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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Forum: Not Just Another Opening, Another Show!

Old Seats, gone: Old Carpet, going!

Over the summer, the Forum - not only home of the Harrisburg Symphony but also the main "large venue" concert hall in the capital city - underwent a major renovation: ripping out and replacing the old seats and carpeting as well as cleaning the ceiling, re-doing the ceiling lights, and refurbishing those amazing maps across the back wall of the promenade. Oh yes, and completely re-doing the bathrooms which somehow had remained unscathed in previous renovations and were desperately in need of modernization, if nothing else.

And so this weekend's concerts with the orchestra - an All-Beethoven program with the "Eroica" Symphony and the 4th Piano Concerto featuring the return of Alon Goldstein (you can read about the concert in this earlier post here and, about the "composer and the hero," here) - mark the unveiling of the newly renovated auditorium.

Concert times are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm, with Truman Bullard offering the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

But come early and check out the changes!

Here are some photos of the process, all taken by the HSO's marketing director Kim Isenhour or members of the state's Department of General Services staff, except for the one taken by Sean Simmers and published in the Patriot-News.

The Auditorium stripped down to the bare floor

Scaffolding: working on the ceiling (Sean Simmers, Patriot-News)
Ready to install the new seats

One of the Rest Rooms: Out with the Really Old

As it gets closer to the weekend's concert time, of course, there's the very real concern about the hall being ready in time. And though there's lots of last minute touches going on this week, this is what symphony staff saw on a mid-week visit:

View of the completed seats from the newly sanded stage
Up-Close with the New Seats

The Ladies' Room: Almost Ready
The newly refurbished Starburst in the Forum ceiling!
And the orchestra plays Beethoven, too!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Beethoven's Heroic Symphony: Beethoven & Bonaparte

This weekend, Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in an All-Beethoven program to open the new season featuring the 4th Piano Concerto with Alon Goldstein and the Symphony No. 3, the Eroica. The performances - in the newly refurbished Forum with new and wider seats, not to mention new rest rooms - are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Truman Bullard offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each concert.

You can read more about the program in this earlier post, which includes videos of complete performances of both works, and read Ellen Hughes' preview in the Patriot-News, here interviewing both soloist and conductor about the music they will bring to life. Another post about the Eroica examines some of the people and places associated with the first time it was heard.
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an epic Beethoven monument by Max Klinger, 1902

Within the comparatively small world of Classical Music, given the greater aspects of the Music Business in general, there's a whole “Beethoven Industry” out there that has turned the opening notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony from the writer “E. T. A. Hoffmann’s vehicle of awe and terror [...] into a meaningless blur of disco beats, hip-hop samples, jingles, and ringtones.”

I'm quoting from Alex Ross' new column in the New Yorker magazine about the influence of Beethoven where he describes the final chapter of Matthew Guerrieri's book on the impact of Beethoven's most popular piece, a book called “The First Four Notes,” and I recommend both.

There are probably more books written about or inspired by Beethoven and his music than any other classical composer – no doubt the least of them being my own novel, The Lost Chord, a "classical music appreciation comedy-thriller" which you can read on the installment plan at my other blog – and in addition to Guerrieri's book, there's a new biography by Jan Swafford – appropriately entitled Beethoven: Anguish & Triumph – I can also highly recommend, as yet sight unseen, just on the basis of two earlier biographies, one of Johannes Brahms, the other of Charles Ives, that manage to make their subjects much more human than the typical, academic biographies that are generally available and generally of interest only to other typical academics.

I've just ordered mine and though it won't arrive before this weekend's concert – nor could I read much of its 1,100 pages in time, either – it is something I expect to enjoy in the coming months of what will no doubt be a dreary time of year for me.

And that's primarily because Beethoven is one of those composers who is a composer for all times and all seasons, not just the occasion of a concert.

Oh, I know there are more Beethoven Festivals and All-Beethoven concerts in the Classical Music World, but there are few composers who could reach more people (in whatever way one cares to “reach” people, these days) and few works that can be embraced by more listeners beyond those “classical music aficionados” that Beethoven's 5th and 9th Symphonies – or, for that matter, the 3rd, the one known as “The Eroica.”

The Heroic Symphony – it's one of those defining works that give us a glimpse of Beethoven the Creator, that epic genius, suffering and misunderstood, striding across the landscape of mortal mankind, the composer who went from being Haydn's student to become first a marble bust and then the God of Classical Music.

That mysterious journey from mere mortal to mythologized hero begins with the opening chords of his Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55 which, admittedly, doesn't sound as grand as calling it “The Eroica,” does it?

It is difficult to separate the man from the deity he became.

