Program Notes

Radio Broadcast Performance - November 28 & 29, 2020

Concert programs, like the works on them, are like mirrors reflecting the times in which they appear. There are many elements to consider in attempting to strike a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the new and the old, the culturally relevant and the canonically affirmed. The works on this program encompass a vast swath of musical and cultural history and point toward the future of the ever-changing landscape of the concert music scene. It has become clear that the concert hall should become a place for new voices to be heard alongside the proverbial warhorses. Music, like all artforms, is a living, breathing, changing endeavor, this must be acknowledged and celebrated. Programs representing diverse experiences and perspectives enliven and vitalize our musical experience.

What better way to open a concert than with a fanfare? Fanfares have a very long history and have served as the herald of an important or ceremonial event, typically with blaring flourishes played on trumpets and other brass instruments. Often fanfares were associated with royalty, to announce their presence at an event, and their use of military instruments like trumpets and drums were symbols of the worldly power of monarchs. When Aaron Copland composed his Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), he was explicitly disrupting the norm of the function of the fanfare as tribute to elite power by paying homage to the “Common Man.” In the parlance of 1940s America, “Man,” with a capital M, was understood to stand for all people without regard to gender, yet, the implicitly exclusive gendering of humanity is still evident. Copland’s fanfare is a work of great power and expression, resonating with the spirit of its time as the world was gripped in a struggle against rising European fascism. Its effects are still palpable to our sensibilities nearly 80 years after. As times change and we move toward an even more expansive conception of humanity, music, too, changes to address this expansive vision. It is in this context that the fanfares of contemporary composer Joan Tower (b. 1938) find their place. She has very deliberately titled her 6 works, Fanfare to the Uncommon Woman.

Joan Tower

After a nearly 60-year career, Tower is today part of the group of well-established American composers including contemporaries like Philip Glass (b. 1937) and Steve Reich (b. 1936). Coming into maturity as a serialist during the turbulent 1960s and bolstered by an energized Women’s Movement in the 1970s, Tower was a leading figure as, at the time, one of a very few female composers in one of the world’s oldest “old boys’ clubs.” Today her dynamic and inventive music has become a regular part of the orchestral and chamber music repertoire. Among her more frequently performed works are the series of ‘fanfares” that she has been writing since the 1980s, the first appearing in 1986. Of its origins, Tower has said:

… I was reading a lot of the feminist books. I was really on board with that. And then the Houston Symphony came along and said, “We’d like you to write a fanfare.” And I said, “OK, a fanfare, what the hell is a fanfare? Oh yeah, it has a lot of brass, I think.”

So then I started thinking about Copland and the only fanfare I knew, Fanfare for the Common Man, and the title really bothered me. For the “common man?” What the hell is that? It’s kind of elitist. So, I had to turn that one around. An “uncommon woman” means a woman who takes risks, who is adventurous.

Since that first commission, Tower has added five more fanfares, all of varied instrumentation, and composed for different occasions and dedicated to different women.  The last fanfare was composed in 2014. The Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, no. 5 (1993), was composed for a group of four trumpeters at the Aspen Music Festival and in honor of Joan W. Harris, for whom, along with her husband, Irving, an Aspen Music Festival Concert Hall is named.

Of her six Fanfares, No. 5 is perhaps the most traditional sounding of the set. Its use of a quartet of trumpets hearkens back to the piercing tone of the stereotypical blaring brass calls that the idea of a fanfare evokes. Though relatively short, this piece is much longer than a mere fanfare and begins in a mood of reflection as the opening solo trumpet pronounces its slow descending motive, the others gradually joining as if slowly awakening. Faster rhythms ensue and are taken up in the ensemble as the texture thickens and real fanfare-like trumpet calls appear. In the second half Tower creates a series of dazzling effects layering varied ideas and picking up speed as the quartet, rhythmically unified, bring the brief work to its regal conclusion.

One of the more prominent voices of a younger generation of composers working today is Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981). Montgomery is an African American female who grew up in New York City in an artistic home. Her father is a musician and her mother a theater artist. Montgomery started playing violin at the age of four and continues to perform as a soloist and chamber musician. Her background as a performing classical musician informs her own music in important ways. She understands the classical repertoire from a performer’s perspective and writes for strings very idiomatically, which contributes to the sonorous quality of many of her works. Montgomery received her undergraduate training in violin at the Juilliard School and later received a masters in Composition for Film and Multimedia from NYU.

