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February 01, 2012

February 2012 Program Notes

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Born Bonn, 17 December 1770; died Vienna, 26 March 1827.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb Major, the “Emperor,” Op.73.

Composed 1809-10, and first performed in Leipsig’s Gewandhaus on 28 November 1811, with pianist Friedrich Schneider; Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny gave the first Vienna performance the following year. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. The Emperor Concerto was previously performed by the SSO on 8 February, 1992, with Paul Verona, pianist, and David E. Becker conductor; it lasts approximately 38 minutes.

The title “Emperor” for Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto is thought to have been added by Johann Cramer, the composer’s friend and publisher in England, himself a pianist; but it is rarely used in the German-speaking world. If Napoleon Bonaparte was the referent, we can be certain that Beethoven would have vigorously disapproved, not only because of his democratic leanings but because Bonaparte’s army was bombarding, then occupying Vienna at the time Beethoven was writing the concerto. However, if the title implies only a certain grandeur, it does fit this piece, whose three blazing opening orchestral chords and the piano’s cascades of notes in response have always been called “heroic.” The first movement’s length, at about 20 minutes, is epic in scope for its era, and it features triumphant march-like passages as well.

Concertos in the classical era almost always opened with the orchestra alone stating the musical materials (the “exposition” of a sonata form) before the soloist joined in for a restatement of the exposition, and then on to the free-form “development” and the “recapitulation” of the opening, with time allowed for the soloist to improvise in a cadenza. Mozart did break with precedent in his Ninth Piano Concerto by having the soloist respond to the opening phrases, and Beethoven went farther in his Fourth Piano Concerto by having the piano play the very first notes. But not even Beethoven himself, except in his Fifth Symphony, had offered such an audacious, commanding beginning as we hear in the Fifth Concerto, his last. He also breaks with tradition in writing out all the notes of the cadenza-like passages to follow—no improvising allowed here, though there is plenty of opportunity to display great virtuosity.

The first movement is astonishing in its rhythmic energy, its endless variety in each statement of the musical materials, and its very subtle manipulations of the concerto’s basic tonality of Eb (three flats). The slow movement, in the surprising key of B major (five sharps), provides a contrasting repose, with the gentlest of melodies and with ethereal trills on the piano that one associates with the great piano sonatas of Beethoven’s later years.

The transition from the Adagio to the Finale is very remarkable in itself. The bassoons, playing what we assume to be the concluding note, B, drop down a semitone to a Bb that is picked up by the horns as the piano seems to improvise a new tune around it. Impulsively the piano bursts out with the fully formed Finale tune in our “home” key of Eb, jubilantly restated by the orchestra. There follows a glorious Rondo in a propulsive 6/8 rhythm, with the main tune either restated or varied until a momentary slowdown in tempo sets us up for the triumphant close.

The concerto is Beethoven’s last, and the only one not to be premiered by the composer himself at the keyboard, due to his increased deafness. It is dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the composer’s pupil, friend and patron. Beethoven dedicated many of his scores to Rudolph, notably the “Archduke” Trio, the Missa Solemnis, and the “Farewell” (“Les Adieux”) Piano Sonata, written just after the concerto and also in Eb: the opening portrays Rudolph’s forced departure from Vienna at the time of the bombardment, while the finale celebrates his return.

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY

Born Votkinsk, Russia, 7 May, 1840; died St. Petersburg, Russia, 6 November, 1893.

Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op 46.

Written 1877-78 and first performed in Moscow, 22 February (new calendar) 1878, with Nikolai Rubenstein conducting. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings. Its duration is about 45 minutes. The Fourth Symphony was performed by the SSO on 4 May, 1991, Manuel Prestamo conducting; the Finale alone was played with Guy Victor Bordo on 4 February, 2001.

Though Tchaikovsky’s entire life might be said to be full of drama, the Fourth Symphony was written during an especially turbulent period. In 1877 the composer at the age of 37 made a disastrous marriage to a woman who was infatuated with him; thoughts of suicide and other indications of a nervous breakdown quickly led to the dissolution of the marriage and recuperation on a voyage to Italy. It was during this time that the composer wrote not only the Fourth Symphony but the operatic masterpiece Eugene Onegin.

We owe a great deal of our knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s state of mind during composition to his lengthy correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a railroad magnate, who became the composer’s benefactor and close friend—though by mutual agreement they never met in person. The Fourth Symphony is dedicated “To my best friend”—referring to her anonymously.

In May 1877 Tchaikovsky reported to von Meck that he was “engrossed in a symphony which I began to compose back in the winter,” though he was “generally in a highly strung and touchy state of mind which is not conducive to composition.” Nonetheless, he finished a draft of the symphony by the end of the month while also working on Eugene Onegin. In July his marriage to Antonina Milyukova took place; in August he had fled to his sister’s country estate, where he continued work on the orchestration of the symphony; after a catastrophic attempt to reunite with Antonina, he was in Venice and San Remo in December, completing the symphony and feeling confident that it was one of the best things he had written. The premiere performance soon followed in Moscow under the baton of the composer’s friend and colleague Nikolai Rubenstein (brother of the famous pianist Anton), while Tchaikovsky remained in Italy. The reportedly under-rehearsed performance was not a great success, but a later St. Petersburg performance established the piece’s reputation.

Tchaikovsky offered von Meck a detailed program for the Fourth Symphony, but later rejected it, saying that the symphony, like Beethoven’s Fifth, portrayed a spiritual journey but in purely musical terms. In any case, the curious might like to know that in the earlier letter Tchaikovsky identified the opening fanfare as a Fate motif which inexorably returns despite one’s efforts to “take refuge in futile longings” (the melancholy waltz-like main theme of the movement) and “sweet, tender dreams” (the slower section with its tripping tune that follows). The symphony’s slow movement is a memory piece, representing sitting alone in one’s study and remembering moments of both happiness and dejection. The scherzo is pure fanciful imagination “when one has begun to drink a little wine”: peasant dances, street songs and a distant military procession flash through one’s mind. The wildly energetic finale carries the message that one must escape oneself to find happiness in the joys of other people (as the character Levin in Tolstoy’s 1877 Anna Karenina proclaims), especially during holiday celebrations, even if Fate interrupts one’s vicarious joy, as when the symphony’s opening fanfare erupts near the end of the finale.

Even before the end of this letter, Tchaikovsky decided that his program was “confused and inadequate.” What is beyond dispute is that the symphony makes perfect sense in purely musical terms. Each of the movements is beautifully shaped, intricately designed, and emotionally gripping, with the monumental first movement adhering to sonata form even as it moves through violently contrasting moods. The Andantino, beginning with its songful oboe solo, provides the calm repose needed after such a tumultuous first movement, though it does have some passionate moments of its own. The brief Scherzo, subtitled “Pizzicato ostinato,” has the strings playing pizzicato throughout, with the woodwinds making their own playful contributions and the brass adding a few brisk “military” moments. In contrast to this gentle movement, the Finale opens with a blaze of energy. The whirlwind first theme alternates with a Russian folksong throughout the movement, and though the symphony’s stern opening fanfare interrupts the proceedings, the joyful Finale theme and now assertive folktune return to end the piece.

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