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Program Notes

Beethoven @ 250

Program Notes

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Ludwig van Beethoven

Despite the customary long gestation of his music, when pressed, Beethoven could work fast. In a letter to his publisher in mid-November 1806 there is no mention of the Violin Concerto as work in progress, but on December 23 it was premiered by Franz Clement, a friend of the composer and leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien. As was common with Beethoven, he made continual changes in the manuscript after the premiere until publication in 1808, but the changes were mostly in detail and not in the fundamental conception of the work.

Franz Clement was a formidable musician with a prodigious musical memory, lauded both for his technique and his impeccable intonation and musicianship. From manuscript sources it becomes clear that he tried to advise Beethoven on phrasing and the technical possibilities of the instrument, but that the composer took only some of his suggestions. In the Concerto Beethoven provided him with immense challenges, both technical and musical. In retrospect, it is clear that the Concerto was the first major violin concerto of the late Classical period, acting as a model for the subsequent works of Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Max Bruch.

The premiere, however, was not a success, nor did the work fare much better the following year. The public simply didn’t get it. The turning point for the Concerto came in 1844, when 13-year-old Joseph Joachim performed it in London with the Philharmonic Society, Mendelssohn conducting. For the occasion, the Society set aside its rule against the appearance of child prodigies. Joachim at 13 was considered a fully mature artist.

It is an amusing – and often educational – exercise in virtual time travel to put oneself in the shoes of an audience who rejected a work of art that subsequently went on to be haled as a masterpiece. So what did Beethoven’s audience object to in the Violin Concerto?

First of all, there is the sheer heft of the piece; even Mozart’s five violin concertos were significantly shorter and lightweight by comparison. Then there’s the opening; Beethoven was no newcomer to controversial openings. Was it the four repeated identical solo timpani beats that form part of the main theme that amazed Beethoven’s contemporaries? Haydn had done the same thing in the Symphony No. 103, the “Drum Roll,” but that was a symphony, not a violin concerto. At the fifth beat, the woodwinds, and particularly the oboe, chime in with a gentle melody, but the four notes return immediately, now a motto that carries over as a part of all of the subsequent themes.

The Concerto contains cadenzas for all three movements, but it also contains many cadenza-like passages. Clement’s virtuosity and pinpoint accuracy of intonation inspired the composer to give special prominence to the high E-string. The soloist’s entrance in the first movement is a telling example, and passages in all three movements occupy the instrument’s stratosphere where even Vivaldi had seldom trod.

The second movement, Larghetto, is a chorale-like gentle theme with a set of four variations. The theme is not the standard sequence of two repeated strains. Rather, it is a long melody with no internal repeats. Moreover, the soloist doesn’t simply embellish the melody with increasingly acrobatic and elaborate decoration, but rather builds the emotional intensity. Near the end of the movement, Beethoven provides a section of new material and a short cadenza, leading without a break into the Rondo Finale. This, a lively bravura movement based on a dancing folk-like theme, is the technical counterbalance to the emotional intensity of the first two movements. Brahms was to imitate the ebullient good humor in the finale of his own Violin Concerto.

One other reason for the initial rejection of Beethoven’s Concerto resides in the violin concertos of the Classical period. Like Mozart’s five concerti, these were modest – although elegant – in their requirements of the soloist. Unlike twentieth-century music lovers, who revere the music of centuries past more than contemporary music, the challenging Italian-style concerti of Vivaldi or Bach had long since become passé in nineteenth-century Vienna. Beethoven was virtually reinventing the genre, setting the stage for a rash of challenging virtuoso violin works by such performer-composers Niccoló Paganini that soon took Europe by storm.

Adagietto from
Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor
Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler, one of the last great figures of the late Romantic Movement, was at the same time one of the harbingers of twentieth-century music. His volatile, complex personality and his display of emotional and physical suffering in his music, were out of sync with the mood in turn-of-the-century Europe, which hid behind a façade of political and emotional stability. The public revered him more as a conductor of the prestigious Vienna Opera, than as a composer. Most of Mahler’s music expresses his ongoing battle with fate and the uncertainty of existence – which may explain how he could have written two of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) immediately following the birth of his second daughter. Perhaps it is our uncertainty in the future that has made Mahler’s music so popular since the mid twentieth century.

Mahler completed his Symphony No. 5 in the summer of 1902, the final work in a burst of creativity that included the six Rückert Songs. It was the first composition following his marriage to the scintillating 22-year-old Alma Schindler, the daughter of a famous Austrian landscape painter and a talented pianist and composer in her own right. Gustav and Alma had met in Paris in November 1901 and were married four months later. This marriage – which lasted for 10 stormy years until the composer’s death – was the subject of endless gossip. It was definitely considered a social advancement for Mahler, a Jew (although converted to Catholicism) from a small town in Bohemia, the backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It gave him the long-sought introduction to the intellectual elite of Vienna, including theatrical producer Alfred Roller, who became Mahler’s innovative designer at Vienna’s Hofoper.

Alma wrote out much of the orchestration of the Symphony at Gustav’s direction, and he considered it “their” music. But he was dissatisfied with the orchestration and continued to make revisions at least until 1909. According to Alma, the symphony was re-orchestrated for nearly every performance he conducted.

The Adagietto is one of Mahler’s most gentle and sublime utterances. Scored for strings and harp alone, it forms an instrumental and emotional counterpoint to the loud brassiness of the preceding three movements, supplying the comfort that has heretofore been lacking. The expansive melody, which Mahler spins out in free variations, redefines the emotional meaning of the preceding Scherzo as a desperate fling, an attempt to divert grief rather than acceptance. Both Mahler and Alma had manuscripts of this movement, which many musicians perceive as a love letter to Alma, expressing the composer’s intense feelings for his new wife.

Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)
Ottorino Respighi

Ottorino Respighi was one of the most imaginative orchestrators of the first part of the twentieth century. While most of his musical studies were undertaken in Italy, he spent two crucial years in Russia where he took lessons in orchestration from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Respighi developed a masterful technique in the use of instrumental colors and sonorities. Firmly rooted in the late-Romantic tradition, he maintained this style with only marginal influence from the revolutionary changes in music that occurred during his lifetime.

Respighi loved Rome and its history. Between 1916 and 1928 he composed three tone poems celebrating the city and its environs. Composed in 1924, Pini di Roma is the second of the three, describing four locations in the city, each of which has historical and cultural significance. Respighi provided in the score a detailed description of this programmatic music:

The Pines of the Villa Borghese (a country estate with enormous grounds belonging to one of Rome’s most notable Renaissance families): “Children playing in what are now public gardens, they mimic marching soldiers and battles, twittering and shrieking like swallows then they swarm away and the scene changes abruptly to…”

Pines near a Catacomb (the underground burial sites for the early Christians): “We see the shadows of the pines, which overhang the entrance to a catacomb. From the depths rises a mournful chant that reechoes solemnly, like a hymn, and then dies away mysteriously.”

The Pines of the Janiculum (the highest hill in Rome, but not one of the famous seven, the location of a cult worshiping the god Janus): “Moonlight and the song of a nightingale enfold the pines on the Janiculum hill with mystery. There is a thrill in the air.” The voice of the nightingale is provided by a recording.

The Pines of the Appian Way (one of the great Roman roads leading south from the city): “Misty dawn on the Appian Way. The tragic country is guarded by the solitary pines. Indistinctly, incessantly, the rhythm of innumerable steps…visions of past glories: trumpets blare, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly…in the rising sun…mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill.”

Ironically, while Respighi uses the giant pines as symbols of Rome’s ancient past, these trees are relative newcomers to the eternal city. The species was introduced from Sardinia, probably in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.

Program notes by:

Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn

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