Jessie Montgomery

For Montgomery, identity is a part of her musical expression, though identity is not a singular quality as a woman, an African American, a violinist, and an American. These are elements that she explores in a variety of her compositions, and her works manifest these various identities through a wide range of influences from jazz and European classical music, to spirituals and improvisation. Her professional web page includes the following highlighted statement:

“Music is my connection to the world. It guides me to understand my place in relation to others and challenges me to make clear the things I do not understand. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”

Montgomery has been a longtime member of the Catalyst String Quartet and the Sphinx Virtuosi, both groups an outgrowth of the Sphinx Organization dedicated to advancing the careers of young Black and Latinx classical musicians. Her popular, brief string composition, Starburst (2012) was composed for the Virtuosi. According to Montgomery,


“It was written for the Sphinx Virtuosi tour to be an encore. I was definitely trying to experiment with color, and trying to get as many quick, bright gestural colors as I could out of the ensemble. We had to rehearse it a lot because there are a lot of challenging ensemble issues for such a short piece” 

In her own note on the composition she writes:

This brief one-movement work for string orchestra is a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape. A common definition of a starburst: “the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly” lends itself almost literally to the nature of the performing ensemble who premieres the work, The Sphinx Virtuosi, and I wrote the piece with their dynamic in mind.

One could reasonably argue that all of Haydn’s symphonies are “miracles” in that they are endlessly inventive, creative, revelatory, and inspirational, but only one of his symphonies, the Symphony No. 96 in D major, is actually given the nickname “The Miracle,” and as it turns out, it has been misapplied! By the time Joseph Haydn (1733-1809) came to compose his last two sets of symphonies, he was recognized throughout Europe as the greatest living composer and most important symphonist of the late-18th century. After serving as resident composer for three decades at the opulent aristocratic court of the Hungarian Esterhazy family, Hadyn was relieved of his position in 1790 and free to relocate and pursue whatever interests appealed to him. Although financially independent, opportunities would certainly appear for Haydn and almost immediately after leaving the service of the Esterhazys he was approached with an offer from the expatriate German violinist and impresario, Johann Peter Salomon, to go to London. The rest, of course, is familiar history in which Hadyn ventures to London, arriving on New Year’s Day of 1791, where he spends the next year and a half being feted by adoring audiences, observing the lives and habits of early industrial-age Londoners, receiving princely sums for his compositions and performances, and composing many of his most celebrated works. This first London adventure was such a success that Hadyn made a repeat journey in 1794, staying again well into the following year.

King’s Theatre, London

Part of the compositions created for the London audiences in 1791 were a set of six new symphonies, numbers 93-98, the first of the “London Symphonies.” Their numbering does not reflect their actual order of composition and the Symphony No. 96 was the first of the new symphonies composed for the occasion. Its subtlety, energy, and mastery are fully on display for what must have been an anxiously anticipated event for all concerned. Curiously, the nickname “Miracle” has become attached to this symphony, but it is only through an error of memory. The name is associated with an event that happened at the premiere of the Symphony No. 102 where a large chandelier crashed to the seats in the center of the hall, but no one was injured, hence the “miraculous” sparing of audience life and limb. The title has nothing whatsoever to do with the work’s musical qualities.

Despite the predictable outer appearances of this classical symphony, Haydn provides many interesting details that keep the music lively and engaging. The opening movement is preceded by a slow introduction that entices through drama and charm leading into the genial Allegro of the movement proper. Haydn provides at least one surprise as the development section seems to conclude with an extended pause, but the recollection of the opening theme that follows is in the wrong key and leads to more development before the actual recapitulation ensues.

The gem of this symphony is probably the highly soloistic Andante featuring solo violins and various wind instruments. But the music is a mixture of the playful and serious as the carefree theme tossed from section to section leads to dense counterpoint. The concluding interplay of solo violins recalls some of Haydn’s symphonies from decades earlier.

