Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mozart's Cold Weather & Mendelssohn's Sunny Italy

Vienna's Mozart Monument - in the snow...
This weekend's Masterworks Concert features Stuart Malina playing Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor (K.466) and Bohuslav Martinů's Sinfonietta La Jolla - you can read more about both of these works in the previous post - as well as conducting the Italian Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn on the second half - tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 3pm. Assistant Conductor Gregory Woodbridge will assist by conducting the Martinů. Dick Strawser offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.
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So you think it's cold, now?

When Mozart finished writing the D Minor Piano Concerto Stuart Malina both plays and conducts this weekend, “Vienna suffered a cold spell that lasted until the beginning of March, with heavy snowfall and temperatures so low that several people froze to death.”

Farm Show Weather aside – and that usually meant nasty amounts of snow in years past – a high barely 20° is one thing (at least Sunday's is expected to, if we're lucky, reach the Freezing Point), but the wind chills we've been experiencing across much of the country bring to mind that meteorological villain from last year, Paula Vortex...

While I'm not sure if musicologists have studied the impact of Central Heating on Concert Halls in late-18th Century Vienna, Volkmar Braunbehrens continues describing that cold February of 1785 in his book, “Mozart in Vienna”:

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“Despite the weather, Mozart's piano had to be taken out of the house to a concert every other day. ...In late March and early April there was again heavy snowfall, and Leopold Mozart [who was visiting his son at this busy time] contracted a severe cold. Yet attendance at the opera, theater, and [Masonic] lodge functions continued, all in miserable weather.”
– (Volkmar Braunbehrens: Mozart in Vienna (1781-1791). R. Piper, Munich, 1986. Timothy Bell, translator)
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Two friends shooting the freeze...
Knowing Mozart himself was dealing with bitter cold temperatures 230 years ago might not make us feel any better today, but certainly the music on this program should help warm us up as we head into the Forum or make the drive home. I rather doubt any carriage the Mozarts had access to back then was any warmer than a modern automobile.

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Mendelssohn was not only inspired by his visit to sunny Italy in 1830 to write what became his 4th Symphony – for once, the nickname “Italian,” so obvious, was given to it by the composer – much of it was composed while he was there.

That summer, Mendelssohn had begun another long, leisurely tour comparable to his trip that took him to England and Scotland the year before, where he'd stood in Mary Queen of Scot's chapel in Edinburgh and wrote down a theme that eventually found its way into his “Scottish” Symphony and where he experienced an enormous cave off the coast of the Hebrides where he wrote a letter home and added a theme that soon became the opening of Fingal's Cave.

Returning to the Continent, he was already at work on a new symphony – the one, however, that would become known as the “Reformation.”

After stopping in Weimar to visit Goethe, the 21-year-old composer left Munich where he composed his 1st Piano Concerto and then, by way of Milan where he met Mozart's son Karl who was a diplomat living there (and whose friends had very low opinions of Shakespeare's comedies, the lowest reserved for A Midsummer Night's Dream), arrived in Venice in early October. He went to Bologna and Florence with the idea of spending the winter in Rome where he arrived at the beginning of November.

View of the Cathedral of Florence, late October, watercolor by Felix Mendelssohn

“Like all fugitives from the dank north,” according to George Marek's biography, Gentle Genius: the Story of Felix Mendelssohn, “he marveled at the blue skies of Tuscany, the wealth of flowers still blooming, the opulence of the villas and palaces.”

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(...in this YouTube posting, chosen more for the images than anything else, the name of the conductor is not mentioned: it appears to be the Budapest Philharmonic and, if you follow enough links, a recording conducted by Rico Saccani)
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Once settled in Rome, he wrote home about his “small, two-window house on the Spanish Steps, No. 5. The sun shines warmly the whole day long. In my room on the first floor there is a good Viennese piano. ...When in the morning I come into this room and the sun sparkles brightly on my breakfast (in me a poet was lost), I feel wonderful at once. Is it not late autumn? Who at home would dare to ask for warm, clear skies, grapes or flowers? After breakfast, I set to work, I play and sing and compose until midday. After that, the whole immeasurable Rome lies before me like an exercise in enjoyment.”

And it was here – then – that he began work on the greatest souvenir one could imagine from such a journey, his Symphony in A Major, the one called “The Italian Symphony.”

One of the things I'll mention in my pre-concert talk an hour before each performance will be another detail of his visit to Rome – how he met the young French composer, Hector Berlioz, who was revising his newest work, which, rather than being called “Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 14,” has always been known as the Symphonie fantastique.

This caricature of Berlioz was drawn in Rome, so at least it's a fairly representative view of that composer at the time he and Mendelssohn were sitting in the taverns drinking wine and sharing their views on Shakespeare and modern music. Some sources indicate the caricature is Mendelssohn's own, but others don't mention it, so I'm not really sure. Regardless of their aesthetic differences, they became good friends and Berlioz always championed Mendelssohn's music to the readers of his Paris newspaper and Mendelssohn frequently conducted Berlioz's music in Germany and London even though he professed to not understanding it.

Curiously, it took Mendelssohn a while to finish this symphony of his: while in Rome, he'd left the slow movement go, hoping to find some inspiration when he went even further south to visit Naples (which he did). But still, the work wasn't completed until he returned to Berlin, struggling with it until 1833. Though he conducted it several times, he never published it, meaning to revise it. He did re-work the first movement but always meant to get back to the rest of it. He never conducted it in Germany and in fact never published the work in his lifetime, always dissatisfied with it!

Odd, for a work so many music-lovers as well as critics find to be, in a word, “perfect.”

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mozart, Martinů - and Mendelssohn, too

(This weekend's program includes a familiar piano concerto by Mozart and a frequently played symphony by Mendelssohn as well as a little-known work by Bohuslav Martinů. This post is about the Martinů and the Mozart. You can read more about Mozart and Mendelssohn in this post.)

If the idea of “Farm Show Weather” is enough to strike fear in your heart, at least the forecast isn't calling for any snow (knock on plastic-laminated artificial wood substitute). And it is supposed to be warmer on Sunday, even though the forecast high is only at the freezing point...

So if this cold weather has you thinking about taking a trip to warmer places (which at this point might not include Florida), join us this weekend for a concert that starts off in Southern California and ends up in sunny Italy!

And Stuart Malina will be back on the piano bench for one of Mozart's most famous piano concertos.

You can come in out of the cold this Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg – in fact, come by an hour early and warm up with my pre-concert talk before each performance!

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Bohuslav Martinů
If you're like the average classical music lover, you may have looked over the selections on this weekend's concert and thought, “Martin Who?”

Mozart and Mendelssohn certainly need no introduction, but what about this other guy – and what's he doing in La Jolla?

It's the bonus on this program – not just a little-known delight by the equally little-known and generally delightful Czech-born composer Bohuslav Martinů, but a mini-piano-concerto to open the concert with the maestro at the keyboard, as if he needs a warm-up before playing one of the major concertos in the repertoire.

Anyway, in 1950, Martinů composed a short new work for the Musical Arts Association of La Jolla, California, a coastal suburb of San Diego. It was premiered there that fall. They'd asked him for a work for chamber orchestra that was “short, light-hearted, and tuneful” and he responded with what isn't quite a full-blown piano concerto with small orchestra (it's usually described as a “concertante” piece in which the piano, more a part of the orchestra, has a part not quite as soloistic as a traditional concerto). And so he entitled the piece “Sinfonietta La Jolla.”