How does one “come to terms with” this music when music, generally speaking, was rarely something one needed to “come to terms with” before him?

As well-crafted as a Haydn Symphony may have been, it was always perfectly entertaining. The difference between what Haydn and Mozart composed, at least in the best of their works, and all those works by their contemporaries whom we no longer know or bother to remember is similar to what might be considered “art” and what we regard as “kitsch,” the idea of seeing Leonardo's Mona Lisa at the Louvre and the ubiquitously reproduced image that has come to mean “art” hanging on someone's living room wall.

We have become addicted to Beethoven. Generations have been trained to “fear” Beethoven. As Ross mentions in his article, he walked into Boston's Symphony Hall as a young would-be composer and saw the “name BEETHOVEN emblazoned on the proscenium arch [–] 'Don't bother,' it seemed to say.”

It's like those signs at amusement parks that were the bane of many a child's existence: “You must be this tall to ride.”

How different Brahms' life would've been – or at least his music – if Robert Schumann hadn't crowned him “Beethoven's Heir” when he was 20 years old. "You have no idea how the likes of me feels with the tramp of a giant like him behind you!" That's why it took him over 20 years to complete a first symphony – no pressure, right?

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About 3½ minutes into the PBS program Keeping Score's episode about Beethoven's Eroica, Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony's conductor, said how much of his life had been spent coming to terms with this piece while showing you an incredibly marked up score that leaves little uncircled, unhighlted, unquestioned.

Part of the problem is it's so often performed “ponderously, seriously, perhaps because it's called the 'Heroic'” and certainly because... well, after all, it's by Beethoven! But Tilson Thomas didn't think that way, studying the score: he found it at times “light, breezy, confident, frustrating, dangerous – even comic” and so we go from trying to depict Napoleon in the first movement to understanding a composer dealing with life and all the things that can affect one's life.

Of course, it's difficult to remove images of Napoleon – speaking of marble busts – from our minds, given the famous story of Beethoven dedicating his new symphony to Napoleon (originally, it was the “Bonaparte Symphony”) then tearing up the title page when he heard his hero had crowned himself Emperor, erasing the word “Bonaparte” so vigorously, there's a hole in the paper. Later, it became a work dedicated to the “memory of a hero.”

But was the music “about” Bonaparte, then “First Consul” of France following the revolution, or inspired by what he stood for, elements of freedom after years of tyranny under centuries of French kings? The fact he became Emperor a few weeks before Beethoven's new symphony was first played through is a historical detail: I'm talking about the writing process, when the symphony was being composed.

It's true that Beethoven viewed Bonaparte (to distinguish him from the Emperor Napoleon) as a hero bringing the ideals of the French Revolution to The People. The fact that Beethoven lived in Vienna, an imperial city, and depended on its aristocrats for their patronage, it seems counterintuitive that Beethoven should support what people considered the “anti-aristocratic” policies of the French. But politics – then as now – were more complex than that. Beethoven was most interested in what was good for Beethoven and the fact that Vienna was proving to be a dead end, financially, had him thinking about looking for a new place to live – perhaps Paris?

In 1798, he had briefly been befriended by the French Ambassador, Bernadotte – a general who would later become King of Sweden, by the way – and there's little doubt that at some point in their conversations, the ambassador might not have suggested the composer write a symphony “about Bonaparte.” That's at least what Beethoven's later secretary Schindler recalled, though much of what Schindler seemed to recall is always suspect.

But if Beethoven would go to Paris, how would he get Bonaparte's attention? How did an artist get anybody's “attention” except by dedicating a work to them? A copy of the score would be sent to the dedicatee with an appropriate letter and in return the artist hoped for some gift, some form of remuneration. The trick was being allowed to dedicate a piece to that person – seeing that name on the title page was like an endorsement and would influence people who would buy and/or perform his new work.

It was expedient, given the musical politics of the day, that a young composer like the recently arrived Beethoven dedicate his first piano sonatas to the Great Man with whom he studied, Franz Josef Haydn. The first violin sonatas were dedicated to another important composer in Vienna, in fact the most powerful composer in a very politically aware musical society – Antonio Salieri.

It also had very little to do with gratitude. Even when he dedicated a new symphony to his patrons Prince Lobkowitz or Prince Lichnowsky, the composer expected something in return usually in the form of a gift of money.

In 1803, Beethoven dedicated his Op. 30 Violin Sonatas to the Russian tsar, Alexander I, whom he'd just been introduced to by the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky (who would soon be asking for three new string quartets for his house musicians). Nobody calls these the “Alexander Sonatas.” Beethoven simply anticipated a gift in return – if not cash, perhaps a ring or a jeweled snuff box which the composer could then sell or pawn. It seems crass, but how, then, did a composer like Beethoven – essentially a free-lancer – expect to pay his bills?