A robust Minuet and Trio follows the Andante with exuberant string writing in the Minuet balanced by gentle lyricism from the solo oboe in the middle Trio section. The concluding movement is a rollicking Rondo whose opening theme, presented coyly in the strings, only heightens our expectation of the forceful episodes that follow in alternation with the recurring opening idea. The movement ends with a surging, irresistible energy that surely gave Haydn’s London audiences plenty to cheer about.

It would seem that for Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) music was at least as personal as the expressions we see the comments quoted from the modern composer Jessie Montgomery. In his case, the confessional quality of his works seems filled with trouble, turmoil, and heartache. His Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op. 64 is to some extent a continuation of Tchaikovsky’s personal narrative expressed in his Fourth Symphony, though the perspective has changed during the intervening years. Tchaikovsky seems to have had some kind of program in mind, but what exists of it in his surviving documents is too fragmentary to be of much use to us today. As in the Fourth Symphony, Fate also plays an important role in the Fifth, and the recurrence of the opening theme in each movement seems to be a recognizable reference to this idea. The difference in perspective here seems to be a resignation to an unavoidable fate that is now governed not by malevolence and sorrow but divine providence.

The somber opening of the first movement presents the dirge-like fate theme in the clarinets sparsely accompanied by the strings. This theme consists of two basic parts, a characteristically descending second half, preceded by a more rhythmic figure of alternating long and paired short notes that is believed to have been borrowed from an opera by the great Russian composer Mikhail Glinka. Glinka’s original, unquestionably known by Tchaikovsky, carried the words “Do not turn to sorrow.” This slow introduction is soon replaced by the wistful flowing first theme of the Allegro. Momentum builds as the whole orchestra becomes involved with this sardonically dancing idea. A brief second theme strives upward in the strings and soon launches into the three-note third idea. Extended syncopated phrases in the winds and

Mikhail Glinka

strings lead into the development, which ingeniously juxtaposes the three main ideas of the movement.

The second movement is one of Tchaikovsky’s most poetic creations. Atmospheric string chords set up the beautifully poignant horn solo. Soon clarinet and oboe join and lead off in a new direction. A passionate theme in the clarinet begins a new section that climaxes with the shattering return of the fate idea from the first movement. The forces regroup around the horn and oboe ideas only to be rebuffed once again by fate. The movement closes with strings gently recalling the earlier oboe theme.

A breezy waltz, tinged with sentimentality, serves as the basis for the third movement. The opening section returns after each new episode until just before the end, the clarinets and bassoons once again whisper the mocking fate motive.

Fate introduces the massive Finale whose carefully planned climaxes are Tchaikovsky at his most vehement. A slashing theme in the strings begins the Allegro vivace as the unrelenting drive of this movement is relieved only briefly by the skipping theme presented in the winds. New themes, mostly derived from earlier motives, rise up to participate in the nearly ecstatic momentum of this movement which leads to a majestically culminating statement of the fate theme. The symphony concludes with one last headlong rush with trumpets triumphantly blaring the opening movement’s first Allegro theme as a closing fanfare. And with that reference, the circle of this program is closed. © 2020 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.

Triple Play: Brahms 4 - October 18, 2020

Composers often find a variety of sources of inspiration for their works, or parts thereof. One can think of any number of typically biographical events that might lead to the creation of virtually any type of artistic work: love, both gained and lost; historical events; death or birth; surviving or overcoming personal challenges, etc. For the works on this program a variety of external sources play a critical role in the shaping and character of the music each composer has created. In Mozart’s overture, the late-18th century fascination with oriental exoticism figures significantly. For Bruch, the inspiration is stated in the work’s title, Scottish Fantasy. And in Brahms’ symphony we hear the influence of his own scholarly inclinations and love and appreciation for the musical past. To be sure, these are not the only factors that contribute to the generation of these beautiful musical works of art, but they are prominently on display and worth acknowledging in our consideration of their distinctive character.