There's a good performance from a live concert I wanted to post but they managed to lop off the last movement's final few seconds – !!! – so instead, here's a sequence of clips of each individual movement (sorry, just cover art for the graphic – no orchestra to watch...).



( This is a recording with the State Chamber Orchestra of Žilina in northern Slovakia, conducted by Jan Valta, with pianist Maria Singerova, available on the Red Note OMP label. There are other and possibly better recordings available but this is what I could find on YouTube today.)

So, who is Bohuslav Martinů? (And, btw, the ů is a diacritical mark in Czech much like the ř we see (or ought to see) in Dvořák; called an “overring,” basically it means the u is pronounced long, as in fool, when, otherwise, it would be short, as in push).

He was born in the village church tower, where his father was the town watchman and tower keeper. This was an apartment 193 steps above the street so, considering the 12 steps in my home's stairway, I'm guessing that's like a 16th-floor walk-up! But you can read more about his biography, here.

Martinů (2nd/ L), Family & Friends
A prolific composer, Martinů would be classified as a “neo-classical” composer, his style direct, his textures lean and his language well structured but easily discernible and, comforting to those who don't know his music, tonal.

I add this because many people I've known, when faced with an unfamiliar composer from the first half of the 20th Century – one who hails from Central Europe, came of age in Paris in the '20s and went on to teach at no less an intellectually daunting place like Princeton – might assume the worst. Call it “musical profiling.”

And if you want to find out how Stuart Malina discovered Martinů's music, ask him at the “Talk Back” Q&A session after the concert!

By the way, while the “Sinfonietta La Jolla” can be conducted from the keyboard, Stuart told me that he decided – as if the Mozart wasn't challenge enough – to have assistant conductor Gregory Woodbridge stand on the podium in this one (well, more than just stand there...).

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While I'm sure Woodbridge would rather be doing the Mozart, concertos in Mozart's day were designed to be “conducted” by the soloists because conductors hadn't yet been invented, at least in the sense we think of them today. Orchestras were not as big as they are now and the sense of chamber music's intimacy was easier to manage.

It still amazes me (even if it didn't surprise me) to have seen Stuart conducting Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Concerto from the keyboard (as this practice is generally called) – not to mention his party piece, Gershwin's “Rhapdsody in Blue” – and turning it into a grandly expanded piano quintet with maybe fifty or more players rather than just four...

That's one of the things I've always enjoyed about their collaborations – this orchestra knows how to listen (very important in chamber music not only for entrances and balance), they know how to anticipate what Stuart as a conductor might now do as a soloist, and they know he has the confidence in them to leave them on their own when his hands are otherwise involved.

First of all, it's a piece he says he'd grown up playing, “one of my two or three favorites. It’s been in my head a long time.”

So what is this “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K.466”? It doesn't have a nickname which is surprising, considering its dramatic nature, so this number, this key and this odd “K.466” thing all sounds very intimidating.

The K. numbers in Mozart are a way of identifying individual pieces in the catalog of his complete works put together by a fellow named Köchel. While there could be a number of concertos in the key of D Minor – there aren't, in this case – the #466 narrows it down to one specific work. In fact, musicians often break these titles down into bits of code – “oh yes, we're playing 466 this weekend!”

What is the importance of the “key,” the pitches around which a piece is composed? We often make the overly simplistic distinction that a major key sounds “happy” and a minor key sounds “sad,” though a lot more would go into recreating that sense in a listener's response to it.

D Minor was a key that had a very specific “sound” for Mozart and he associated it with a specific emotion, one very dramatic and often very dark, even demonic (the fact I'm using all these “d”-words is not a coincidence). Just listening to the opening of this concerto, if you could do so with Viennese ears atuned to the mid-1780s, you would also probably find it disconcerting and... what's a word for “off-putting” that begins with d...?

The Viennese liked their music to entertain them. For one thing, they didn't expect to be required to think while listening to music. And they certainly preferred their music with “happy endings.” That's why most of the music being written at this time was written in major keys. Minor keys were just too sad and serious and, after all, who wants to deal with that when you're out to be entertained?

Mozart
Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos – only two are in minor keys: this one and No. 24 in C Minor. Neither were very popular with Viennese audiences at the time.

Mozart also composed over 41 symphonies, though most of them are not the “major works” we usually expect a symphony to be. But of those symphonies, only two are in minor keys – and they're both in G Minor, which was another key that had emotional implications for Mozart. This was his “tragic” key – and I doubt if someone transposed Pamina's heart-rending aria “Ah, ich fühl's” to F Minor it would have the same emotional impact (at least to Mozart).

The first movement of this concerto is definitely sinister, uncertain – these odd syncopations, the ominous rumblings in the bass (remember also the opening of Beethoven's “Funeral March” in his Eroica Symphony) and the deep register all create a mood.

Curiously it's a mood he would recreate in his opera Don Giovanni two years later where the key of D Minor is associated with the supernatural Statue of the late Commendatore who comes back from beyond the grave to claim his murderer's soul – how spooky is that?!

The 2nd Movement is decidedly a contrast but even in the middle of this lyrical diversion is a dramatically contrasting middle section – in the key of G Minor.

The 3rd Movement begins with a dramatic upward gesture – a cliché of the era known as a “Manheim Rocket” – that sets off an uncertain and troubled-sounding finale. Yet within this group of ideas we hear something comparably child-like and decidedly “happy.” It will eventually be this idea the concerto concludes with, ultimately a happy ending, almost as if Mozart were winking at the audience, sitting through all this drama, to say “see? It's only make-believe, after all.”

In this performance, Daniel Harding conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with pianist Lars Vogt:

(The 2nd Movement begins at 14:10; the 3rd, at 23:10.)
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It's not surprising that, in the 19th Century with its blood-and-guts emotional response to music – called “Romanticism” for lack of a less vague word – both this D Minor Concerto and Don Giovanni were two works that kept Mozart's reputation alive.

And then there's the Requiem – a work left incomplete at his death at the age of 35 – which you would expect to be “sad” but which is also in D Minor. Coincidence?

Curiously there have been associations suggested by arm-chair psychologists in the past century that each of these works have some association with his father, the easily abused Leopold Mozart.

But I'll get more into that at my pre-concert talk, an hour before each performance. (Have to leave something to talk about...)

Suffice it to say, Mozart's D Minor Concerto was a favorite of Beethoven's when he was a promising young piano virtuoso in Vienna in the decade after Mozart's death. He was just one of several pianists who left cadenzas for it in their works – others being Mozart's student Hummel (once one of the great pianists of his day and an equally acclaimed composer now forgotten) as well as Brahms and Clara Schumann, all of whom played this concerto frequently.

In this weekend's performance, Stuart Malina has chosen Beethoven's cadenza in the first movement and Hummel's for the finale.

So, what's a cadenza and why isn't it by Mozart?

Technically, the term comes from the “cadence” that is left incomplete near the end of (usually) the first movement of a concerto. “Cadence” is a harmonic progression of chords leading to the fulfillment of the tension it creates, establishing the home or “tonic” key (the root of classical tonality).

