SS 4: Barry Douglas: Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Plutarch, the Ancient Greek historian and biographer, tells the story of the Roman general Coriolanus, who defeated the Volscians in central Italy, southeast of Rome, and captured their city of Corioli in 493 B.C. According to the story, Coriolanus returned victorious to Rome, but soon had to flee the city when charged with tyrannical conduct and opposition to the distribution of grain to the starving plebs. He raised an army of Volscians against his own people but turned back after entreaties of his mother and his wife. The Volscians, however, regarding him as a traitor because of his indecisiveness, put him to death.

The inspiration for Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture came neither from Plutarch nor from Shakespeare, who made him the subject of his play Coriolanus, but from a play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin – poet, dramatist and functionary in the Austrian Finance Ministry (Austria’s way of supporting its artists). Von Collin’s play was a philosophical treatise on individual freedom and personal responsibility. It premiered in 1802 to great acclaim, using incidental music derived from Mozart’s opera Idomeneo.

Beethoven took just three weeks to compose the Coriolan Overture in January 1807. It was meant to stand on its own as a composition inspired by the play. The Overture was premiered in March at an all-Beethoven concert held in the palace of Prince Lobkowitz.

The stark, dramatic music of the overture is one of Beethoven’s more explosive and violent expressions, an apt portrayal of Coriolanus, who was known for his short fuse. Example 1 Even in the lyrical second subject, the music remains quiet for a moment only, Example 2 quickly reverting to a fortissimo outburst. Example 3 Scholars usually assume that the music, rather than telling the story of the play, was intended as a musical portrait of Coriolanus himself.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor”

Two of the signature aspects of Western thought are the importance of progress and individuality. Nowhere are these concepts more apparent than in the history of music, where we give special attention to innovation in form and harmony. While not always appreciated at first hearing – witness the audience riot over Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – innovators eventually receive their due – in hindsight.

In his greatest works, Beethoven was both an innovator and an individualist who attempted to put his personal stamp on everything from harmony and musical structure to advances in piano construction. While retaining the three-movement form of the concerto, he expanded the internal structure of the individual movements, especially in the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. The dramatic use of the piano in the opening phrases of these concertos was tried only once before – by Mozart in his Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K. 271 – and did not occur again in any major piano concerto until the B-flat major Concerto of Brahms. The thunderous opening of the Fifth Concerto was without precedent, as was Beethoven's refusal to allow the performer to improvise a cadenza.  

Beethoven composed the Concerto in Vienna during the summer of 1809, under conditions hardly conducive to creativity. Following a day of heavy bombardment, Vienna surrendered to the French army under Napoleon, and those citizens who could afford to flee did so, including Beethoven's patron and friend the Archduke Rudolph. Prices and taxes skyrocketed, food was scarce, parks were closed to the public and Beethoven remained in the city, alone and lonely. In spite of the hardships during those trying months, he managed to compose some of his greatest works: the Piano Sonata Op. 81a (“Les adieux”), the Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74 (the “Harp”) and the “Emperor” Concerto (the title bestowed on it by one of the publishers, without Beethoven's approval.)

The Fifth Piano Concerto was premiered in Leipzig in 1811 to an enthusiastic reception. It was the only one of Beethoven's piano concertos without the composer himself at the keyboard, since by that time his hearing had deteriorated too far for him to perform in public, especially with an orchestra. Two months later, however, the first performance in Vienna was a total failure, primarily because the Concerto was on the program of a Charity Society performance featuring three living tableaux on Biblical subjects – hardly a suitable milieu.