The central role played by Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) in the development of operatic style in the late-18th century is widely recognized. It is Mozart’s operas that form the first body of works that remain to this day staples of the regularly performed operatic repertoire. Though he started composing opera early in his career, his most familiar works come from the period after his break with both the Salzburg political bureaucracy and, perhaps more significantly, his father. After setting his own course in 1781, by moving to Vienna and marrying Constanze Weber – without his father’s approval – Mozart began creating the list of works for which he is primarily known today. Early in that process comes the composing of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) (1782). The work was commissioned by no lesser person than the Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II, who was interested in sponsoring the development of a characteristic “German National-Singspiel.” Opera in Vienna at the time was dominated by the Italian style, loosely referred to as opera seria. Mozart’s previous opera, Idomeneo (1781), cast in the traditional Italian model, proved to be a public success and the 25-year-old was establishing a name for himself as an important composer for his German-speaking audience. It was therefore a great opportunity for him to write a new opera specifically for that audience and the result was a huge success. For Die Entführung Mozart adapted the German comic theater form known as Singspiel, a kind of traditional, comedic folk-theater featuring spoken dialogue with some musical episodes. For this opera, Mozart was determined to mold all aspects of the work to his own artistic vision, creating music of exceptional quality and working closely with the librettist to shape the story and its poetic structure.

The story is characteristic of the late 18th-century Viennese fascination with the exotic, particularly the sounds of the Turkish Janissary or military band, heard so prominently in the lively outer sections of the overture. This Turkish musical fetish is found in works by a wide variety of classical-era composers including, notably, Haydn (“Military” Symphony) and Beethoven (9th Symphony Finale). The music historian Jonathan Bellman suggests this interest “evolved from a sort of battle music played by Turkish military bands outside the walls of Vienna during the siege of that city in 1683,” but “what became understood as Turkish Style was…almost entirely the product of the European imagination.” The clangorous percussion associated with the Janissary band was but a novelty, having little to do with actual Turkish music. Mozart’s opera is, similarly a European projection of a Turkish fantasy where noble European characters are captured and taken prisoner by brutish Turks who seek to despoil the feminine purity of the story’s heroine, Konstanze. Her lover, Belmonte, tries valiantly to rescue her from her fate. Though he is unsuccessful, all are freed due to the clemency of the ultimately benevolent Pasha Selim.

The Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio is unusual as compared to familiar later Mozart opera overtures, though similar to the overtures of earlier operas of the 18th century in its three-part, fast-slow-fast, structure. The opening and closing sections are dramatic, light-hearted, and theatrical as the simple three-note motto announces the main theme with rhythmically activated accompaniment, but the middle section introduces mystery and contrast as the tempo and meter shift to a kind of haunting minuet. The return of the opening music is rousing and aptly sets up the anticipation of the action about to unfold.

Max Bruch (1838-1920) is a composer whose reputation relies primarily on a small handful of well-loved works, despite having had a long and productive career. He composed in virtually all genres, was a well-respected conductor, and was an influential teacher. His music is marked by a characteristic German Romanticism: expressive, colorful, and expansive, but ultimately Bruch was a conservative, reflecting the musical aesthetics or more classically oriented composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann as compared to the more progressive style of Wagner, and it is this stylistic alignment that may have sealed his relatively obscure fate. Roughly contemporary with Johannes Brahms, Bruch staked out the same musical territory as that celebrated composer and consequently his reputation is eclipsed by him.

Pablo de Sarasate

Bruch’s most famous work is his Violin Concerto, in G minor, op. 26, a work that has become a staple in the violin repertoire and receives frequent performances by leading violinists. His other frequently performed work is a concert work for cello and orchestra, the Kol Nidrei, op. 47, composed around the same time as the work heard on this program, the Scottish Fantasy, op. 46. These works share some interesting characteristics, most notably the intensely expressive writing for the solo string instrument, and the derivation of the main thematic material from preexisting and ethnically specific sources, the former based on the ancient Hebrew prayer chanted on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and the latter an adaptation of four Scottish folk songs. In borrowing these musical themes for his compositions, Bruch was participating in a common practice of the later 19th century of deriving classical concert works from folk-based sources. For many 19th-century composers, this folk influence was an expression of a nationalist identity, a desire to recognize the value of folk music from marginalized European cultures. Examples can be seen in the music of Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorák, all of whom use music of their native culture to enliven their works. Bruch, German by birth and training, was neither Jewish nor Scottish, so his music occupies a kind of curious space on the periphery of this nationalist impulse. His fascination with things Scottish is part of a long personal engagement with that culture’s art and literature as well as an extension of a tradition shared with some other German composers, including Beethoven, who relatively late in his career arranged a series of Scottish folk melodies. Bruch had earlier become enamored of the literary works of Walter Scott and it is probably this influence that fired his imagination and inspired him to write his Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp with Free Use of Scottish Folk Melodies, op. 46, though he never visited Scotland before composing his Scottish Fantasy in 1880. Bruch also puts an emphasis on the role of the harp at various points in the work as a partner to the solo violin, probably intended to reflect the composer’s belief that the harp had particular importance in traditional Scottish music. The work is dedicated to the Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate, but was given its premiere by legendary violinist and dedicatee of the Brahms Violin concerto, Joseph Joachim, whose performance Bruch claimed to have “ruined” the piece due to “carelessness” and lacking necessary technique. A later performance by Sarasate proved much more to the composer’s liking.

