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?

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

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