LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born Bonn, 17 December 1770; died Vienna, 26 March 1827.
Leonore Overture No. 3.
Composed early 1806, and first performed in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, 29 March of that year, Ignaz von Seyfried conducting. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings. Performed by the SSO most recently on 20 October, 1990, Manuel Prestamo conducting, it lasts approximately 14 minutes.
Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, was surely the most troubled musical project of his entire career. He was inspired by Ferdinando Paer’s 1804 Italian opera Leonora -- itself based on the libretto of a 1798 French opera, Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal -- to write his own version of the story of a heroic woman who disguises herself as a young man in order to infiltrate the prison where her husband is being kept as a political prisoner. Beethoven’s Leonore was premiered in Vienna in November 1805, a most unfortunate time, when the city was occupied by Napoleon’s troops. Only three performances were given. The few Viennese who attended were critical, especially of the libretto, and Beethoven’s friends desperately urged him to make cuts.
Shortening the opera from three acts to two for a new production, which opened six months later, Beethoven revised the overture as well, creating the version now called Leonore Overture No. 3. (The original 1805 overture is now called Leonore No. 2; a further revision for a never-realized 1808 Prague production is now, misleadingly, labeled No. 1.) The second production lasted only two performances before Beethoven quarreled with the house management and withdrew the opera. It was not until 1814 that a further revision, called Fidelio (the name the disguised Leonore gives herself), opened in Vienna to great success: then as now one of Beethoven’s towering achievements. For this production Beethoven wrote an entirely new overture, shorter and more consistently upbeat in mood, to lead more effectively into the lighter opening scene, in which the jailer’s daughter has fallen in love with “Fidelio.”
The Leonore Overture No. 3, which encapsulates the drama of the opera, moving from despair to ecstatic joy, is longer and more like a symphonic poem than a typical overture of Beethoven’s day. And yet (after the slow introduction) it follows the classic pattern of sonata form, though with considerable freedom. Such is the overture’s magnificence that many conductors have been unable to resist including it in staged productions of Fidelio, inserting it just before the final scene of the release of all the political prisoners.
Opening with a solemn unison G that leads down over an octave to a disturbing F#, the overture takes us to the gloomy dungeon where in Act II we meet the chained Florestan. Clarinets and bassoons play a tender theme from his aria in which he remembers his love for Leonore in the “springtime of life.” After passages filled with anguish and yearning, the music quietly moves into the Allegro section, whose main theme quickly builds to an overwhelming joyful excitement. A calmer second theme, derived from the “springtime” melody, follows. The development section, a fantasia on those themes with stormy, suspenseful passages, is interrupted by an offstage trumpet call, heard twice. In the opera this is the signal that the king’s governor is about to arrive, just as Leonore/Fidelio, brandishing a gun, is in a standoff with Florestan’s villainous captor. In the recapitulation of the Allegro section a solo flute soars with the main theme; and the coda is announced by a dazzling rush of strings leading to a thrilling conclusion.
Born Munich, 11 June, 1864; died Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 8 September, 1949.
Concerto for Horn No. 1, Op.11.
Composed in 1882-83 and first performed with full orchestra in Meiningen, 4 March 1885, with Gustav Leinhos, soloist, and Hans von Bülow conducting. The score callsfor pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns and trumpets, plus timpani, strings, and horn soloist. Performance time about 15 minutes.
The sound of the orchestral horn was an intimate part of Richard Strauss’ growing up. His father, Franz, was the principal horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra, taking part in the world premieres of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and, at nearby Bayreuth, Parsifal. (All the same, he detested both Wagner the man and his music, and wouldn’t let Richard see Tristan, or even read the score, until he was 16.) Franz also wrote two horn concertos for himself to play.
Richard, who began to compose in childhood, wrote his First Horn Concerto when he was only 19. His father never played the solo part in public—finding it challengingly difficult—but he coached his protégée, Bruno Hoyer, who gave the premiere in Munich, with Richard at the piano, in March 1883. It was another two years before the version with orchestra was heard, with the distinguished Hans von Bülow (who had conducted the premiere of Tristan, and was a champion of both Brahms and Tchaikovsky as well) leading the Meiningen Court Orchestra. Later that year von Bülow offered Richard the post of assistant conductor in Meiningen.
The score for the concerto calls the solo instrument a “Waldhorn”: literally Forest Horn, i.e., hunting horn, a “natural” (valveless) instrument which his father and many other players of his generation still often used, though horns with valves were gradually replacing the natural horn in symphony and opera orchestras. Strauss’ concerto is said to be nearly impossible to play on a valveless horn, so perhaps the Waldhorn designation is a suggestion that the playing should remind us of a hunting horn. Certainly the opening cadenza, the dreamy slow movement, and the vigorous finale all evoke the Romantic world of the natural horn.
The concerto is quite ingeniously constructed. Following an opening chord held by the orchestra, the solo horn offers a theme that the rest of the movement will develop and that, in a 6/8 guise, will become the main theme of the finale. It has been said that the piece as a whole displays sonata form, with the opening Allegro serving as the exposition, the Andante as development, and the Allegro finale as recapitulation.
The concerto is very much in the spirit of Felix Mendelssohn, including the way that the first Allegro proceeds without pause into the Andante slow movement, as in Mendelssohn’s famous 1844 Violin Concerto. There is a distinctive combination of youthful energy and concise writing that recalls the older composer, and a number of passages seem almost to quote him. Strauss’ Second Horn Concerto, written nearly 60 years later, is equally concise and ingenious, but displays an autumnal glow and wise playfulness quite different from the youthful exuberance of the First.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born Votkinsk, Russia, 7 May, 1840; died St. Petersburg, 6 November, 1893.
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op 64.
Written 1888 and premiered 17 November of that year with the composer leading the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. The score calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Duration 45 to 50 minutes. It was performed complete by the SSO most recently on 14 May, 1994, Guy Victor Bordo conducting; the Finale alone, guest-conducted by Peter Tiboris, was played as part of the festive concert opening the Weill Center on 13 October, 2001.
There is no mystery as to why Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony has long been one of his most popular works on the concert stage and in the recording studio. Even a first-time listener is likely to appreciate the haunting melodies, vivid orchestration, structural clarity and overall emotional intensity.
More enigmatic are the hints of some kind of hidden narrative, or “program,” in the symphony, considering its emotional extremes and especially the recurring musical theme heard at the very beginning of the symphony, interrupting the middle movements and playing a major role in the Finale. Hector Berlioz had used such a “motto” theme or “idée fixe” in his Fantastic Symphony and Herold in Italy (a symphony with viola solo), which Tchaikovsky knew, and he used one himself in his “Manfred” Symphony of 1885, and in the first and last movements of his Fourth Symphony of 1878.
The “Manfred” Symphony had an explicit program based on Lord Byron’s poetic drama Manfred, and for the Fourth Tchaikovsky wrote out a detailed program about incursions of Fate, though he never published it. In the case of the Fifth, the only evidence of a program we have is a note he wrote on an early sketch of the music: “Introduction: Total submission before Fate, or (the same thing) the inscrutable design of Providence. Allegro: (1) Murmurs, doubts, laments. Reproaches against XXX; (2) Shall I cast myself into the embrace of faith?” Still, there is no indication that Tchaikovsky kept such a schema in mind as he continued to work on the symphony.
I. Andante; Allegro con anima. The symphony opens with the motto theme played by the clarinets: it is somber, perhaps indeed defeated or “submissive before fate,” with almost dirge-like string accompaniment. A somewhat quicker march rhythm takes us into the movement proper, as clarinet and bassoon play the principal theme, in 6/8 rhythm: a restless, driven theme that becomes more forceful as fragments are tossed around by the rest of the orchestra, building to a dramatic climax. A second theme, with a rising and falling arc, is played first by the strings, then the winds. A sudden pattern of exuberant octave leaps is followed by a waltz theme that might have come from one of Tchaikovsky’s great ballets.
After a development section involving all these themes (except the “motto”) the recapitulation begins with a solo bassoon now stating the principal theme. In the coda this theme with its dotted-eighth pattern is repeated obsessively, gradually subsiding to a brooding close.
II. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza. (“Slow but singing-style, with some license/freedom.”) After a series of gloomy chords in the strings we hear one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous melodies, which is also one of the most renowned solo passages for horn. Following the full statement of this long-lined melody, a second melody, or counter-theme, is played by the oboe, with the horn accompanying it. Eventually the cellos take over the horn melody, and an intense buildup leads to a climax with the oboe counter-theme now played by the full orchestra.
The pace quickens as we move into the brief middle section of the movement, with the clarinet introducing a new theme. This is passed around excitedly by various sections of the orchestra, until it is violently interrupted by the motto theme from the symphony’s beginning, now a thunderous fanfare led by the trumpets.
After a pause and some halting pizzicato notes, the violins take up the horn theme, with oboe accompaniment. Another passionate buildup leads to counter-theme again played by full orchestra. As the melody begins to subside, the motto theme interrupts a second time, even more violently. Following another pause, clarinets and bassoons play a “sighing” passage that takes us to the conclusion, as the strings tenderly play the counter-theme and the clarinets draw the movement to a gentle close.
III. Valse: Allegro moderato. For his shorter scherzo movement Tchaikovsky offers a contrast to the turbulence of the preceding movement: a graceful waltz, with a second strain that features playful syncopation. The middle section (the “trio”) is more playful yet, with scurrying figures in the strings and winds. When the main waltz section returns, the scurrying continues for a little while in the background. Just before the movement ends, the motto theme returns, but subdued and in the same waltz tempo.
IV. Finale: Andante maestoso; Allegro vivace. The Finale opens with the motto theme, just like the first movement and in the same tempo—but now in a major key and sounding like a solemn processional march. The Allegro vivace that follows is lively indeed, with an impulsive forward drive. The vigorous first theme leads to a number of secondary themes: one for oboe, one for strings, and (the sonata-form “second theme” proper) an outburst from the woodwinds. The motto theme returns again, now as a heroic fanfare from the brass.
After a development section in which tensions build up, subside, then build again, the Allegro vivace is repeated with just enough difference to ratchet up the excitement. After the now-expected return of the motto theme the symphony seems to be moving toward a close—but after a pause the motto theme is taken up for the final time, as the grandest possible triumphant march. When it reaches its climax, a Presto finish features the secondary themes of the movement and, for a surprise flourish, the dotted-eighth theme of the first movement, in the form of a glorious fanfare leading to the final notes.