Usually, the orchestra “builds up” to the next-to-the-last chord which leaves the listener hanging – what will this chord resolve to? It is up to the soloist, then, to extend this anticipation further by improvising an extended passage based on the composer's themes. Each performer would thus create something virtuosic that would be different and, presumably, fresh at each performance. The object then was to end triumphantly on the tonic chord, bringing in the orchestra for concluding passage, wrapping everything up in a nice, neat package.

Now, Mozart wrote out cadenzas for some of his concertos, but not this one. Other performers, as I mentioned, wrote out theirs for posterity (or at least for their less adventuresome colleagues). Keep in mind Mozart was an acclaimed improviser and that was really what set Beethoven apart in his first years in Vienna – his skills at improvising virtuosic variation after variation on someone else's theme.

Today, when improvisation is a skill no longer expected in our soloists, it's traditional to play someone else's cadenzas. But that was not the original intent and well into the 19th Century it was a mark of the soloist's creative virtuosity to be able to make something like that up on the spot. These days, few performers are also composers. Enough said...

Oh, and another thing to mention. This was one of four concerts Mozart completed early in 1785 for a series of concerts during the Lenten season (most such public concerts were offered only during Lent and Advent). It was completed on February 11th and premiered two days later. In fact, Mozart's father wrote home that Mozart was so busy supervising the last-minute copying, he had no time to run through the last movement before the only rehearsal. Talk about “under the wire”...

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Star-Cross'd Lovers: Part 2 with Bernstein's "West Side Story"

There's a place for you at the Harrisburg Symphony Masterworks Concert this weekend, “Star-Cross'd Lovers,” includes Shakespeare-inspired music by Leonard Bernstein and Sergei Prokofiev, works that may be familiar to most concert-goers. The concert is Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg and conductor Stuart Malina will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance (as well as the post-concert talk-back Q&A and everything in between).

This post is primarily about Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story." You can read about Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo & Juliet, here.

Also on the program is a brand-new work no one's ever heard before, making it a responsibility for the performers – who can't just turn to a recording to hear “how it goes” – as well as the listeners. I wrote a little about Jeremy Gill and the whole idea of being a living composer (“making a living” is more than just “being alive”) in yesterday's post which you can read here.

But a word about our soloist, Christopher Grymes, the clarinetist for whom Jeremy Gill composed his Notturno concertante. You can read Mr. Grymes' biography here.

Christopher Grymes
You may be familiar with his playing with Concertante, the New York-based chamber ensemble, who performed regularly in the past here in Harrisburg, and with Market Square Concerts' Summermusic in past seasons where he performed in Quintets for Piano & Winds by Beethoven and Mozart with pianist Stuart Malina at Market Square Church.

In her column, Art & Soul, Ellen Hughes wrote about the up-coming concert.

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Gill calls [Christopher Grymes] an incredibly conscientious musician. 'He has the kind of musical personality that can make the work uniquely his own. With Chris and Stuart, my piece couldn't be in better hands.'

Grymes has had the clarinet part since May. 'I really like it, but I won't know what it sounds like until I hear it with the full orchestra,' he said. 'It's written beautifully for the clarinet.' He's memorized his part, which is quite a feat. 'It's easier when it's been memorized. I think it uses a different area of the brain. It's more “in the moment.” I've had to develop and broaden my technique, to get so much more athletic at the top range of the instrument than ever before,' he added.
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Leonard Bernstein, conductor!
For most music lovers of a certain age (which would be much of the traditional concert hall audience these days), Leonard Bernstein was probably an important influence on our musical awareness both as a conductor and composer, especially with his “Young People's Concerts” available on television starting in 1958, as well as works like West Side Story or his dramatic performances leading the New York Philharmonic whether it was Beethoven's 5th or Shostakovich's 5th.

Chances are good that more people are familiar with music from his West Side Story than might know any of the works by Bernstein's contemporaries and colleagues combined, composers whose works he conducted and often premiered.

West Side Story became a topic for discussion in 1949, though it wasn't until the mid-50s it began to take shape, a musical that takes Shakespeare's immortal couple, the “star-cross'd lovers” Romeo and Juliet, and translated them into modern Manhattan, placing them on the Upper West Side with feuding gangs – the Sharks and the Jets – replacing the feuding families of the Montagues and the Capulets.

Ironically, much of this neighborhood was leveled in the early-60s to build what would become Lincoln Center, the new home of more than just the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein was named the philharmonic's music director in 1957, the same year West Side Story received its world premiere on Broadway.

Dance was a major part of the show – and whether you've seen the show or the movie based on it, you get a sense of how challenging the choreography is and how integral it is to the show itself. So it seemed natural that Bernstein should take some of the “best tunes” and turn them into a suite just as any composer would do with a stage work.

Oddly, though, the suite from West Side Story isn't that kind of a suite, a collection of hummable excerpts meant to bring music from the theater into the concert hall so more people would become familiar with it, creating a different and longer shelf-life compared to those who might only experience it on the stage.

Bernstein chose what dance numbers and songs he wanted for this concert work and gave it to his colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal to arrange and orchestrate. He called them “symphonic” dances not just because they were now to be played by a symphony orchestra but because, in the original sense of “symphonic,” they are developed beyond just being presented as charming tunes. They recreate the dramatic tension, perhaps, but also expand and evolve along lines the Broadway stage didn't have time for. Plus, it's basically in four parts, not quite movements, with a variety of moods and tempos, much like a four-movement symphony.

Here's a performance by Bernstein protege Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting the San Francisco Symphony at a Carnegie Hall concert in 2008:

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Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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Leonard Bernstein was a talented pianist, often conducting concertos from the keyboard (before it was considered “historically informed”) and he may well have been one of the first great “cross-over artists” between classical music and the worlds of pop and jazz.

He was dynamic, brash, opinionated and often flamboyant and arrogant but certainly never bland. He brought us Mahler when nobody really listened to Mahler and he conducted the latest in new music whether it was the complex Elliott Carter or the complete opposite of complexity in John Cage and Earl Brown.

It may seem surprising to those of us who experienced the force of nature that was Leonard Bernstein then that, according to friends and family, he was not always the secure, flamboyantly self-confident artist we would've thought, one who had fame, fortune and an immense and seemingly unending talent.

Defining the idea of “eclectic,” drawing from classical traditions, from jazz and pop as well as Jewish music, both sacred and secular, Bernstein created a musical language that, despite its eclecticism, always sounded to me like Bernstein, the man who created “West Side Story” or “Chichester Psalms” or his wild and crazy “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” or the Kaddish Symphony of 1963.

But deep down, while he conducted the newest works of the major composers of the day, he felt the pressure of not being one of them himself, not being accepted by them as part of a “big boys' club” as one family member expressed it in a special program broadcast on Public Radio, Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, an 11-part series narrated by Susan Sarandon. “The series culminates with a look at Bernstein's legacy: his final days are colored by his own sense of failure.”

He strove to write “serious” music that was complex and “original” but these pieces not only failed with the general audiences, it was not taken seriously by the composers he hoped most to “impress.” Inevitably, it led to a great amount of frustration and a creative roadblock, a tragedy, I thought, for a man who could not see how “original” something like West Side Story was, how sincere “Chichester Psalms” was or how brilliant Candide was (despite its tortured history of failure and revision, enough to rival Beethoven's Fidelio).

