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.
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.
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.