I've never understood why people think the Eroica is “about” Napoleon. Those Op. 30 Violin Sonatas are certainly not “about” Tsar Alexander I nor are those three string quartets “about” their namesake, Count Razumovsky, though his being Russian instigated the use of some Russian melodies in the first two.

And wasn't that what Beethoven was doing with his third symphony – initially dedicating it to Bonaparte, the First Consul of France, hoping that, with a positive enough response, he might find it worth his while to move to Paris and perhaps receive patronage from France's ruler.

1st Consul Bonaparte, 1801
Certainly, it's of a grand scale, suitable for a musical depiction of the great revolutionary leader of the French. Remember the epic style of painting that was a hallmark of French style following the Revolution, especially the grandeur of Jacques-Louis David whose portrait of Bonaparte, then First Consul, crossing the Alps in 1801 (see right), edifies the hero on the level with Hannibal – not to forget the official portrait of Napoleon's coronation completed about two years after the fact, harking back to the grandeur that was Rome.

A “Revolutionary Piano Sonata” as had been suggested by the publisher Hoffmeister in 1798 wasn't going to cut it, nor, for that matter, would an ordinary Haydnesque symphony. No, it would have to be something on a scale unheard of in Vienna at the time, something immense – something, like the painting equating him with Hannibal (who, it was overlooked, lost the war when he invaded Italy with his elephants, by the way), something epic - something French: the musical equivalent of a painting by David!

People could hear the stature of the general in this dynamic and highly dramatic music, in the sheer scope of the piece, unlike any symphony written before – as people wrote after first hearing the piece, imagining great armies marching across battlefields and so on.

But was that what Beethoven was envisioning when he wrote this music? A heroic portrait in music of the great general, Napoleon Bonaparte?

According to the famous title page – which was not “ripped in two” upon hearing the news of Napoleon's crowning himself Emperor – the text reads

Sinfonia Grande
Intitolata Bonaparte (erased so roughly as to leave a hole in the paper)
[1]804 im August
de[l] Sigr.
Louis van Beethoven
auf Bonaparte

The lines in Italian were written by a copyist (and the date, [1]804 August, added by another hand) and Beethoven's name Ludwig was styled, as he often did, in French as “Louis” – at other times he used “Luigi” instead.

But the German lines – “Written for Bonaparte” – were added in pencil by Beethoven himself and were not erased.

To make it more complicated, though, even before he had completed the score Beethoven indicated to his would-be publisher, through his student-secretary Ferdinand Ries, he had planned on dedicated the symphony to Bonaparte but this created a problem because Prince Lobkowitz offered to pay him a considerable fee for six-month's “exclusive usage” – ultimately, the symphony was performed privately several times at his palace before its official public premiere on April 7th, 1805 – and so he would give the dedication to Lobkowitz in honor of the fee but entitle the work “Bonaparte.”

By this time, Beethoven may have thought less of the idea of leaving Vienna for Paris. Even so, in August of 1804, three months after removing Bonaparte's name from the title page's second line, he wrote directly to his publisher describing what he was working on, including the Triple Concerto, some new piano sonatas and a new symphony.

“The title of the symphony is really Bonaparte.”

By the time the work was officially published, however, it was called “Sinfonia Eroica, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

Who Bonaparte had been in 1803 was different from the Napoleon who unleashed almost constant warfare on the rest of Europe for the next twelve years.

Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French in December, 1804, and then attacked and occupied the city of Vienna in September, 1805, before defeating them and their Russian allies at the Battle of Austerlitz that December.

It would hardly do to be the composer of a work bearing the name of Austria's enemy...

Still, in the autumn of 1808, Beethoven received an invitation from Jerome Bonaparte, youngest brother of Napoleon and newly named the King of Westphalia, created out of various German states with Kassel as its capital. It was a job offer – to become the royal court composer with a hefty salary. Jerome was intent on creating a great cultural center in his capital – the Brothers Grimm were already the royal librarians.

It was unrealistic for Beethoven to accept the position, given his by now anti-Bonapartist views, but he let it be known he was considering it. As a result, the Austrian emperor's youngest brother, the Archduke Rudolph (a student of Beethoven's), along with Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Kinski, guaranteed Beethoven a pension if he would stay in Vienna. He did.

But perhaps there's more to the “Hero” in this symphony than the name Bonaparte implies?

There is an old quote from Haydn which, at the moment, I can't verify or find, and which might just as well be one of those mythological details associated with Beethoven and his teacher.