The concerto opens with a powerful and assertive orchestral chord, followed by a sweeping cadenza-like flourish by the piano solo. Example 1 Only after two more orchestral chords interspersed in the piano outbursts, does the orchestra introduce the principal theme. Example 2 The movement is stormy and propulsive with some of the same harmonic ambiguity as in the first movement of the Fourth Concerto. At the point where traditionally we would have expected a cadenza, the pianist’s score bore Beethoven’s directive: "Do not play a cadenza!" The music that follows, however, has all the characteristics of a cadenza; the composer wanted to be sure that his ideas, and not the performer’s would prevail, including the horn accompaniment that would certainly not have been part of a classical cadenza. Example 3

The hymn-like lyrical second movement opens with the muted violins introducing the theme, Example 4 followed by an aria pianissimo on the piano. Example 5 There follow two variations, the first on the piano, the second by the orchestra. Then follows one of Beethoven’s most mysterious musical moments, the hushed transition to the exuberant rondo third movement. Example 6 He builds up immense tension and mystery by subtle changes in key and tempo, until the finale bursts out in its jubilant mood. Example 7 Now, if you click on the first example in this commentary, you will see how the opening arpeggios of the Concerto return as the beginning of the main theme of the finale.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

The cheerful mood of the Second Symphony presents an ironic contrast to the circumstances under which it was written. Composed in the summer of 1802, the Symphony was the child of one of the blackest moments in Beethoven’s life. Finally obliged to confront head on the dire implications of his increasing deafness, he realized that this affliction was not only the cruelest blow to the practice of his art but also would in all likelihood deny him the normal friendships and family life to which he aspired. Advised by his physician to leave Vienna for the peace and quiet of the countryside, Beethoven spent that summer and fall in Heiligenstadt, a suburb of Vienna. From his refuge he wrote to his brothers the famous pessimistic letter known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a timeless statement on the full ramifications of deafness. He wrote, “…I was compelled early to keep apart, to live in loneliness; when at times I tried to surmount all this, oh, how harshly I was defeated by the doubly tragic experience of my bad hearing, and yet, I could not bring myself to say to people ‘Speak loudly for I am deaf.’” The letter was never sent and was found among Beethoven’s belongings after his death.

His personal tragedy notwithstanding, Beethoven had the dedication and inner strength to put the final touches to his Second Symphony and the Third Piano Concerto. These two, together with the cantata Christ on the Mount of Olives, were premiered on April 5, 1803 at a Beethoven Akademie (benefit Concert) in Vienna to great acclaim (Scalpers were selling tickets at two to three times their nominal value.)

Because the Symphony shows no trace of the anguished pessimism that permeated Beethoven’s mood, it has sometimes been called “a heroic lie.” It also illustrates the steady development of the composer’s style and orchestration, while still paying tribute to the spirit of Haydn and Mozart.

The slow introduction is longer and weightier than the public was used to – even from Haydn.Example 1 The Allegro introduces one of those deceptively simple themes – a slightly embellished five-finger exercise – that Beethoven was a genius at investing with new life through asymmetrical phrasing and unexpected harmonic direction. Example 2The short second theme resembles a fanfare Example 3 that develops and blends into a closing theme for the exposition that is built on the opening theme. Example 4

The second movement Larghetto presents a bouquet of lyrical melodies that introduce contrasts between the winds and strings, as well as contrasting articulation. The first two melodies in the strings are the two phrases of the initial theme. Example 5Example 6 The succeeding theme now features the winds, Example 7 and the next two emphasize the distinction between legato and detached articulation. Example 8 & Example 9

The Scherzo plays a little game with sudden contrasts in dynamics and orchestral color. Example 10 & Example 11  But it is the Finale, written in sonata-rondo form, that sums up and gives unifying significance to all the devices for contrasts in the preceding three movements. Its explosive opening, with special prominence for the timpani, points the way for the boisterous finales of Beethoven’s mature years. Example 12 The second theme group provides an exaggerated contrast in melodic texture, Example 13 but more striking is Beethoven's handling of the opening motive as a refrain throughout the movement, in the development section as a series of musical “hiccups.” Example 14 It is almost as if the unpredictable changes in dynamics in these last two movements represent the composer’s erratic hearing.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018