Bernstein in 1955
I wonder how many of these questions, these doubts – personal as well as artistic – would've been revealed in the memoir he was working on at the time of his death in 1990 at the age of 72. “The draft of his memoir, Blue Ink, having only existed in electronic form in a password-protected document that still remains unopened to this day, has become a poster-child in the probate community for the need of increased awareness of digital assets during the estate planning process.”

And yet music from West Side Story and Candide – both written before he was 40 – appear regularly in “serious” concert halls alongside the great composers he championed as a conductor – and more frequently, no doubt, than most of those composers he'd hoped to impress. Certainly, when it opened in 1957, there was never a musical like West Side Story and there's never been another one like it since.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jeremy Gill's Notturno Concertante, World Premiere

Jeremy Gill
This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina features two works inspired by Shakespeare's "star-cross'd lovers," Romeo and Juliet - plus the world premiere of a brand new concerto for clarinet by Jeremy Gill with Christopher Grymes. You may have heard other works by the Harrisburg-born composer and heard clarinetist Grymes performing with his colleagues in Concertante (whose name figures in the title of the piece Gill wrote for Grymes: concertante means a work in which instruments are featured in a solo role, like a concerto) - as well as playing Mozart and Beethoven quintets with Stuart Malina at the piano in past "Summermusics" with Market Square Concerts.

The HSO Masterworks concerts are this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with conductor Malina offering his insights into the music an hour before each performance. Between that and the post-concert "talk-back" Q&A session, you have ample opportunity to find out more about the music, the performers and, in this case, the composer of a new work.

While Leonard Bernstein's music from West Side Story needs no introduction and Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo and Juliet, has its own interesting back-story, I wanted to focus in this post on a work you've not had a chance to hear, yet. But first...

A Brief History of Living Composers...

During the first thousand or so years of the history of Western Classical Music, composers were generally employed by the Church and wrote mostly sacred music which was written down and stored in church libraries. Composers and performers of secular music – more like today's “popular” music – were supported by medieval noblemen, the feudal lords, but, being more profane, were of no interest to the church-dominated society, so it wasn't (usually) written down and saved. It's almost as if it never existed.

Jeremy Gill visits Bach's church, Leipzig, in 2009
Starting with the Renaissance around 1600 (not coincidentally, around the time the printing press was invented) and into the Classical era, up until about 1800, a mere two centuries, composers were more likely to be employed by the aristocratic courts scattered across the highly fragmented map of Europe. Think of Haydn and Prince Esterhazy or Mozart's father and the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg who, alas, had little patience with the young Mozart's arrogance.

Then, with Beethoven following in Mozart's would-be footsteps, the image of the Romantic Composer, struggling to make a living, put the typical musician at the mercy of society, a kind of free-lance musical capitalism where, if you could sell your music to the public and convince people to buy tickets to come hear your concerts, you could make a living being a musician. But what was the difference between churning out hundreds of amateurish flute concertos for your flute-playing king (as Quantz did for Frederick the Great who was, as a flutist, more like Frederick the Okay) and Beethoven arranging 150 British folk songs for a London publisher because he needed the money?

A composers as famous as Brahms lived handsomely enough off the music he published (and one he didn't, a little lullaby you might've heard) while others, like Schubert, died in poverty for lack of a sustaining audience.

Then, somewhere in the 20th Century, composers – especially American ones – found that, in order to pay the bills, teaching music at universities was a little more steady (remembering the first American music department was established at Harvard in the 1870s – before that, would-be composers had to go to Europe to study). Academia then became the equivalent of the Church and the aristocratic Courts that had maintained composers in previous centuries.

If not a university, then, some other “day job” – like Charles Ives who ran a very successful insurance company in New York City which allowed him the income to compose the music he wanted to write but which few people wanted to perform (at the time).

As a composer teaching in college, I heard a lot of very academic music from composers who were more interested in writing for their colleagues' approval than for the average audience's. Some of this was exciting and challenging but a lot of it was... well, very academic.

The same could be said of a lot of the music turned out by hundreds of little court composers composing in little courts in 18th Century Germany, music that has – unlike Bach's or Haydn's – not withstood the tests of time and might be unknown today if producers of compact discs had not been desperate to find other stuff to record. Some of it is good, possibly refreshing; some of it, not so much.

Sometime around the 1970s, young composers wanted to get away from the academic world modern music had become and like everything else changing (or breaking) in the '60s and '70s (for those of us who can remember them), becoming a composer on your own was a new and usually challenging life style.

It still is, today, especially in a society that will gladly pay you Tuesday for a new composition today, assuming it succeeds – or better yet, offer to play your new work “for the exposure” rather than pay you for it, forgetting that composers like other people still have bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Free-lancing today often means cobbling together enough “gigs” to put food on the table and while that may mean playing in four different orchestras and other, smaller performance ensembles (December is an especially crazy time for musicians playing Christmas programs across the landscape) plus teaching private lessons and as an adjunct professor in a couple of different college music departments for little pay and no benefits, for composers it means being asked to compose a new piece and, most importantly, getting paid to do so – then hoping there's enough of a success with it that it'll be played again somewhere.

Today, a successful composer gets commissioned to write enough pieces, he or (finally) she doesn't have to write something unless someone pays for it in advance, rather than writing something and farming it out hoping to find someone who'll play it.

Jennifer Higdon, one of the busiest and most performed composers on the American scene today, has commissioning projects lined up years in advance and can pick and choose which ones she wants to fulfill. You may have heard her Percussion Concerto when it was played – twice in recent years – by the Harrisburg Symphony with Chris Rose, our principal percussionist, as the soloist. The commission to write that for its initial soloist, Colin Currie, came from three different orchestras and numerous financial organizations and new music projects.

Would she have composed a percussion concerto and shipped it around to various percussionists saying “Would you please please please play my new concerto?” Not likely. But now, people line up to ask her “would you please please please write me a new [insert instrument here] concerto?”

JEREMY GILL, his story...

Jeremy Gill was born in Harrisburg PA in 1975 where he studied oboe, piano and composition before attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY where he earned his Bachelor's degree in composition (with distinction) in 1996 before pursuing his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania which he received four years later. He studied with several great American composers, including George Crumb, George Rochberg, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse and Samuel Adler. On his own, in Academia, he taught at West Chester University, Messiah College and Temple University.

Jeremy Gill, with Lucy Shelton, members of Dolce Suono Ensemble
Not too long ago, he decided to take the leap from full-time academic teaching to being a free-lance composer, pianist, conductor and teacher in Boston. He's also a part-time visiting professor of music at Dickinson College in Carlisle but at the same time a Fellow of the American Opera Project’s “Composers and the Voice” program (based in Brooklyn, New York), where he composed solo songs for the resident singers and worked toward the production of his first opera.

Active as a performer and conductor, he has also been a pre-concert lecturer here with the Harrisburg Symphony is years past, with Philadelphia’s Dolce Suono Chamber Music Concert Series and most recently with the Boston Symphony.

