|Beethoven's Epic Eroica|
Die schöne Melusine (The Fair Melusine) Overture, Op. 32
The story of the Fair Melusine crops up in various guises folklore and in literature (Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid), music history (Dvorák’s opera Rusalka) and even Disney (The Little Mermaid). The Austrian dramatist and poet Franz Grillparzer used the legend as the basis for a libretto, which he initially offered to Beethoven, who rejected it. After Beethoven's death Conradin Kreutzer, a minor Austrian composer took it up for his opera Melusine.
Melusine is a mermaid who marries the Count of Lusignan in the hope that he will not discover her real form. He swears to let her leave alone once a month, but he disobeys and follows her to a lake where he discovers her secret. Upon losing his love, he throws himself into the lake and drowns.
Mendelssohn attended Melusine in Berlin during the spring of 1833 and while he liked the subject, he disliked the music intensely, especially the overture. Resolving he could do better, he composed his own overture, in which he utilized his talent for musical seascapes expressed in his two previous overtures, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828) and The Hebrides (1830).
Mendelssohn was the acknowledged master of the concert overture. His overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed when he was just 16, was immediately recognized as a groundbreaking work of genius and was featured on concert programs conducted by Mendelssohn throughout his life. This and his subsequent concert overtures are prototypes of the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. They were able to capture the essence of a narrative so that the listener who knew the story could hear it unfold without words. Oddly, however, Mendelssohn’s attempts at opera met with considerably less success. Youthful works written to entertain his family soirées were never performed in public, and he left behind several incomplete attempts.
The theme that opens and closes the Overture has a folk ballad quality. The lilting, sinuous accompaniment was adapted by Richard Wagner in the prelude to Das Rheingold to depict the flow of the Rhine. & In contrast is a dark, passionate theme portending the tragic denouement, and a third as a desperate wailing of remorse . Since such overtures conformed to the convention of symphonic sonata form, we hear the essence of the narrative in the exposition; the role of the development is to intensify the emotions raised in the exposition.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart|
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
Mozart composed a total of 28 solo keyboard concertos, most of them for his own use in subscription concerts in Vienna. Consequently, the timing of their composition was influenced by the artistic fashions and the economic well-being of the city. For five years after Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, he was a hot commodity both as composer and virtuoso performer. Commissions were coming in like a flood, and he was able to live quite high off the hog. Thus, in the short period between 1782 and 1786, with a booming economy creating a heyday for musical life in Vienna, Mozart composed 17 of these concertos, including this one in D minor. During those years aristocratic families vied with one another to underwrite and sponsor concerts of the latest in musical fashion. “Concertos,” Mozart wrote his father, “are a happy medium between what is too hard and too easy...pleasing to the ear...without being vapid.”
But occasionally darker moods prevailed. This Concerto is one of only two he wrote in a minor key. It is full of stormy outbursts and is probably the most emotionally charged of all of Mozart's concerti. Not surprisingly, the young Beethoven was particularly taken with this Concerto, wrote two cadenzas for it, and performed it as the intermission feature in a performance of Mozart's opera La clemenza di Tito at a concert organized by Mozart's widow, Constanza, on March 31, 1795.
The composition and part-copying of the concerto were not completed until the afternoon of the premiere on February 11, 1785, and thus performed without a complete rehearsal and, at place, at sight! According to a letter of Leopold Mozart, the composer's father, the orchestra nevertheless played splendidly.
Right from the growling syncopated opening measures we know we’re in for a wild ride. The orchestra then introduces the obligatory second theme in the major but returns to the minor with a motive that will recur throughout the movement. After the orchestra’s exposition, Mozart has the piano enter on a completely new theme instead of having the soloist slavishly repeat the exposition. The piano also introduces a new secondary theme, this time clearly establishing the major mode. It is this new theme that shifts the entire emotional tone of the movement into a brighter more optimistic vein that includes taking up the initial themes in the major, suggesting something of a battle for modal supremacy between orchestra and soloist. Rapid variations in orchestral dynamics suggest a Haydn symphony, and the movement has many of the erratic and stormy characteristics that Mozart was later to use in the Overture to Don Giovanni. To intensify the mood, Mozart makes an uncharacteristically abundant use of the timpani (another characteristic more likely to be found in Haydn).
In the second movement, entitle “Romance,” the emotional temperature has suddenly dropped far below the level Mozart normally invests in the slow movements of his concerti. A second section introduces a new theme with a return to the opening. Only the middle section, now back in g minor, his chosen key for pathos and tragedy, recalls the mood of the opening movement, including the same use of syncopation as in the opening bars of the Concerto. Of course, the ABA song form so common in slow movements requires the return to the mood of the opening.
