Friday, February 7, 2014

Beethoven's Fourth: Among Giants

Beethoven in 1806
This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony features three works: the world premiere of an orchestral work by Steve Rudolph commissioned by the Symphony Board to celebrate Stuart Malina's 50th Birthday (you can read about it, here); the greatest of the cello concertos with Zuill Bailey returning to Harrisburg to make his debut with the orchestra, playing Dvořák's concerto (you can read about it, here); and a symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven that should need no introduction but usually needs some background since it's not one of those you usually hear that often.

Saturday's concert is at 8pm and Sunday's is at 3pm in the Forum, and assistant conductor Greg Woodbridge will be offering the pre-concert talks an hour before each performance.

And if you haven't already read it, here's a link to Ellen Hughes' article for the Patriot-News.

Here, Stuart Malina talks about the February Masterworks concert, Romancing the Cello, recorded at last September's "Season Preview" held at Harrisburg's Midtown Scholar Bookstore.

This performance of the complete 4th Symphony of Beethoven is taken from a DVD that includes both the 4th and the 7th, and while I'm not going to tell you don't listen to the 7th, you can sample the 4th here with the legendary Carlos Kleiber and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, recorded in 1983: the performance begins at 0:53 after that long walk down the steps, and ends at 34:32.
= = = = =

= = = = =

You can also hear a different performance by Kleiber for comparison's sake on these “audio-clips” posted at YouTube as well, movement by movement, recorded in 1982 with the Bavarian State Orchestra in Munich's National Theater.

= = = = = = =
1st Mvmt:

2nd Mvmt:

3rd & 4th Movements:

= = = = = = =

Robert Schumann once wrote about Beethoven's 4th Symphony as being “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants,” and while this comment has fallen before political correctness these days, his description is apt if you consider his context.

The Norse giants, symbols of Capital-R Romanticism even before Wagner began The Ring of the Nibelung, would be the 3rd Symphony, the mighty Eroica, initially intended as a Bonaparte Symphony and the 5th Symphony with its “Fate Knocks at the Door” Motive and its Victory Over Tragedy conclusion.

By comparison to these two symphonies, unlike any composed before if not since, the 4th Symphony appears to be a more Capital-C Classical symphony without any sense of a program, abstract in the nature of symphonies by his teacher Haydn (who, when this was composed, was still alive), less extroverted not only in its nature – neither heroic nor dramatic – but also in its form. It might be exuberant the way many Haydn symphonies are exuberant but it is never the wildly emotional drama that Beethoven's contemporaries heard in the other two and considered chaotic, especially the 3rd which to many seemed interminably long. If people in those days ever said “But you can't do that” about a symphony, they would've been saying it about the 3rd & 5th.

The problem is, if you compared the 4th Symphony to what Haydn had written a little over a decade earlier and certainly to what Beethoven's own contemporaries were writing, it is still a bold, challenging statement to what a classical symphony could be, breaking boundaries of its own.

It's just that, after the 3rd and then looking back on it with the 5th (and of course even later after the Bacchic frenzy of the 7th and the sublime monumentality of the 9th), the 4th seems pretty tame to us.

Another thing writers about Beethoven Symphonies tell us is something like “Beethoven developed the habit of writing monumental works in his odd-numbered symphonies and saving his more personal, less exploratory [read, perhaps, 'less interesting'] statements for the even-numbered symphonies.”

But in hindsight, while that may seem a fairly accurate stereotype as stereotypes go, it was not Beethoven's intent.

And we know that because he began writing the 5th Symphony immediately after the 3rd – wait, to save some confusion, let's refer to them by their tonalities or nicknames. He began writing the C Minor Symphony immediately after the Eroica only to put it aside to write the B-flat Symphony. Then he finished the C Minor while already sketching the Pastoral which, when they were first performed had their numberings reversed.

So, when Count von Oppersdorf requested a symphony from Beethoven in 1806 while he was in the midst of sketching the C Minor, that one (first begun) might've become the 4th Symphony and the B-flat, assuming he'd write it next, would've become the 5th.

And then later, since the C Minor and the Pastoral were premiered on the same concert, if Beethoven had been concerned about this odd and even-numbered business, he wouldn't have called the Pastoral his 5th and the C Minor the 6th.

Perhaps that's why Beethoven's 4th has become one of the least performed of Beethoven's nine symphonies: because it doesn't seem to match the standards of these giants we have come to revere, and we find, by comparison, those less “bombastic” (or out-going) works like the 2nd, 8th and even the 6th (which at least is popular because of its “story,” in itself revolutionary) less magnificent.

Had it been written by a composer like Josef Weigl who was one of the most frequently performed composers in Beethoven's Vienna at the time, it would undoubtedly be called Weigl's masterpiece.

(Weigl, however, was almost exclusively an opera composer: we tend to forget that, despite Beethoven and Schubert and later Brahms, the Viennese were not generally fond of symphonies - too abstract for their tastes: opera was where the money was at and that was why Beethoven expended so much effort on his one opera which had the bad luck to fail there three times.)

By the way, if Schumann thought it comparable to a classical Greek statue of a demure maiden, Hector Berlioz – himself a rather over-the-top Romanticist most (in)famous for his Symphonie fantastique – thought the slow movement of Beethoven's 4th must have been written by the Archangel Michael and not a mere human!

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

I've heard from music lovers that Beethoven must have been “relaxing” after completing the momentous, ground-break Eroica, saving up energy for the 5th. The implication is often that this is “laid-back” Beethoven or that he was not inspired to write “great music” because these other works took so much out of him.

We tend to forget, today, that composers often worked “in sets.” Haydn would write 6 string quartets and publish them as a set. Beethoven would do the same with his first six quartets of Op. 18, published in 1800. Even though Mozart wrote his six quartets “dedicated to Haydn” consecutively, they appeared as a set of six quartets – the use of individual catalogue numbers courtesy of Mr. Köchel also emphasizes the individuality of these quartets.

Haydn often wrote groups of symphonies – there are a dozen “London Symphonies” but they were composed in two sets of six each, composed for different seasons on his London tours.

Since these were meant to be heard in some sort of context – if not all on one evening, perhaps all in one season – this required a certain sense of variety. In terms of quartets, one might be a “concertante” one where it was like a mini-concerto for the 1st violinist; another might be a more “symphonic” one (certainly, in the case of Beethoven) where the four players were more tightly integrated and the form more developed; another might be pastoral or dramatic (usually the only one in a minor key), lyrical or light-hearted.

When we hear Mozart's “Little” G Minor Symphony, we wonder what anxieties the 17-year-old composer must have been going through but it was really a young composer who was writing the expected “storm und drang” piece because that's what he chose to write, whether he was feeling particularly stressed-out or not. In the last three symphonies Mozart composed, the “Big” G Minor is the tragic piece and again we think of Mozart, the starving artist dying at the age of 35, though when these were composed, he had no idea he'd only have three more years to live. This was his attempt to write a “dramatic” symphony between the lyrical E-flat and the sublime grandeur of the one later dubbed “The Jupiter.”

Beethoven, it seems, often conceived his symphonies in pairs – the 5th (eventually) became a companion piece with the 6th and their natures (no pun intended) are very different because they're meant to be very different: one is dramatic, the other lyrical. The 7th and 8th were conceived as a pair, one totally extroverted (probably the happiest music he ever composed) followed by one more refined, reticent and (by comparison) introverted.

We also know that Beethoven planned two more symphonies in his last years – and it was the 10th that was supposed to have a choral finale before he decided to set the “Ode to Joy” for the 9th. The sketches for the 10th which can never be successfully realized indicate an expansive but again quite different approach than we hear in the 9th.

The 4th, however, is a bit of an odd-man out. We know nothing of its sketches – for instance, bits of later pieces often appeared in earlier sketch books, where a theme from one symphony stands beside a theme used (and intended for) a different symphony. But that doesn't exist for this symphony. Even the original manuscript apparently is lost – it was once owned by Mendelssohn and housed in the family library in Berlin but where it is now, I'm not sure.

Beethoven had been invited to spend the summer of 1806 at the Silesian estate of one of his long-suffering patrons, Prince Lichnovski where one of the other visitors was Count Franz von Oppersdorf, a relative of the prince's, who heard a performance of Beethoven's 2nd there and immediately commissioned Beethoven to write him a new symphony.

Though he'd already begun working on the 5th at the time and had composed at least its 1st movement, Beethoven put this aside for some reason to write an entirely new one. Apparently he felt the 5th would take more time to do his ideas justice. Or perhaps he thought the Count (or his orchestra) couldn't handle what became the 5th...

At any rate, he completed the work that same summer – a short time, given Beethoven's usual mode of writing – and it was premiered the following March in Vienna, then published with a dedication to the Silesian nobleman who'd commissioned it.

It's interesting to look at the other pieces Beethoven was working on at the same time. Again, we usually think of a composer working on one piece, finishing it, then going on to the next piece and so on. But Beethoven was an inveterate multi-tasker – look at this list of works also composed in 1806:

- the 2nd version of the opera Leonore (later, Fidelio) with the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 (premiered in March, 1806)
- the String Quartet in C, the 3rd of the Three Razumovsky Quartets (completed in the spring of 1806)
- the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G (completed in the summer of 1806)
- the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat (completed in the fall of 1806)
- the 32 Variations in C Minor for solo piano (written in the fall of 1806)
- and last but far from least, the Violin Concerto in D Major (completed in December of 1806).

The 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto are both lofty, lyrical works far from the storminess of either the 3rd or the 5th Symphonies - yet he was working on the 5th in 1805, not returning to it until 1807 and completing it the following year, basically working on it over a four year period.

Basically, hardly the schedule of somebody “relaxing” or “unwinding” after having completed the Eroica in 1804.

You can read more about Beethoven's life at the time he was writing this symphony as well as the Violin Concerto in two separate posts at my blog Thoughts on a Train, here and here.

And you can also read about a similar conundrum with two other of Beethoven's even-numbered symphonies which the Harrisburg Symphony performed in recent seasons: the Pastoral here and the 8th Symphony, here and here.

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment