landscape of nineteenth- century Europe, the forces unleashed by Beethoven’s Third Symphony transformed music forever.
Today’s program pairs the revolutionary Eroica with two works in which Beethoven seems to reference his predecessors: the Eighth Symphony, which bears hints of Haydn and Mozart, and the Third Piano Concerto, often compared to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Opus 93
The Eighth Symphony has always seemed out of place in the progression of Beethoven’s symphonies. It comes after the dramatic Fifth, expansive Sixth, and powerful Seventh, and it precedes the grand Ninth. Within this sequence, the Eighth seems all wrong: it is brief, relaxed, and—in form and its use of a small orchestra—apparently a conscious throwback to the manner of Haydn and Mozart. The Eighth is one of those rare things: a genuinely funny piece of music, full of high spirits, what (at first) seem wrong notes, unusual instrumental sounds and sly jokes.
allegro vivace. The symphony explodes to life with a six-note figure stamped out by the whole orchestra; this figure will give rhythmic impulse to the opening movement and function as its central melodic idea. This music seems always to be pressing forward, sometimes spilling over itself with scarcely-restrained power, sometimes erupting violently.
allegretto scherzando; tempo di menuetto. The Allegretto scherzando brings some of the symphony’s most clever moments. Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel had invented a metronome, and the woodwinds’ steady tick-tick-tick at the beginning is Beethoven’s rendering of the metronome’s sound. Over this mechanical ticking, the violins dance happily until the music suddenly explodes in short bursts of rapidly played notes. In the Tempo di menuetto Beethoven delights in unexpected twists. The trio section of this movement brings a moment of unexpected beauty as a mysterious, romantic horn solo takes the lead in the middle of the standard, stately form.
allegro vivace. The blistering finale is full of humor. Racing violins present the main idea, and this opening section zips to what should be a moment of repose on the strings’ unison C, but Beethoven slams that C aside with a crashing C-sharp, and the symphony heads off in the “wrong” key. The jokes come so quickly in this movement that many of them pass unnoticed: the “wrong” notes, the “oom-pah” transitions scored for just timpani and bassoon, and so forth. The ending brings the best joke of all, for the coda refuses to quit. Finally—finally!— Beethoven wrenches this most good-natured and energetic music to a resounding close.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Concerto No. 3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 37
We have seen the impact of Mozart’s piano concertos on Beethoven, and many have noted the particular influence of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 on Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto—both in the key of C minor. Both concertos begin with the same quiet rise and fall on the notes of a C-minor chord. The influence of Mozart can be felt in many other ways, particularly in the imaginative writing for solo woodwinds. But this music is at the same time unmistakably the work of Beethoven: in the choice of C minor, a key he reserved for his most dramatic music; in the aggressive, edgy quality of the first movement; and in the virtuosity of the solo part.
Beethoven barely finished work on the concerto in time for the premiere. He played from his manuscript and asked the young conductor at the Theater an der Wien, Ignaz von Seyfried, to turn pages for him. Seyfried later remembered how harrowing that experience had been: “I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most on one page or the other a few Egyptian hieroglyphics, wholly unintelligible to me, scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory....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. He laughed heartily at the jovial supper we had afterwards.”
Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, Eroica
Early audiences were dumbfounded by Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Wrote one reviewer: “This long composition, extremely difficult of performance, is in reality a tremendously expanded, daring and wild fantasia. It lacks nothing in the way of startling and beautiful passages, in which the energetic and talented composer must be recognized; but often it loses itself in lawlessness....The reviewer belongs to Herr Beethoven’s sincerest admirers, but in this composition he must confess that he finds too much that is glaring and bizarre, which hinders greatly one’s grasp of the whole, and a sense of unity is almost completely lost.” It is easy to smile at such reactions, but they reflect the confusion of listeners in the face of a genuinely revolutionary work of art.
The Eroica explodes to life with two whip-cracks in E-flat major, followed immediately by the main idea in the cellos. This slightly-swung theme is simply built on the notes of an E-flat major chord, but the theme settles on a “wrong” note, C-sharp, and the resulting harmonic complications will be resolved only after much violence. This violence releases what Beethoven’s biographer Maynard Solomon calls “hostile energy” into what had been the polite world of the classical symphony. This truly is a “heroic” movement—it raises serious issues, and in music of unparalleled drama and scope it resolves them.
The second movement is a funeral march, something else entirely new in symphonic music. Violins announce the grieving main idea over growling basses, and the music makes its somber way along the tread of this dark theme. The propulsive scherzo erupts in its center section on a series of brilliant, hunting horn calls. The finale movement is a theme-and-variation style, and Beethoven transforms this old form into a grand conclusion worthy of a heroic symphony. After an opening flourish, he presents not the theme but a bass line played by pizzicato strings. Once the theme appears, it travels through a series of dazzling variations before reaching a moment of poise and reflection, and then a brief pause gives a breath as the Eroica hurtles to its close.
The Eroica may have stunned its first audiences, but audiences today run the greater risk of forgetting how revolutionary this music is. What seemed “lawlessness” to early audiences must now be seen as an extraordinary leap to an entirely new conception of what music could be. It is no surprise the composers over the next century would make full use of this freedom. Nor is it a surprise to learn that late in life—at a time when he had written eight symphonies—Beethoven named the Eroica as his own favorite among his symphonies.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings