Overture to Egmont, Opus 84 (1809) by Beethoven
Goethe’s Egmont is a play whose historical setting is the sixteenth-century military subjugation of the Netherlands by the Spanish Duke of Alva. Beethoven not only wrote the overture, but also four entr’actes, two songs, a Melodrame and the final Siegessymphonie, or symphony of triumph, which Goethe prescribed to be played as Egmont leaves his cell to be put to death. Although Beethoven’s music can always stand alone, it is helpful to know something about the play to which the various parts of the overture were composed. The overture begins with three heavily accented minor chords in the rhythm of a tragic Spanish dance, the saraband. Alva has had the champion of Netherlands freedom, Count Egmont, lured into a trap. The music rushes into the main section – a sweeping, plunging theme in the cellos describing Egmont’s rebellious character and his refusal to bow to Spanish rule. He is thrown into prison and condemned to death. In a tender moment near the end of the middle section the music depicts Clarchen, Egmont’s love, who comes to him in a dream as the Goddess of Freedom. She tells him that his death will be the spark that fires the Netherlands to rebellion and the recapture of their lost liberty. She proclaims Egmont the true victor and hero and crowns him with a laurel wreath. When dawn and the reality of a drum roll wakes him, Egmont reaches for the laurel wreath and makes the following speech:
“The wreath has vanished . . . She came to me with bloodstained feet, the swaying hem of her gown stained with blood. It was my blood and the blood of many a noble man. No, it has not been shed in vain. Stride forth brave people! The goddess of victory leads you on. Yes, bring on the soldiers! I do not fear you. Friends, take heart! Behind you are your parents, your wives, and your children. Guard your sacred heritage! And to defend all you hold most dear, fall joyfully, as I do before you now!” As the noble Egmont is led off stage to his execution, Beethoven concludes Goethe’s play with one of the most tremendous climaxes in all orchestral music. Particularly famous are the grotesque whistling shrieks of the piccolo in its highest register against the fanfare of the brass
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 by Beethoven
Beethoven composed the G major piano concerto in 1805 and early 1806. It was performed privately in March 1807; the public premiere was given on December 22, 1808, in Vienna, with the composer as soloist. The orchestra consists of flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time is approximately thirty-four minutes. On December 17, 1808, a Viennese paper announced a concert to be given by Ludwig van Beethoven at the Theater an der Wien five days later: "All the pieces are of his own composition, entirely new, and not yet heard in public."; Although Beethoven's publicist fudged that last detail ever so slightly, the list of world premieres lined up for one evening is astonishing: both the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Choral Fantasy, and this work, Beethoven's fourth piano concerto.
(Those who didn't like too much new and unfamiliar music at one sitting surely stayed home that night.) To round out this substantial program—long even by the generous standards of the nineteenth century—were three movements from the Mass in C, the concert aria Ah! perfido, and improvisations at the keyboard by the composer. "There we sat from 6:30 till 10:30,"; the composer J. F. Reichardt later recalled, "in the most bitter cold, and found by experience that one might have too much even of a good thing."; What should have been the greatest night of Beethoven's career was ruined by too much music and too little heat. The performances were no doubt wretched, for rehearsals had gone badly. For one thing, Beethoven had so annoyed the members of the Theater an der Wien orchestra the previous month that they now insisted that he sit in the anteroom whenever he was not needed at the keyboard and wait for the concertmaster to check with him between movements. Beethoven was so desperate to see this concert take place that he agreed. (It promised him both wide exposure and a nice profit.) Not surprisingly, there wasn't enough time for the orchestra to learn so much challenging new music. Reichardt remembered that "It had been found impossible to get a single full rehearsal for all the pieces to be performed, every one of them filled with the greatest difficulties."; The Choral Fantasy, which Beethoven composed at the very last moment (inexplicably thinking the concert lacked a blockbuster finish), was scarcely rehearsed at all. When it broke down completely during the performance, Beethoven started it over again from the beginning, making a very long evening even longer. By all reports, Beethoven was a terrifically exciting pianist. He played with spectacular technical facility and tremendous emotional expression. According to his student Ferdinand Ries, he cared less about missed notes than character and expression: "Mistakes of the other kind, he said, were due to chance, but these last resulted from want of knowledge, feeling, or attention."; When Beethoven first stepped out on stage the night of December 22, 1808, it was to play this concerto in G major, and surely most members of the audience were surprised that he went straight to the keyboard and started to play. Anyone who troubled to buy a ticket to this concert would have known that a concerto begins with a long orchestral exposition that gives you all the tunes before the soloist begins. But Beethoven had begun to examine every convention he inherited, to rethink every choice a composer could make. He realized that the only way to call greater attention to the soloist's first line was to do something unexpected. In his Violin Concerto, first performed several months before, he had made the wait almost interminable and then sneaked the violinist
in, so that if you weren't paying attention you missed it altogether. And here, he caught his audience completely off guard again by starting with the piano. It's a brilliant trick—so perfectly handled that it has hardly ever been imitated—and Beethoven quickly follows one masterstroke with another—the orchestra enters six bars later in the unexpected key of B major.
The most remarkable thing about this bold and original opening is the sustained quiet dynamics—beginning piano and then falling off to pianissimo—as if Beethoven were sharing confidences, not proclamations. A tone of moderation and nobility persists throughout the first movement, even in the most vigorous and brilliant passages; this, too, was unexpected. The movement is dominated throughout by a gentle version of the same four-note rhythm with which Fate aggressively knocks on the door of the Fifth Symphony. (The German theorist Heinrich Schenker, who always doubted that Beethoven had that image in mind when he wrote the symphony, wanted to know if the concerto depicted "another door on which Fate knocked or was someone else knocking at the same door"; The slow movement has inspired many interpretations (Orpheus taming the Furies is the most familiar one), although Beethoven evidently was thinking of nothing more dramatic than the music itself when he wrote it. This is a conversation between the strings and the piano. The strings, playing in staccato octaves, begin assertively. The piano responds with rich, quiet chords—an answer that raises questions of its own. On it goes, back and forth—the piano steadfast, the strings gradually weakening. Sensing victory, the piano unleashes a brief, rhapsodic cadenza. Finally everyone plays together, sharing the same chords and the same rhythm. Over the final chord, the piano poses a brand new question, to which Beethoven responds by launching into the finale without a pause. Our sense of boundaries is vague: in retrospect, the entire slow movement sounds like a long introduction to the finale. (That's exactly the case in the Waldstein Sonata, written two years before.) The finale itself doesn't behave like one at first: it's the only one in all of Beethoven's concertos that doesn't begin with the soloist stating the main theme, followed by vigorous confirmation from the full orchestra. Here Beethoven opens softly with the strings, in the wrong key. The piano takes the situation in hand with a brilliant, virtuosic new theme, and the rest of the movement is swift and thrilling. The orchestral sound is enriched by the introduction of trumpets and drums, and the solo part effectively combines lyricism with bravura and elegance with wit. After the concert, Beethoven boasted that "in spite of the fact that various mistakes were made, which I could not prevent, the public nevertheless applauded the whole performance with enthusiasm." Reichardt particularly remembered the "new pianoforte concerto of immense difficulty, which Beethoven executed astonishingly well in the most rapid tempos." There's no record of how much money Beethoven made that night. His days as a celebrity performer, however, were over. His hearing had recently gotten much worse, and it turned out that this was the last time he would appear in public as a soloist. - Dr. Patrick Riley (Bemidji)
Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat "Eroica"
Written mainly in the summer of 1803, the Eroica symphony is famous not only for its music, but for its intended dedication as well as its expanded form and orchestration. As Napoleon Bonaparte swept through Europe in the early 19th century, Beethoven followed the general’s career with interest. The composer dedicated his Eroica, which captures a heroic spirit, to Napoleon, only to recant the dedication when he heard that the Frenchman had declared himself emperor. Indeed, Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries wrote that the composer “went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it to the floor” when he received the news. Although the Eroica symphony is not specifically programmatic, Beethoven embedded the concept of a hero throughout his work, inspiring speculation over the meaning of each movement.
The Third Symphony marked a significant shift in Beethoven's compositional style. Previously he had composed primarily in the Classical style, which included elements like symmetrical phrases and lyrical melodies, as well as writing for a more classical-sized orchestra with pairs of woodwoods, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings. Although his Eroica symphony still follows overarching Classical forms, Beethoven incorporated new elements that foreshadowed Romantic music. Known as the beginning of the composer’s "heroic" style, Symphony No. 3 includes elements such as large codas, or an ending of a movement, and the alteration of heavy downbeats with reactive upbeats. In other words, the work is long!
Thematic development plays an essential role in the symphonic form. Beethoven merges the traditional Classical forms with extensive development of themes, which adds to the drama and intrigue of Symphony No. 3.
The first movement of the symphony is immense in length and content. Although Beethoven set the opening of his work in sonata-allegro form, which was the standard structure of a symphony’s first movement, he included several key deviations, the most dramatic occurring in measure 5! Furthermore, the middle section of the work is significantly larger due to the composer’s emphasis on thematic development.
The second movement is equally stunning in size and innovation. A traditional slow movement, Beethoven composes a funeral macabre that has been argued is a depiction of human suffering pulled from historical epochs. The movement is set in ternary form, which features a recurring theme first presented by mournful strings. My mentor Murry Sidlin said one must have "lived long and suffered much" to begin to understand this movement. In stark contrast to the second movement, Beethoven’s third movement is a lively scherzo. The lively dance that opens the movement will spin out into a trio.
The fourth movement, which serves as a kind of climax to the entire symphony, features our hero’s apotheosis. It is here that Beethoven recalls his past melodies (specifically, two country dances) from his ballet Prometheus in a stunning theme and variations form. - Dr. Beverly Everett