It is used in the 2003 BBC film “Eroica,” set on the day the new symphony was first heard in a rehearsal at Prince Lobkowitz's – I'll get to this in my next post – in which Haydn, arriving late in the midst of the scherzo, tells his hosts afterwards,

“He's placed himself at the center of his work – 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.”

To be continued...

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Heroic Beethoven: Starting a New Season

The Harrisburg Symphony's new 2014-2015 Season begins soon with a program called "Heroic Beethoven" and features Stuart Malina conducting the orchestra in two works by - no surprise - Beethoven.

Pianist Alon Goldstein will be the soloist for the 4th Piano Concerto and the second half of the program is the Eroica Symphony, the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat.

The concert will open the newly renovated Forum on Saturday, October 18th at 8pm and Sunday, October 19th at 3pm. Truman Bullard offers the pre-concert talks an hour before each program.

And you can come to walk around the newly renovated Forum - it's "Opening Night" in more ways than one - and look at the newly cleaned and refurbished maps that line the back wall of the promenade, paying special attention to those maps detailing the Napoleonic Era, when Beethoven composed this music.

Here is Alon Goldstein playing the slow movement of Mozart's A Major Piano Concerto, K.488, with the Bucharest Philharmponic conducted by Christian Mandeal:
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Some years ago, I heard a radio announcer (no one I knew) say, “Beethoven is one of the few composers you could make an All-Beethoven program with” – and while that may seem obvious, I think what he meant was that there's enough variety in Beethoven's music, you can create an interesting, varied program of great music all by just one composer. And that's not something you can do with every composer.

Though it's easy to be overwhelmed by it, too – too much of a good (or great) thing, perhaps. So usually programmers balance their concerts by selecting from the three basic food-groups: Early-, Middle- and Late-Beethoven.

Stylistically, you've got the very “classical lines” and leaner textures of Early Beethoven, still emerging from the shadow of his teacher, Haydn; the larger emotions and epic proportions of Middle Beethoven, the “Romantic Beethoven,” say; or the more internal, more spiritual explorations of Late Beethoven, particularly in the late Sonatas and Quartets, which never seem to have been duplicated since.

And then there's “Heroic Beethoven,” the hero striding across the landscape of history, larger than life, with an intensity that can be shattering to us mere mortals, the Beethoven of myth and magic – in short, a composer comparable to today's comic book action heroes out to save the universe from evil.

And yet this music – and the myths we associate with it – came from somewhere more normal. The fact that it transcends normality is what gave birth to the myths that surround it – (insert deep and deeply awed announcer's voice, here) – the suffering, misunderstood artist, the loner, the genius – the composer who went deaf. The one who must be approached with reverence and... well, awe.

What is it about Beethoven – more to the point, his music – that affects us like this over 200 years later? And for over 200 years, that's something people have been asking, something every composer since then has been dealing with (or ignoring). It's that idea of a “giant treading behind you,” the way Brahms felt his legacy.

I'm not sure the Harrisburg Symphony's opening concert of the new season will answer that and that's only because there is no answer, at least one that would satisfy the whole audience. It's the same thing, for many people, one can feel after an exceptional performance of Shakespeare: how could any man create something like that? And why has it rarely, if ever, been equaled since...?

Beethoven's 3rd Symphony has always been known as “The Eroica” and it would seem obvious once you've heard it. The Hero – Napoleon Bonaparte, specifically – that inspired the music may be less important to it than the idea of a hero.

Certainly, Beethoven's Eroica is a ground-breaking work of immense proportions, compared to what people were expecting when he wrote it in 1803, but it is more than a depiction of a historically significant person (and a perception that radically changed from the time Beethoven began it to the time the audience first heard it two years later). And part of the impact of this piece (calling it a “piece” sounds so trivial...) can be heard in the 4th Piano Concerto that opens the concert – and which he began not long after he'd completed the Eroica.

Music, somehow, was going to be different, now.

The soloist in this video – courtesy of last year's BBC Proms and the YouBiquitous YouTube – perhaps will give you an idea of the artist's responsibility in dealing with a work like this, what it “means” to play it, interpret it, take it from the written page to the sounds you hear. It is not a challenge to be taken lightly, tossed off to dazzle the audience with your virtuosity. In fact, if anything, this is about as “un-virtuosic” a piece as there is in the concerto repertoire – in terms of its show-casing a player's technique – but that doesn't mean it's easy to play.