In Harrisburg alone, I've had the chance to hear a number of Jeremy Gill's works including his Symphony No. 1 (which you can read about here when it was performed by Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony) and another orchestral work, “Novas,” the song cycles “Helian” and “Songs about Words” (this last, setting poems by Lucy Miller Murray), two string quartets, one called “25” and the more recent “Capriccio,” both played here by the Parker Quartet, and another one, “Variations” performed by the Casal Quartet, a set of piano pieces performed as tribute to Elliott Carter's centennial celebration called “Eliot Fragments (for Carter)” (in which the “Eliot” refers as a double reference to lines by T.S. Eliot) plus the “8 Variations and Toccata on Betzet Yisrael” for organ.

(You can sample many of these works with sound clips at the composer's website.)

It's possible I've forgotten something, but these, certainly, stick out in my mind as outstanding works and to say I'm looking forward to the new clarinet concerto, Notturno Concertante, should be obvious!

Quoting from Ellen Hughes' Art & Soul column in Harrisburg's Patriot-News, she asked Stuart Malina about this new piece:

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"Like Aaron Copland, Jeremy's work has become easier to grasp as he's matured. You could say that he is in the middle of his middle period," Malina said, with a hint of a smile. "This is a dramatic, accessible work without being banal – a great piece."

Gill agrees with Malina about the accessibility of his piece. "I've been changing generally in the past couple of years," he said. "In the past, I've thought a lot about the performers. Does the experience of playing my music feel good? Does it work well on their instruments? But recently I've been thinking about the audience in that way. I've always loved the great old music, like Brahms and Beethoven, so I began to ask myself, what do I want an audience member to feel while listening to my music?"

"In the past, my tendency has been toward introspection, but not in this piece. It's written for a big orchestra, and all of the players have a role, a moment when their instruments are showcased. And there's excitement, including a loud and satisfying ending," Gill said.

(you can read the entire article here.
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Of this latest work to be heard in his hometown – commissioned by the Lois Lerhman Grass Foundation for Christopher Grymes and the Harrisburg Symphony – the composer writes in his program note:

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Christopher Grymes
Roughly around the same time, in mid-2013, I received commissions to compose two wind concertos (Serenada Concertante for oboist Erin Hannigan and the Dallas Symphony and Notturno Concertante for clarinetist Christopher Grymes and the Harrisburg Symphony). I immediately knew that I wanted them to form a pair, and since wind instruments are historically associated with the outdoors, I decided to reference two popular, and closely related, Classical-era outdoor ‘forms’: the serenade and the nocturne. Both of these celebrate the natural world, with the serenade focusing more on the diurnal. Ever since reading James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake I’ve loved the idea of composing a pair of works that explored day and night, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.

Notturno Concertante begins with the solo clarinet imitating its ancestor, the ‘chalumeau’ (literally ‘reed’), a melodic instrument of the late Baroque. Chalumeau is also the name of the lower register of the clarinet, so it is in this range that the soloist plays for the entire introduction. [...]

Balancing the chalumeau opening of Notturno Concertante, the ending focuses on the ‘clarino’ register of the clarinet. The clarinet’s early role in Classical repertoire was to play trumpet parts, and the ‘tiny trumpet’ appellation continues to apply to the upper register of the clarinet. This clarino coda is begun with offstage trumpets and drum, and the solo clarinet affirms its brassy history by playing short fanfares that are taken up by the orchestral winds.

These two sections, exploring the chalumeau (lowest) and clarino (highest) registers of the clarinet are bookends to the much more extended middle section of Notturno Concertante. They may also be heard as framing an extended dream sequence […] because Notturno Concertante is a ‘nocturne’ in the truest sense: a night piece that explores the internal world of the sleeper.

The middle, or ‘dream,’ part of Notturno Concertante is in sixteen short, continuous sections, and each is recognizable y the orchestral instruments it features (oboes and English horn in the first, muted trumpets in the second, etc.). Each section also features one category of pitches that remain the same within instrumental families: the winds always play chromatically, the brasses use whole-tone-based scales and chords, and the strings use the white notes of the piano keyboard (diatonic but not necessarily tonal). The percussion is mostly unpitched, and is always associated with the deep REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep.

Taking a cue from Freud, who suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams that dreams are often psychic responses to physical events (one dreams of suffocating and awakens to find one’s face buried in the pillow), I have the clarinet always following the orchestra: in terms of its pitch and melodic content it is always reacting to what has recently happened, such that it is possible to imagine the orchestra as the body and the soloist the psyche of one sleeper.

The middle sections of the work suggest the four stages of sleep as it moves in and out of the REM state. […] As with real sleep, the sleeper is unaware that time has passed and returns to the waking life as if it were continuing without interruption.

What ultimately made me focus on the internal nocturnal world (rather than the natural nocturnal world, which is far more commonly encountered in music), was a dream relayed to me by Christopher Grymes, Notturno Concertante’s dedicatee. He dreamed of a clarinetist who could only play white notes but was so adept that people would travel far and wide to hear him. He remembered specifically a densely chromatic passage in Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto in which the clarinetist ‘whitened’ the sound to great effect. This, of course, led me to include that very passage from the Nielsen (played correctly by the orchestral clarinets and ‘whitened’ by the solo clarinet in successive sections near the work’s center), and also to the idea of mixing pitch collections and having the solo clarinet always out of phase with the orchestra.
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You don't often get to find out about a piece of music you might hear right from the composer - imagine if Beethoven had given us a road-map to his thoughts about the Eroica? - and sometimes it may be more information than you think you need to enjoy it, but so much goes into how a composer conceives much less writes a piece - like the elements of clarinet history or the application of sleep and dreams (something we all can relate to) to the creative process - it gives us something else to think about as we hear something that no one has ever heard before.

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Beethoven's Eroica: The Hero Within the Music

Another Heroic Monument
This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, presents Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, the Eroica, on its opening program of the new season. The concerts at the Forum are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. You can read the previous posts in this series - about the program in general (complete video performances included); about Beethoven and Bonaparte the Hero; and about hearing the Eroica for the first time. And they can be read before or after (but not during) the performance.

While Bonaparte – that is, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte (born Buonaparte), not the Emperor Napoleon – was the impetus behind the Symphony in E-flat Major Beethoven began working on in 1802, I'm wondering if Haydn wasn't closer to the mark when he allegedly said, “He's placed himself at the center of his work. He gives us a glimpse into his soul. ...But it is quite, quite new – the artist as hero – quite new... Everything is different from today.” (– quoted as it was used in the BBC/Pro Arte film Eroica which was imbedded in the previous post.)

Haydn (from BBC's "Eroica")
The idea of the “artist as hero” is entirely antithetical to the “artist as craftsman” of the Classical Era of which Haydn is generally considered the ultimate example. Yet he had already begun pushing these boundaries, now that he had retired after nearly thirty years as a court composer for Prince Nicholas Esterházy and had few requirements to fulfill for his successor. He composed two immense oratorios – completing The Creation in 1798 and The Seasons in 1801 – and six monumental masses between 1796 and 1802, his last major works. And there is certainly something of the sublime far beyond the classical craftsman in these works.

Haydn teaching Beethoven
Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, a year after the death of Mozart – whose own music, especially in things like his D Minor Piano Concerto and the opera Don Giovanni challenged 18th Century Classical proprieties with an abundance of Romantic emotions – and studied with Haydn until he left once more for London in 1794. Though their relationship was never friendly – in fact, Haydn treated the young composer with some disdain if not jealousy and didn't seem to take these lessons seriously (Beethoven refused to list Haydn as his teacher on his first publications because he felt Haydn had taught him too little; another composer, examining Beethoven's counterpoint notebook, found several errors that Haydn had not bothered to correct) – Haydn was, after all, the most celebrated living composer in Europe at the time. One could point out many similarities in their works – the opening of “Winter” in Haydn's Seasons and the introduction to Beethoven's 4th Symphony, both in the same key, for instance – but then the “common language” of 18th Century classicism was so “common,” it is difficult to say how much of this is influence or coincidence much less imitation.

But there was something so startlingly new in the Eroica for 1803, it's impossible not to ask “where did that come from!?”

Yet if we examine the symphony in terms of its overall structure, it turns out not to be that different from the models that inspired Beethoven's first two symphonies between 1800 and 1802: instead of a slow introduction, typical with Haydn, Beethoven uses two peremptory chords to get out attention (no chance to settle comfortably into “listening mode,” here), but after that, the overall concepts are not unfamiliar – just incredibly expanded, especially in the middle section's development which is the hallmark of Sonata Form (in the 18th Century, this might be so brief as to be no more than a digression, but in Beethoven, it becomes the dramatic focus of the struggle between leaving the tonic key and its eventual return.

This first movement – full of excruciating dissonances and nearly as long as any of Haydn's earlier symphonies entirely – is followed, as expected, by a slow movement, but again one of immensely expanded proportions and intense drama – a funeral march, no less.

Haydn's third movements are often earthy and more dance-like than the standard courtly minuet of his earlier works, but Beethoven's takes this peasant-like energy to a new and often frenetic level, a return to life after the slow movement tragedy.

Haydn's finales were often light-hearted, full of tricks or jokes, but also capable of hiding intellectual details, but none of them were ever as long or as commanding as the Eroica's finale: here, a set of variations on what seems to be a simplistic, almost inane idea later turns out to be the bass of a theme introduced almost as an afterthought, but simple or not, it is full of “learnèd counterpoint” and out-and-out fugues, the culmination of the intellectual.

And it was the tradition in the 18th Century approach to variations that the next to the last one would be in a slow tempo (a way to inform the audience the end is near) which is exactly what Beethoven does here except, again, it is greatly expanded, almost into a slow movement of its own. It becomes an emotional climax if not of the whole piece, then at least the second half of the symphony (nothing could be more emotional that that funeral march's final disintegration). And how to end it? With an uproarious “happy ending,” a triumphal dance that, to a proper 18th Century classicist, would be vulgar in the extreme, pounding away at the final resolution to the home tonic – repetitive but also drunk with joy!

The skeleton of the classical symphony is still there but the surface of it – its scope and dimensions and what activates it as a work of art – are almost unrecognizable, certainly on first hearing. Yet it is not so revolutionary as we tend to think, embedded in the past as it is.

So it is interesting to read someone writing about the “sublime” in music:

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“In music, only that can be sublime which exceeds the conceptual powers of the imagination: which appears too large and significant, too foreign and strange, for the imagination to grasp it easily...”

“The feeling of sublimity in music is aroused when the imagination is elevated to the plane of the limitless, the immeasurable, the unconquerable. This happens when such emotions are aroused as... prevent the integration of one's impressions into a coherent whole.”

– Christian Friedrich Michaelis, “Some Remarks on the Sublime in Music” (Leipzig, 1805) quoted in James Webster's essay, The Creation, Haydn's Late Vocal Music and the Musical Sublime in the Bard Music Festival Series, Haydn and His World (Princeton, 1997)
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It is interesting to read this because it very much describes the music we associate with the huge emotional – indeed, “sensual” – leap into 19th Century romanticism which, as any music student has been told, essentially began with Beethoven's Eroica in 1803. Outside of a close circle of friends of Prince Joseph Maximilian Lobkowitz, no one else heard this symphony until April, 1805, when it was first performed at Vienna's Theater an der Wien.

And yet Michaelis published his “Remarks” in Leipzig in 1805: had he been in Vienna and heard Beethoven's startling new music? It's almost as if he were describing the Eroica's impact on its listeners:

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“Firstly, by uniformity so great that it almost excludes variety: by the constant repetition of the same note or chord... by long, majestic, weighty, or solemn notes, and hence by very slow movement; by long pauses holding up the progress of the melodic line, or which impede the shaping of a melody, thus underlining the lack of variety. Secondly, by too much diversity, as when innumerable impressions succeed one another too rapidly and the mind is too abruptly hurled into the thundering torrent of sounds, or when (as in many polyphonic compositions involving many voices) the themes are developed together in so complex a manner that the imagination cannot easily and calmly integrate the diverse ideas into a coherent whole without strain. Thus in music, the sublime can only be that which seems too vast and significant, too strange and wonderful, to be easily assimilated by it.”

– Michaelis, ibid
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The first idea certainly seems to pertain to Beethoven's epic Funeral March – even to that mysterious, unexpected D# interrupting the 1st Movement's opening cello melody, though not a “long pause,” which holds up the progress of the melodic line and expands it in such a way, there is this harmonic hiccup before the phrase cadences where it's expected to.

And the second idea – too much diversity – is another element of Beethoven's development sections, one thing after another thrown at you – melodic fragments, harmonic implications, striking dissonances and rhythmic irregularities – before you're back on any kind of solid (expected) ground.

Yet Michaelis is no doubt responding to elements of Haydn's oratorios – especially The Creation which already begins pushing beyond mere craftsmanship: the opening depiction of chaos was, to an 18th Century listener, sheer chaos, harmonically; the appearance of Light a stroke of brilliance that, though obvious to us (especially tame compared to today's special effects we witness daily in television, movies and video games) was thrilling to first-time listeners.

But it's all about expectations and how they're met: how did Beethoven get from being the Student beginning his studies with Haydn at 21 to the Master who wrote the Eroica at 32?

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Cherubini & Muse (by Ingres)
It is tempting to write about the influences on Beethoven' style we don't usually think about, especially composers of his time whom we no longer know. There was a whole school of French artists active in post-Revolutionary Paris who painted, sculpted and composed on an epic scale, composers like Cherubini, an Italian transplant who became the leading French composer and dominated the musical style of his generation. Beethoven's sole opera, Fidelio, premiered in 1805, is based on a French "rescue" drama and heavily inspired by Cherubini.

But the musical style of Gossec, Gretry and Mehul was known to Beethoven whether or not he was aware of the paintings of David and Ingres. But this would take another sizable post of more interest to scholars than listeners, so let's leave that for now. It is, however, an area little written and less talked about in the Beethoven literature.

After producing six string quartets by 1800, his first symphony and a series of piano sonatas – including the very Romantic “Pathetique” in 1798 and the so-called “Moonlight” in 1801 (which could easily have been called the “Tempest” after its stormy finale) and the very next sonata, the placid “Pastoral” – Beethoven said to a friend, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.”

The next works he composed were the 2nd Symphony, the three violin sonatas of Op. 30 (dedicated to Tsar Alexander I), the “Eroica” Variations for solo piano which made use of a successful dance tune from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus of the previous year (a view of Creation from the perspective of classical Greek mythology, by the way), and the three piano sonatas that includes the very unusual one actually known as the “Tempest” (from a chance remark he made about Shakespeare's play when asked what its opening movement meant without ever really explaining how it applies). And then he started working out some new ideas for another symphony.