The Scottish Fantasy is a work that shares similar characteristics with the 19th-century symphonic poem mixed with the traditional concerto. It is in four continuous movements of contrasting tempo and character and is more concerto than symphony, though it lacks an extended cadenza for the soloist. Much like Smetana’s famous Moldau, most sections are linked by recurrences of the first main theme of the work. This theme, the Scottish tune, “Auld Rob Morris/Through the Wood, Laddie,” is, in the opening movement, preceded by a lengthy, slow, and somewhat ominous sounding introduction, the orchestra and solo violin providing a prelude of dramatic narration before introducing the richly expressive folk melody in the solo violin. The second section is labeled Scherzo and is based on a dance tune called “The Dusty Miller,” a lively, rhythmically energized movement featuring droning string accompaniments and virtuosic solo passagework. The conclusion of the enthusiastic dance is abruptly interrupted by the transition to the third movement, again based on the “Auld Rob Morris” theme. The third movement is an intensely lyrical fantasy based on the tune, “I’m Down for Lack of Johnnie,” sweetly sentimental and touched with melancholy. No transition links the slow movement with the emphatic and infectious finale based on an old Scottish song called, “Scots wha hae,” spun out in short, folkish phrases of 4 and 5 bar segments. Invigorated by characteristic “Scotch snap” rhythms, the solo violin part becomes increasingly demanding until a new expressive idea enters providing relief as the harp accompanies the solo. The movement continues to unfold these two ideas, the solo violin part becoming steadily more intricate and technical. Just as the movement seems to reach its expressive climax, Bruch recalls the original “Auld Rob” theme, before a final statement of the “Scots wha hae” bring the work to a rousing close.

Our program concludes with one of the most profound examples of tragic emotional expression found in 19th-century symphonic music. Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98, is in many ways his most unusual symphony in its novel combination of old and new elements.

In addition to being one of the greatest composers of 19th-century, Brahms was also a dedicated student of the music of earlier eras. During much of his career he worked with music publishers preparing editions of the works of various composers of past centuries. We also know that he studied the music of Palestrina, the Italian late-Renaissance master, while working on his German Requiem and had recently completed an edition of Bach’s Cantata 150 around the time of his work on the Symphony No. 4.  He had also been strongly affected by the performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor at about this same time. The music of the Baroque, and Bach in particular, have significant repercussions for the Fourth Symphony, especially in its final movement. It is in this movement that Brahms makes use of the Baroque dance form known as the passacaglia. This type of dance typically consisted of a number of variations set over a continuously repeating bass line. In the case of Brahms’ passacaglia, the bass line is a slightly altered version of an eight-chord progression borrowed from Bach’s Cantata No. 150 and is clearly stated at the very outset of the last movement of the symphony.

The Symphony No. 4 is a product of Brahms’ mature period; it exudes the kind of autumnal warmth and poignancy typical of his late compositions. The first movement sets a tone of urgency through its breathless opening theme in the strings, and, though it is soon taken over by more confident strains, the sense of restlessness is never completely displaced. As the movement inevitably unfolds, the logic of its massive structure becomes clear as contrasting themes appear and later return, reminiscent of the elegant design found in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, now imbued with a level of emotional drama not encountered in their works.

The mellow tones of horns and winds introduce the serene melody of the largely reposeful slow movement. The tranquil mood is later briefly interrupted by a new, imitative and accented variation of the opening melody, once again introducing a sense of the restlessness encountered in the first movement. This disturbance is then climactically followed by one of Brahms’ most sublime and gorgeous melodies in the strings allowing us to momentarily experience the radiant serenity that one encounters only in a Brahms slow movement.