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Mitsuko Uchida, pianist, with Mariss Jansons & the Bavarian Radio Symphony (BBC Proms, 2013)

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Basically, the concept of this concerto grew out of the tradition of those Viennese concertos which Mozart composed in the 1780s – Beethoven played a number of this, particularly the D Minor concerto, K.466, which Stuart Malina will perform with the orchestra here in January – but it has little to do with the concertos that were being written in Vienna after 1800, most of which we never hear any more. And the 19th Century concerto which primarily became vehicles for virtuosic display (think Liszt or Chopin if you're not familiar with those by Hummel, who studied with Mozart, or Kalkbrenner and Moscheles).

It's interesting to realize, also, that for all we think about The Great Beethoven, this concerto was not well-received at its premiere (the length of the concert – 4 hours! – the fact it had been under-rehearsed and not to mention the concert hall was under-heated as well all may have had something to do with the audience's reaction) and fell into oblivion until it was brought into the repertoire by a young pianist named Felix Mendlessohn in 1836, nine years after Beethoven died.

But it varies little from its models, a tradition Beethoven inherited not from his teacher, Haydn, who never quite produced concertos comparable to those symphonies, but from his idol, Mozart. However, it was more subtle than flashy (even by contemporary standards) and more lyrical than dramatic (even with the brief slow movement's dialogue which later critics likened to Orpheus taming the wild beasts). While it's not necessarily more symphonic in the role of soloist and orchestra, it was a direct model for Brahms, especially in his 2nd Piano Concerto, who spent most of his life listening to the tramp of this giant behind him.

Beethoven had his fans and he certainly had his detractors. Most of the audience, then, supporters and otherwise, probably didn't "get" what it is we feel about Beethoven today. It's not like Beethoven wrote a new piece and every other composer went and did likewise. It took a while for his innovations to become part of the musical landscape. It's just that we don't know much about all the other composers who lived and worked during Beethoven's lifetime or even the generation that followed his death. Except for the last few years of Schubert's life, the Marvel Comics version of Classical Music tends to jump right from Mozart (who died in 1791) and Haydn (whose last symphonies were written in 1795) to Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Brahms, whose careers all began between the 1830s and the 1850s.

It's a bit sobering to think that, while Mendelssohn was 16 when he composed his Octet in 1825, two years before Beethoven died, Brahms' 1st Symphony (dubbed "Beethoven's 10th") wasn't finished until 1876.

So it's interesting to follow the 4th Piano Concerto with something considered one of the greatest symphonies of all times – different enough to create its own variety despite the fact Beethoven composed the concerto in 1805 after completing this symphony the year before. Even the opus numbers – indicating when the works were published, not necessarily when they were composed – are close: preceded by the Waldstein Sonata, the Eroica Symphony is Op. 55, the Concerto, Op. 58. In between come the “Triple Concerto” (for piano trio and orchestra) and the Appassionata Sonata, followed by the three Razumovsky Quartets, the 4th Symphony and the Violin Concerto, all composed between 1803 and 1806.

I'll get more into the question “Where did that come from?” in the next post, but here's a performance also from the BBC Proms (2012, here) with an orchestra created by Daniel Barenboim with young musicians from the Middle East including Israel, Egypt, Palestine and Iran, among others. I chose this particular clip as much for the performance (even the context of the performers) as for the interview segment that precedes it.

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The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim (BBC Proms, 2012) (with interviews beforehand)

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If you're interested in finding out more about the world behind this music, check back for subsequent posts, including one featuring yet another BBC effort, a 2003 film called Eroica which is about the day Beethoven's new symphony was first heard.

Though I can't embed it here, you can also check out Michael Tilson Thomas' highly recommended “Keeping Score” episode from PBS with Beethoven's Third Symphony, here.

Here's a promo:

As they say, “stay tuned”...

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Out with a Bang: A Percussion Concerto Returns

Composer & Cat
This weekend, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, returns to Harrisburg for a performance of her Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto which the orchestra first played in 2008 with Chris Rose, the symphony's principal percussion player.

That was the first performance by a soloist other than Colin Currie who'd commissioned the piece – he had a two-year exclusivity contract for performances of the concerto – and the result was that the composer also arranged the concerto for wind ensemble so Chris could play it with his “other band,” the United States Marine Band in Washington D.C.

And now, soloist and composer – and conductor Stuart Malina – return, back by popular request, for this weekend's concerts to conclude the Harrisburg Symphony's season. Those performances are Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 3 – a program called Out with a Bang which will also include Aaron Copland's “Quiet City” and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5.

Stuart Malina will be offering the pre-concert talks an hour before each performance and there's the traditional “talk-back Q&Q” afterward. Jennifer Higdon could only be here for the Saturday performance, but considering her busy schedule, we're delighted – not to mention lucky – she could be here. (Unfortunately, Copland and Tchaikovsky are unable to attend.)

You can find out more about the concert at these earlier posts: hear Stuart's pre-season preview of the final concert of the season here and hear video-clips of the Copland and the Higdon concerto; in this post, you can read more about Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony and hear a complete performance of the work by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

You can also read Ellen Hughes' article for the Patriot-News here and read my post about hearing the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, here.

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It was for that 2008 performance that John Clare invited her to be part of a “live interview” on his program “Composing Thoughts” when he and I both still worked at WITF (in fact, John just started a new gig this past Monday, as program director for KMFA, Austin TX).

A foggy day outside the atrium of the then still new WITF Public Media Center (which unfortunately did little to help filming the program), it also involved a performance of two movements from her “String Poetic” for violin and piano with Joel Lambdin (who frequently plays in the Harrisburg Symphony) and his collaborating pianist, Emi Kagawa.  

So, making my blogging a lot easier, this time, here's the complete interview with Jennifer Higdon and John Clare – and how often do you get to hear a LIVE COMPOSER talking her music?!

Part 1 – Introductions – and three excerpts from different works by Jennifer Higdon

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Part 2 – how did these recordings come about; “String Poetic” and how it came about

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Part 3 – introduction to String Poetic: the composer talks about writing the piece

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String Poetic: performance with Joel Lambdin & Emi Kagawa – Nocturne:

String Poetic: Blue Hills of Mist:

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Part 4 – growing up in a family of artists who liked rock music, how images affect her music and how she'd translate them into sounds: a lyrical excerpt from the Percussion Concerto

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Part 5 – how she creates some of those sounds, writing the concerto and talking about the details of the performer (like, having enough time to get from one set-up to the next in time)

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Part 6 – how many percussion instruments are involved: including the percussion section in the orchestra, about 60-70... other questions from the audience

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Part 7 – a question about her cat, Beau (see photo, above); about words and music

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Part 8 – getting beyond the first performance; how the Philadelphia Orchestra ended up commissioning her Concerto for Orchestra and how her career took off from there – “I pinch myself every day: I think, oh my gosh, I get to get up and write music... how did I get [to do] this?”

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Keep in mind this was recorded in 2008 so other related events mentioned here are already in the past.

But a reminder that this weekend's performances are Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Forum with, once again, Stuart Malina, the Harrisburg Symphony and soloist Chris Rose. Don't forget Stuart's pre-concert talk and the post-concert “talk-back Q&A.”

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It's funny, but posting this on Facebook – Jennifer shared my blog post reminiscing about the concerto's premiere on her page – reminded me that in the past musicologists would write these scholarly works about great composers by reading their correspondence: think the letters between Mozart and his father, or Brahms and Clara Schumann. Or of Beethoven's “conversation books” in which people would write down their side of the conversation so Beethoven, who was deaf, could respond (we do not, unfortunately, have his replies which were not written down).

There was a joke in the 1970s how someone would do a PhD dissertation on “the telephone conversations of Igor Stravinsky” by examining his phone bills.

Now I'm wondering about some future scholar writing about “The Facebook Status Up-dates of Famous Composers in the Early 21st Century.”

It is amazing how we can have access to creative artists today through the wonders of the internet and things like YouTube brought right to the computer in front of you if not into the palm of your hand.

But this is no joke: it still is only a fragment of what art can be. Until you've had a chance to hear the music performed live, you're only having a portion of that experience. So I hope you'll take this opportunity to come and hear this work played live right in front of you and you can experience not only Jennifer Higdon's music and the orchestra's performance, but also the reaction of the audience around you.

Dick Strawser

Monday, May 12, 2014

Out with a Bang: Tchaikovsky's Triumphant 'Fate' Symphony

Tchaikovsky in 1888
This weekend marks the final Masterworks Concert of the season and it's called "Out with a Bang" not just because of Jennifer Higdon's incredible Percussion Concerto with its stage-wide array of instruments for the soloist - there are few bigger (indeed, few noisier) endings for a symphony than Tchaikovsky's 5th. By compensation, the program opens with Aaron Copland's Quiet City, evocative of a night-time scene overlooking a usually noisy New York. HSO's principal percussionist Christopher Rose is once again the soloist for Higdon's concerto. The concerts are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - come an hour before each performance for Stuart Malina's pre-concert talk. If you come Saturday night, you'll get to meet Jennifer Higdon! (Sorry, Tchaikovsky has a previous engagement...)

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The old joke is "Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies - his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth." It's true, in a way, because they're the only ones performed with any regularity. And there are those who said "he wrote one symphony three different times."