The rondo finale with its almost shrieking theme from the piano takes up where the first left off. Mozart was often given to creating thematic unity in his works by repeating small motives or even intervals in the different movements of a work. In the d minor Concerto, he both recalls the syncopations of the opening and recalls the opening piano theme of the first movement, this time in a different rhythm. Mozart again plays with numerous swings between minor and major. In the end, he both obeys and thumbs his nose at the convention against ending large works in the minor mode. Although he concludes the coda in a triumphant fanfare in D major, he inserts an ominous timpani roll into the final bars.
Ludwig van Beethoven
|Ludwig van Beethoven|
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, Eroica
Few musical manuscripts have elicited so much musicological discussion as has Beethoven’s personal conductor’s copy of his Symphony No. 3. The story of its original dedication to Napoleon, the chief military defender of the French Revolution with its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and the subsequent violent erasure of the dedication when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, has been told time and again.
Reality, however, is often more complex than history books would make it appear. Beethoven was clearly disgusted at Napoleon’s coronation, exclaiming: “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man...become a tyrant.” But his disappointment was tinged in no small part by self-interest. Hoping at the time to establish a foothold in the musical life of Paris, the composer had planned to travel there with his mentor, Prince Lobkowitz, using the premiere of the Symphony as a passport to the French capital. Napoleon’s coup, and the resultant political upheavals, disrupted these plans and are the probable reason why the Symphony, finished at the beginning of 1804, did not receive its premiere in Vienna until a year later.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Symphony is how Beethoven – who had surprising difficulty coming up with melodies – was able to make so much out of so little. The opening theme is nothing more than an arpeggiated e-flat major chord; the Scherzo theme is a descending E-flat major chord; the Scherzo theme is a descending E-flat major scale; and the theme for the Finale is a simple bass pattern that he had used three times previously – in the Piano Variations, Op. 35, in one of his Contredanses (WoO 14, no. 7) and in the grand finale of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 – repeated beneath a set of spectacular variations. Only the second movement, the Funeral March, begins with a fully formed theme.
It is hard for us today to appreciate the revolutionary impact of this symphony on Vienna’s audience. The constantly modulating keys, rhythmic shifts, large dynamic leaps and unfamiliar harmonies baffled Beethoven’s friendly but conservative public, and the reception was anything but enthusiastic. It took a few years for the Viennese to warm to this innovative work.
Although it would take many pages of in-depth musical analysis to explain what was so different and disturbing about this Symphony, here are some highlights that we now take for granted after over 200 years of development and change in Western music.
To begin with, there is the sheer length and scope of the work. The first movement alone is longer than anything that had been written up to this time. And then there's Beethoven's treatment of themes. The opening of the Symphony contains as its first theme that simple E-flat major arpeggio, but appended to it one note that propels it into greatness. What follows is a complex and, at times, astonishing key structure, whose wanderings and surprises blur the distinctions between the parts of sonata form. The movement contains no less than seven themes (some people count more). Here are the ones that Beethoven later develops. & The development section, however, introduces an entirely new theme in the minor mode that never appeared in the exposition. Even though the theme is short, the change in mode is particularly stunning in view of the overwhelming number of major themes in the exposition. The movement's most significant surprise, however, is the appearance of the three-minute coda in a distant key.
The Andante, entitled “Funeral March for a Hero,” counters even the most poignant Mozartian second movement with a totally novel level of emotional intensity and grandeur. Its middle section transcends tragedy to arrive at the triumph that gives the Symphony its moniker. The Scherzo – an earlier Beethoven invention to replace the sometimes stately, sometimes thumping minuets of Mozart and Haydn – consists of a theme that is nothing more than a slightly decorated descending major scale. Its trio scored for a sections solo for the horns.
Instead of creating a sprightly and upbeat rondo in the style of his predecessors, Beethoven gives a weight and importance to the Finale that would inspire both his own future symphonic writing (culminating in the Ninth Symphony) and that of his successors. The theme is nothing more then a skeleton, actually more a ground bass than a true melody. The variations that constitute this lengthy movement are also new in structure. Whereas most sets of variations move steadily from the simple to the complex, Beethoven was less interested in bravura and ornamentation than in giving each variation its own mood, for which he also employed an innovative use of orchestral solos and ensembles. The first few variations are conventional, reinforcing the theme. Then Beethoven relegates the theme to the bass, where it really belongs, the oboe melody over it sounding more like a true theme. In fact, this was the theme Beethoven reused in The Creatures of Prometheus, mentioned above. While variation forms had tended to be somewhat static, adhering throughout to a single key and the same length as the theme, Beethoven includes variations in different keys and lengths, for example, this little fugue. He even breaks away from the variations altogether in the middle of the movement. Most important, however, is that the climax of the movement is not created by means of faster and faster demonstrations of technical virtuosity, but rather through increasing emotional intensity and grandeur.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2011|