The third movement jolts us out of the dreamy calm of the preceding movement with a boisterous and joyful, march‑like, scherzo. Here Brahms pushes the limits of traditional symphonic practice by writing a movement that is clearly more emphatic and weightier than typical scherzos by using a marching duple pattern rather than the expected triple.  A slower middle section gives brief respite from the ebullience surrounding it, recalling the grace and calm of the second movement. It is short lived though, as we are once again swept up by the energy and drive of the returning triumphal march.

It is in the Finale that the tragic fate of the symphony is finally sealed. The inexorable repetition inherent in the passacaglia form, the heartbreaking character of the theme itself along with its ensuing impassioned and touching variations convey the sense of tragedy throughout most of the movement. The variations unfold in three large sections distinguished by changes in tempo, the middle section feeling somewhat slower before the pace again quickens to the end of the movement; the symphony ends in the atypical and sobering minor key.  ©2020 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.

Opening Night: A Celebration of Beethoven - September 5, 2020

The year 2020 was supposed to be one of celebration and remembrance. Orchestras across the globe were set to honor the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of history’s most beloved composers, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Perhaps appropriately, fate would have it otherwise. The Coronavirus pandemic has seemingly changed everything. Everything, that is, except the power, beauty, and ultimately, the humanity of Beethoven’s music. This concert is a celebration of his musical legacy and the indomitable spirit that we all recognize in it and in ourselves. We come together to share in its unifying and sometimes challenging message that life can be difficult, but we are compelled to forge ahead, to take stock, to mourn our losses, and celebrate our triumphs. In a time of great challenge and profound uncertainty, we come together to hear a vision of transcendence, of beauty, and of the struggle to come to terms with that which cannot be fully expressed in words. Music reminds us to be fully present in all that we experience so that we may learn and grow from it. Beethoven seems to understand as well as any of the greatest artists the sorrow, loss, fear, joy, ecstasy, and the unexpected that constitute our lives. Beethoven, it turns out, may be the perfect composer for our day, and in that sense, the coinciding of his 250th anniversary with the events of this historic year may in fact be more than merely fortuitous.

Coriolanus at the Walls of Rome or Veturia Pleading with Coriolanus by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

The name Coriolan or Coriolanus would be completely obscure but for the artistic creations of two of Europe’s greatest creative figures, William Shakespeare and Beethoven. Shakespeare wrote a play about the ill-fated Roman general almost exactly two centuries before Beethoven composed his concert overture to a play on the same subject by Heinrich Joseph von Collin. Collin’s play, written in 1802, would have remained as obscure as its subject if it were not for Beethoven’s frequently performed Overture to Coriolan, op.62, composed in 1807. Despite the relative obscurity of Coriolanus and his story, it has interesting lessons to teach about history and Beethoven’s times. Coriolanus lived in the 6th – 5th century BCE, before Rome had achieved any of its later “greatness.” The plays tell a story of a general who rises to power but, due to his authoritarian and elitist ideals, is rejected by the citizens. Coriolanus flees Rome only to join forces with his former enemies with the intention of returning to punish his countrymen and women. As his army is about to unleash their fury on the city, Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, beseeches him to turn his army away. He follows his mother’s desires and ultimately relents, when, according to Collin’s version, the tyrannical leader, left with no recourse, takes his own life.

It is very possible that there is something of the Shakespearean in Beethoven’s overture as it is marked by high drama and expressive intensity, but Beethoven was already wary of the despotic notions of political leaders and may have seen Coriolan as another opportunity to express his disdain for leaders who become absorbed with their own power and lose their humanity. His “Eroica” Symphony is famously known originally to have been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, but after Napoleon crowned himself emperor (3 years before Beethoven composed Coriolan), he violently scratched out the dedication, realizing that the French general had become drunk with power.