In one sense, that's almost true, as unfair as it is. These three symphonies are all about Man contending with Fate much in the way we often think of Beethoven's 5th (Beethoven himself described the opening motif as "Fate Knocks at the Door").

In his 4th, Tchaikovsky has a fanfare that represents fate which recurs throughout the symphony. In his 5th, it's an out-and-out theme, very dolorous at the opening but turned into a raucous triumphal march in the finale (a bang, indeed). In fact, both symphonies - if they express fate slightly differently and how the 'hero' responds to it - end triumphantly. It is the 6th, subtitled the Pathetique, that ends with one of the saddest endings in the symphonic repertoire: reminding us that the hero is not always victorious.

(You can read more about the 4th and the 6th symphonies in other posts of mine.)

In this performance of the complete symphony, Herbert von Karajan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic:
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Tchaikovsky's Fifth is one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire but when the composer was writing it, he was unsure of its quality, in fact was having difficulty writing it. Even after it was done, having warmed up to it only as he was finishing the piece, Tchaikovsky wrote “There is something repellent about it... This symphony will never please the public.”

Tchaikovsky was always a fairly insecure composer. Four years after he finished law school, he quit his job as a government clerk and began to study at the new music school Nicholas and Anton Rubinstein founded in St. Petersburg. Though Tchaikovsky had been playing the piano for years and loved improvising for dances, he didn’t know very much about the simple details of music nor was he aware of how many symphonies Beethoven had written, since he’d not had the chance to hear any of them. One of the first graduates of the Rubinsteins’ school, he moved to Moscow where Nicholas Rubinstein recruited him to teach at the new music school he’d just opened there, feeling he was barely one step ahead of his students. Any confidence would have been severely damaged when his former teacher declined to premiere his first symphony, a refusal he never forgave, though he always thought highly of Anton Rubinstein otherwise (“it is just that he does not care for my music, that my musical temperament is antipathetic to him”).

There are certainly wonderful pieces in these early works, but the music we would consider his greatest began appearing when he was in his mid-30s: the 1st Piano Concerto, the ballet “Swan Lake” (a failure at its premiere), the opera on Pushkin’s “Eugene Onyegin,” the 4th Symphony, and the Violin Concerto (famously reviled at its premiere as music that “stinks in the ear”). All of these works, now considered masterpieces, were composed over a four-year span.

In the midst of composing “Onyegin,” Pushkin’s tale of a young woman who contemplated suicide after writing a love letter to an older man who patronizingly rejected her, Tchaikovsky received a love letter from one of his own students, Antonina Miliukova. He couldn’t even remember who she was but, perhaps feeling a bit like Onyegin, agreed at least to meet her. Even though he felt no love for her, he decided to marry her because, as a homosexual when it was against the law to be one, he felt it would please his family and stop any rumors.

The marriage turned out to be a disaster and it was the older man, in this case, who contemplated suicide. Only days into their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky realized this had been a huge mistake, that they had nothing in common: following a nervous breakdown, he waded into a freezing river hoping to catch pneumonia. His younger brother Modeste took Tchaikovsky away to Petersburg and then, after arranging a separation from Antonina, took him to Switzerland to recover. Technically, the couple never divorced but they also never saw each other again during the remaining sixteen years of his life (she would spend the last twenty years of her life in an asylum).

At this same time, however, Tchaikovsky met another woman. Well, not actually “met.” Nadezhda von Meck was the widow of a wealthy railroad tycoon who liked Tchaikovsky’s music (keep in mind, of that list of works I’d mentioned, only the Piano Concerto had been written so far) and wanted to subsidize him so he could quit teaching and devote himself entirely to composing. The only stipulation was that they should never meet, just write letters! He later described his 4th Symphony, already underway at the time of his marriage, as “our symphony” in a famous letter to her, describing it as a “musical confession” echoing the intense despair he felt at that time of his life. He detailed a story about how the opening fanfare represented fate, an invisible force you will never overpower. After detailed accounts of each movement, he ends with a P.S. in which he mentions how impossible it is to “put into words and phrases musical thoughts and ideas.” Clearly, he is looking back over the work – “I was down in the dumps last winter when the symphony was in the writing, and it is a faithful echo of what I was going through at that time” – and trying to find words to explain the music, rather than saying “these are my thoughts from which I composed the music.”

The 5th Symphony seems to have a similar program – instead of a fanfare, a whole full-blown theme that first appears as a dirge which later is transformed into a triumphant march – but he never quite put it into words. There exists in his notebooks a ‘verbal sketch’ for a new symphony he would begin a month later:

"Introduction. Complete submission before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro. Murmur of doubt, complaints, reproaches to XXX. To leap into the embrace of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out". (In his private writings, “XXX” or “Z” appear frequently, usually referring to his inner secret – his homosexuality. )

While it’s possible the symphony may have begun with another personal crisis, the music that evolved from it, however intelligently designed, transcends the in-the-moment reality of the composer writing it as well as the people making or listening to it.