But something else happened in Beethoven's life that year.

A far from heroic-looking Beethoven walking in the woods
He had begun experiencing symptoms that indicated something was wrong with his hearing and the idea of a concert pianist, indeed a composer, going deaf came at a time just as Beethoven's reputation was growing, that his new pieces were bringing in a good income. He was nearly 30 – what did it mean if he would soon go deaf and all this would come to a sudden halt?

In October, 1802, in the midst of the last movement of the 2nd Symphony, Beethoven wrote a heart-rending letter to his two brothers, intended to be opened after his death, which is known as “The Heiligenstadt Testament.” In places, it reads like a suicide note.

He had been troubled by the first symptoms around 1796, enough to worry about it. In a letter to a friend back home in 1801, he wrote “I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.”

When he wrote his 5th Symphony – which he started sketching probably while he was working on the Eroica and had completed the opening movements before he'd begun the 4th Symphony – he used that famous motive he described to his student Ferdinand Ries as “fate knocking at the door.” This gives rise to the idea the symphony is clearly about Man overcoming Fate and celebrating a great victory in the finale. It doesn't matter if that Man is actually the man Beethoven because the music itself transcends whatever inspired it, but certainly his own experiences dealing with what Fate has dealt him – in this case, his deafness – might have given him the dramatic inspiration whether he's writing an autobiographical piece or not.

Another fanciful image of Beethoven
And just as the Hero of the Eroica Symphony probably isn't a musical portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte – after all, how do you make sense of a hero who has a funeral in the second movement when the hero it is supposed to be dedicated to is very much alive? – is it any more possible the struggle in this music is the first stage of Beethoven coming to terms with his own deafness, becoming his own hero in grabbing Fate, two quick knocks at the door to start the symphony on its way?

Perhaps not. It's always dangerous to read anything into what Beethoven may have been thinking because he never told anyone what was specifically on his mind – even the reference to the “Tempest” is so vague, it hardly begins to answer the question.

But whether it is a musical portrait of Beethoven – or more likely his state of mind – or of Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, is immaterial. You may hear great armies marching across battlefields in the first movement or hear in it a portrait not of Bonaparte but of Alexander the Great (as one writer insisted) but that may have nothing to do with what Beethoven was thinking about when he composed it.

What it comes down to is more like what Arturo Toscanini said: it is Allegro con brio, the tempo Beethoven gave to the first movement. It is about music and how it's put together: what you make of it is your own side of the equation.

- Dick Strawser

Friday, October 17, 2014

Heroic Beethoven: Some People Behind the Music

Beethoven in 1803
The Harrisburg Symphony opens its new season in the newly renovated Forum in Harrisburg's capitol complex with two works by Beethoven - his 4th Piano Concerto (with Alon Goldstein as the soloist) and his 3rd Symphony, known simply as "The Eroica." You can read more about the concert here and other posts about the symphony here. (Check out some photos from the Forum's renovation process, here.)

Concert times are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk an hour before each program.
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Given the news today – pick your horror story: Ebola, ISIS, gun violence, political campaigns, what-have-you – it's sometimes difficult to imagine yourself living in some other era that could be any worse (your good-old-days or someone else's).

We often view Art as a means of escaping from our daily travails, a chance to forget about reality and lose ourselves in the glories of some past century.

But we often forget about the composer's reality at the time this music was being written and usually dismiss it as unnecessary to our enjoyment of it.

Granted, one can enjoy Beethoven's Eroica without knowing what was going on in his life or beyond hearing how it had once been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte.

But if, after you've heard this composition – regarded as the first major work to unleash what became known as 19th Century Romantic Music – you wondered “where did that come from?”, then read on.

To open last season, Stuart Malina programmed Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring which is credited as being where 20th Century Music began. This season, he begins with Beethoven's Eroica which is usually given the credit for being the starting point for the 19th Century, dividing what's become standard classical music fare from the 18th Century's Baroque and Classical styles.

Heroic, indeed, whether it was inspired by Napoleon or not. It was longer than any symphony written before it and it was far more dramatic than anything Haydn had ever written. The demands on the listeners – not to mention the players – were unprecedented. What must it have been like to hear this for the first time in 1804, knowing only what listeners in Vienna knew? How can we, today, forget everything we've heard that's been written since then – written, mostly, in Beethoven's shadow?

Prince Lobkowitz
I'd recently discovered this 2003 BBC film – it lasts less than 90 minutes – which attempts to do just that: it takes place on the day Beethoven rehearsed his new symphony with an orchestra hired by his friend and patron, Prince Lobkowitz. Considering how Hollywood usually treats the arts – classical music, in particular – this is not a bad representation of the possibilities (at least no St. Bernards were harmed in the filming of this program). Many comments (whether they occurred that day or not) are factual or at least taken from historical documents. But it gives you a reasonable idea as far as “historical fiction” is concerned what could have happened.

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The BBC/Opus Arte film “Eroica” (2003) directed by Simon Cellan-Jones with Ian Hart as Beethoven:

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What discrepancies exist are minor – the room it was filmed in may not be the music room of Lobkowitz's Vienna palace (see below) and the military gentleman, Count Dietrichstein, could not be the same Count Dietrichstein who exists in Beethoven's biography, a man five years the composer's junior who, aside from being artistically astute and a close friend, was also a composer himself.

Yes, Beethoven was in love with the young woman, Josephine von Deym, née Brunsvick (who arrives late with her older sister, Therese – both were piano students of Beethoven's and both have been considered candidates for the Immortal Belovéd who figures in Beethoven's life in 1812 - you can read more about the women in Beethoven's life in my blog post, here). Yes, she was recently widowed with four children (though one of them was only a few months old at the time, despite the scene where all four of them romp through the music room). Hopeful of marrying her, Beethoven was well aware of the laws which forbade her, an aristocrat, from marrying a “commoner” like Beethoven, despite his being a genius and being – well, Beethoven!

And yes, since the composer often styled himself in French, signing his name as Louis van Beethoven, his close friends are calling him Louis – not Louie...

Ferdinand Ries
Keep in mind Beethoven was 33 years old at this time – we tend to forget that he was only 56 when he died. His student, Ferdinand Ries (the son of Beethoven's first violin teacher back in Bonn), he who makes the hapless comment about the horn player coming in early, would have been 19, then. A month later, Ries made his debut as a concert pianist playing Beethoven's C Minor Piano Concerto (No. 3) with his own cadenza. Though he left Vienna in 1805, it is his account, written 34 years later, that supplies most of the information we have about this particular day along with several other anecdotes which give us such a wonderful view of the human who was The Master.

The biggest doubt about the film, of course, is the level of the performance. Ries remarks that the rehearsal was “terrible” and indeed here it begins that way. It is hard to imagine that, after a particularly bumpy start, this sight-reading session of such new and strange music should suddenly become a performance any ensemble today would be proud of – and kudos to the Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique for supplying the musicians of the orchestra (except for one of the bass players and perhaps the second horn player) who are, in fact, led here by their actual concertmaster if, in the soundtrack, by John Eliot Gardiner. Still, it would be excruciating theater to subject modern audiences to what the actual rehearsal may have sounded like.