Musically the Coriolan Overture is situated both chronologically and aesthetically in the heart of Beethoven’s “heroic” period. It was composed around the same time that he was working on his landmark Fifth Symphony, and it shares with that symphony some noteworthy characteristics. It is written in the same portentous key of C minor. It begins with pure drama, the opening charged with thunderous chords in the entire orchestra, and then a violent and agitated theme associated with the title character. A second main theme in E-flat major, like the lyrical theme in the symphony, provides dramatic contrast and pathos, probably intended to evoke the pleading of Volumnia. Unlike the turbulent Fifth Symphony with its incessantly blaring triumphant conclusion, however, Coriolanus’ tragic demise leads to a musically somber and wistful close.

Well before Coriolan and toward the end of his Early compositional period, by 1800 Beethoven was reaching a significant level of material and creative success in Vienna. He had successfully addressed all of the major instrumental forms of his illustrious predecessors, Mozart and Haydn, and was about to put his own mark on music history through his innovations in these same forms. One other element, peculiar to Beethoven, was also becoming more apparent: his gradually worsening deafness. Beethoven’s letters from this period reflect both of these conditions with particular emphasis on the anxiety induced by his hearing loss and his sense of resignation and “defiance to my fate.” This kind of heroic duality in Beethoven’s character is one of the most familiar aspects of his most well-known works and is immediately apparent in his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is a landmark work for its progressive approach to the genre despite its apparent indebtedness to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in the same key. While the concertos share keys and even similar thematic ideas, Beethoven’s concerto presages the Romantic piano concerto in its more extensive introduction to the first movement and the dynamically dramatic relationship forged between solo and orchestra. The insistently minor-keyed, ominous theme heard at the outset is the most pervasive idea of the movement. It is presented first by the orchestra and then solo piano, used in the development and the solo cadenza; in full or fragments, its strains are virtually ever present.

The noble second movement is introduced by the solo piano with its elegant aria-like theme soon taken up by the orchestra. The piano continues with an elaboration of the theme before leading into the more unsettled middle section led by flute and bassoon. The piano once again returns, gradually recalling the opening mood and theme.

The closing Rondo finale is introduced by the piano with the recurring theme that forms the basis of the movement. Following each appearance of the theme new sections of varying and contrasted material are explored usually led by the piano and occasionally enlivened by virtuosic solo flourishes. A particularly beautiful section is led by solo clarinet which is then followed by dramatic fugato on the rondo theme. The final solo cadenza leads directly into the jubilant closing coda.

Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92, has inspired more than its share of flights of fancy from the “apotheosis of the dance” to a “bacchic orgy.” Whatever the particular scenario or image, all seem to attempt to convey some element of ecstatic outpouring. The pure rhythmic impulse of this symphony certainly rivals or even surpasses that of his revolutionary Fifth Symphony. While the Seventh comes near the end of Beethoven’s incredibly productive “heroic period,” it shows no sign of the impending slow-down in creative activity and his accompanying personal difficulties. It also coincides with the period that culminates with Beethoven’s letter to his “Immortal Beloved,” the woman with whom Beethoven was deeply in love and who apparently, for a time, returned his feelings. Could there be an element of the elation that accompanies deeply felt romantic involvement in this symphony? We will probably never know. The correlation between Beethoven’s personal circumstances and the character of a given musical work can at times seem contradictory. Nonetheless, whether inspired by his muse or some more corporeal source, the Seventh Symphony is an expression of boundless energy tinged with profound tragedy.

The dramatic, slow introduction, initiated by a series of resonant chords followed by insistently rising scales, barely restrains the simmering energy ultimately released in the exuberant Vivace section led by the gaily piping theme in the solo flute. The incessant rhythm of the flute theme dominates the entire movement building a sense of sweep unmatched in Beethoven’s music. A more somber mood characterizes the powerfully expressive theme and variations presented in the second movement. Here a melody of the most banal character is masterfully transformed into a theme of great depth and profundity. The propulsive rhythmic energy returns once again in the Scherzo third movement. Beethoven evokes images of an exuberant country-dance reminiscent of his Pastoral Symphony. A more relaxed and sustained flow in the Trio section, featuring a bucolically undulating second horn solo, provides a brief respite from the movement’s generally delirious enthusiasm.  The exhilarating Finale – abruptly introduced by the orchestra’s incisive and potential-laden chords – unleashes a sense of relentless ferocity that is almost ecstatic in its furiously swirling and unbridled energy. © 2020 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.