So what “personal crisis” inspired these thoughts in April of 1888?

First of all, it was now ten years after he completed the 4th Symphony. Despite the immense successes, the busy and often harrowing social schedule (always a trial for a shy person) and the acclaim he received from meeting the likes of Brahms (with whom he found little in common), Grieg and Dvorak (whom he liked a lot), he had not found much consolation in a three-month European tour in which much of his recent music – the piano and violin concertos, the Serenade for Strings, the 3rd Orchestral Suite, and the 1812 Overture – was performed to great acclaim. It was, however, not reported in the Russian press: no one at home knew how he and his music were being received in Germany or Prague, Paris or London, and yet he was representing all of Russian art for which no one at home cared a bit.

But before all that, he had spent a month with a dying friend, witnessing his deathbed struggles and feeling totally powerless to help, a time which the composer described to Mme von Meck as “one of the darkest periods” of his life. A sister and a niece were also mortally ill at the time and he felt “a sort of weariness with life... a sad apathy, the feeling that I myself must die soon, and because of this nearness everything that I had held to be important and essential in my life now appears to me trivial, insignificant and utterly pointless."

So he returned home where the effects of his success quickly wore off and thoughts of mortality continued to linger, settling into a period of quiet months at his country estate where nothing seemed to come to him. He was concerned about being “written out.” A month after sketching the idea about “submitting to Fate,” he began work on a symphony that did not progress smoothly. In his letters to Mme von Meck and his brother Modeste, he wrote more about his discussing poetry with Grand Duke Constantine, the tsar’s nephew, and about the enjoyment he got from planting flowers and watching them grow and blossom. He was approached with the possibility of an American tour which would bring in $25,000 (this, in 1888) which he considered a princely sum. But about the new piece, he remained despondent, proclaiming to Mme von Meck, "There is something repellent about it... This symphony will never please the public." In early August, he tells her that signs of age are beginning to bother him (he is now 48 years old), tiring easily and no longer able to read at night. Half of the new symphony, however, is orchestrated. That fall, in Petersburg to conduct the premiere, he was busy making corrections and changes in the score. It seemed to be a popular success though not well received by the critics. Other successes followed and he took it on another European tour which similar results, but still Tchaikovsky had doubts.

While finishing the new symphony, he had written to the Grand Duke disagreeing with him on his assessment of Brahms’ music: “in the music of this master (for one cannot deny he is a master) there is something dry and cold that repulses me.” But he had met Brahms on his tour the year before and liked Brahms the man. Now in Hamburg, he found that Brahms was staying at the same hotel – in the next room, in fact – and had stayed an extra day before returning to Vienna so he could hear this new symphony, something that greatly touched Tchaikovsky. Afterwards, Brahms was very frank about his reaction, liking everything but the noisy finale (earlier, a German orchestra asked to drop the 1812 Overture from the program because of its “noisy finale”). Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew that the symphony was magnificently played and “I like it far better, now, after having held a bad opinion of it for some time.” The press was hailing him as a Second Wagner but he also notes that news of these successes were again ignored in Russia. The only disappointment, it seemed, was the fact the dedicatee was unable to attend the concert.

During the tour before he’d begun the 5th Symphony, Tchaikovsky met the director of Hamburg’s Philharmonic Society, Count Theodore Ave-Lallemant who was in his 80s. He told Tchaikovsky he could not understand his music, especially its noisy orchestration, but felt he had in him “the makings of a really good German composer” if only he would leave Russia and settle in Hamburg where classical conventions and traditions would correct his faults. They managed to part good friends. The following year, Lallemant’s frailty and illness kept him from hearing a symphony dedicated to him but one wonders what he would have made of such an un-German, untraditional and overall noisy piece!

The year after it was composed, Tchaikovsky’s 5th was performed in New York: "In the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony ... one vainly sought for coherency and homogeneousness ... in the last movement, the composer's Calmuck blood got the better of him, and slaughter, dire and bloody, swept across the storm-driven score." - New York City "Musical Courier" March 13, 1889

A few years later, still a piece of fresh contemporary music, it was performed in Boston: "Of the Fifth Tchaikovsky Symphony one hardly knows what to say ... In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes. The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!" – Boston “Evening Transcript” Oct 24, 1892.

Really, they just don't write reviews like that any more...

Dr. Dick