One of the things I like about this presentation is watching the faces of those people hearing this music for the first time – and not just hearing it but hearing music like it for the first time. There are those who are confused by it or perplexed by certain passages – especially the more dissonant ones – and those who are excited by it. For instance, Princess Caroline, Lobkowitz's wife, has an eagerness about her listening: clearly the music thrills her and she is up on the very latest of what is “new.”

There are those who clearly have no clue what is going on here, musically or otherwise, and can only compare it to what they know (“if this were by Haydn, it would be over by now,” someone – a footman? – says near the end of the first movement). There are those who have no clue what is going on, either, but are somehow aware whatever it is is something significant.

Count Dietrichstein, depicted here as an old fuss-budget clearly out of sorts over Beethoven's dedication to Bonaparte, is deeply affected by the slow movement, its funeral march: perhaps he is remembering friends he has lost on the battlefield? And the young woman – who is Josephine von Deym, the woman Beethoven is disappointed had not, at the beginning, arrived yet – is no doubt thinking about her late husband who'd died that January.

Prince Lobkowitz, historically described as “absent-minded,” is at times unsure what he is hearing, closing his eyes to better concentrate, perhaps, or is he nodding off, a bit? Suffering from gout? Perhaps.

Typical would be the discussion heard after the first movement – what each listener heard in the music, whether inspired by knowing it was a “Bonaparte Symphony” or simply in hearing great armies marching across history to do battle. Listeners have always heard music their own way, trying to create some story, perhaps, to hang on to, to explain what they're listening to when all the composer may have been thinking about was how to lead up to these particularly dissonant chords at the climax of the development section.

Haydn arrives at Beethoven's rehearsal
I don't know, frankly, if Haydn did show up at his student's rehearsal – and if he did, why not late, after all? – but I love the shot where Beethoven is standing in front of the orchestra (not as a conductor: conductors with batons didn't exist at the time!) and we see the old man Haydn entering behind him, like a ghost peering over his shoulder. Brilliant. Even more brilliant is the expression on Haydn's face as the camera moves in to focus on him, as Beethoven commits something his teacher (and many in those first audiences) would have viewed as a mistake – “why would he do that?”

What he says at the end is perhaps the most telling line in the entire film. Attributed to Haydn, I'm not sure (since I can't verify it anywhere other than having heard it so often) if it is factual or one of those mythological statements created by the well-meaning Anton Schindler years later, but it does sum up an attitude about Beethoven that transcends the usual misunderstanding between the Old Guard and the New.

“He's placed himself at the center of his work,” Haydn tells his hosts after the rehearsal has concluded. “He gives us a glimpse into his soul – I expect that's why it's so... noisy... but it is quite, quite new – the artist as hero – quite new... Everything is different from today.”

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To help imagine the mortal who could create such music, here is a video-montage of still photographs of a house in Döbling, now a section of Vienna. It is here that Beethoven lived when he composed most of his Third Symphony during the summer of 1803.
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(The soundtrack is part of the slow movement of the C Minor Violin Sonata, Op. 30/2 – here with Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim – which was composed in the summer of 1802 when he was in Heiligenstadt, though I've never seen it referred to as the “Eroica Sonata” before. It's from the set I'd mentioned in a previous post as having been dedicated to the Russian tsar, Alexander I.)

The apartment Beethoven occupied that summer is accessible through a door off the courtyard just off the street. Presumably, he had a view of the fields and woods beyond though today, one can see only the house across the street.

The house itself – much less the grounds – is different from what it would have been during Beethoven's stay here, a house built in the 1790s on the main street of a quiet country suburb. The second floor was added in 1840 and the ornate lamp post is certainly later still. The house is currently a museum – apparently it was not open the day the poster of this video visited – and contains little actual material about Beethoven beyond some period furniture and informative displays, but you can find a little more about it and see a couple images from the inside at the official Vienna Museum website, here.

The Palace of Prince Lobkowitz (left), Vienna
The Palace of Prince Josef Maximilian Lobkowitz still stands in Vienna though the main family castle is in Prague. The Prince who was Beethoven's friend and patron (and, for a time, landlord) was the 7th prince of the family and lost much of the family fortune not only in supporting the arts in Vienna, maintaining his own orchestra, but in the political instability and economic downturns that affected Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.


The music room where this first “read-through” of the symphony took place is now called the “Eroicasaal” (or Eroica Concert Hall). In the photograph here, it is a scene of a lecture. It figures also in a scene from the PBS “Keeping Score” episode on the Eroica with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas walking through the space.

Though you would think the Viennese palace would be the spot for this, the family's collection of Beethoven memorabilia as well as numerous instruments and other manuscripts is housed at the castle in Prague. Here is a Viking Tours promotional video about the Lobkowicz's Palace. The Beethoven Collection begins c.3:20 into the clip:
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Beethoven also dedicated his 5th Symphony to both Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador who commissioned the three string quartets bearing his name (he also had household musicians which frequently played and premiered Beethoven's newest works). Among other works dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz are the Op. 18 String Quartets (first heard in 1800) as well as the “Harp” Quartet, Op. 74 (published in 1810), the Triple Concerto (written, however, for the Archduke Rudolph, the Austrian Emperor's youngest brother, who as both a piano and a composition student of Beethoven's and who was a frequent performer at the Lobkowitz's), and the song cycle, An die ferne Geliebter (“To the Distant Belovéd”) in 1816.

Lobkowitz, one of three aristocrats to guarantee Beethoven a pension to keep him in Vienna, was nearly ruined in the Depression of 1811 and was forced to renege on his contribution, much to Beethoven's displeasure. He wrote a small cantata for the Prince's birthday in 1816 to be sung to him by members of his family – he and the Princess had, by the way, twelve children – but the performance did not take place. The prince was “deathly ill” at the time and died a week later.

After Prince Joseph Maximilian's death, the family usually rented out the palace before selling the building in the mid-19th Century. It was for a while (with a bit of irony) the home of the French Embassy from 1869-1909: Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew ruled France as the first popularly elected President in 1848 who then staged a coup and overthrew his own government, naming himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1851 and ruled until 1870. From 1945-1980, it housed the French Institute of Vienna before becoming a government building which, since 1991, has been part of Vienna's Museum of Art and History, the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

As for Beethoven's pupil, Ferdinand Ries went on to become a well-known composer and pianist, if forgotten today beyond his association as Beethoven's Student. As Beethoven said of him, "He imitates me too much." As Grove's Dictionary put it, he caught the style and phrases but not the immortality of his master. For instance, the second symphony he composed - written in 1813, it was later published as No. 5 in D Minor - uses the famous Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door rhythm from Beethoven's 5th.

Opening of Ferdinand Ries' Symphony #5 (arr. as a Septet) 1813
(One should also point out, so did Gustav Mahler in his 5th Symphony...)

Ries spent a busy decade in London where he was also instrumental in helping secure a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society for what became Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Then he returned to Germany and became a respected composer and conductor in Frankfurt where he died in 1838 at the age of 53. He composed eight symphonies, eight piano concertos, three operas and two oratorios plus a large amount of chamber music and piano music, all of it forgotten today.

 - Dick Strawser