Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72b
Ludwig van Beethoven
(b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
Composed in 1806.
Premiered on March 29, 1806 in Vienna.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 14 minutes.
The decade (1804-1814) that Beethoven devoted to his only opera, Fidelio, was an unprecedented amount of time to spend perfecting such a work during the early 19th century. Given the same ten years, Rossini dispensed 31 (!) operas between 1810 and 1820, and Donizetti cranked out 35 (!!) specimens of the genre from 1827 to 1837. Even Mozart launched seven operas during his decade in Vienna. For Beethoven, however, Fidelio was more than just a mere theatrical diversion — it was his philosophy set to music. This story of the triumph of justice over tyranny, of love over inhumanity was a document of his faith. To present such grandiose beliefs in a work that would not fully serve them was unthinkable, and so Beethoven hammered and rewrote and changed until he was satisfied. In his book The Interior Beethoven, Irving Kolodin wrote, “As tended to be the life-long case with Beethoven, the overriding consideration remained: achievement of the objective. How long it might take or how much effort might be required was not merely incidental — such consideration was all but non-existent.”
The most visible remnants of Beethoven’s extensive revisions are the quartet of overtures he composed for Fidelio, the only instance in the history of music in which a composer generated so many curtain-raisers for a single opera. The first version of the opera, written between January 1804 and early autumn 1805, was initially titled Leonore after the heroine, who courageously rescues her husband from his wrongful incarceration. For that production, Beethoven wrote the Overture in C major now known as the Leonore No. 1, utilizing themes from the opera. The composer’s friend and early biographer Anton Schindler recorded that Beethoven rejected this first attempt after hearing it privately performed at Prince Lichnowsky’s palace before the premiere. (Another theory, supported by recent detailed examination of the paper on which the sketches for the piece were made, holds that this work was written in 1806-1807 for a projected performance of the opera in Prague which never took place, thus making Leonore No. 1 the third of the Fidelio overtures.) He composed a second C major overture, Leonore No. 2, and this piece was used at the first performance, on November 20, 1805. (The management of Vienna’s Theatre an der Wien, site of the premiere, insisted on changing the opera’s name from Leonore to Fidelio to avoid confusion with Ferdinand Paër’s Leonore.) The opera foundered. Not only was the audience, largely populated by French officers of Napoleon’s army, which had invaded Vienna exactly one week earlier, unsympathetic, but there were also problems in Fidelio’s dramatic structure. Beethoven was encouraged by his aristocratic supporters to rework the opera and present it again. This second version, for which the magnificent Leonore Overture No. 3 was written, was presented in Vienna on March 29, 1806, but met with only slightly more acclaim than its forerunner.
In 1814, some members of the Court Theater approached Beethoven, by then Europe’s most famous composer, about reviving Fidelio. The idealistic subject of the opera had never been far from his thoughts, and he agreed to the project. The libretto was revised yet again, and Beethoven rewrote all the numbers in the opera and changed their order to enhance the work’s dramatic impact. The new Fidelio Overture, the fourth he composed for his opera, was among the revisions. Beethoven realized that the earlier Overtures, especially the Leonore No. 3, simply overwhelmed what followed (“As a curtain raiser, it almost made the raising of the curtain superfluous,” judged Irving Kolodin), and, from a technical viewpoint, were in the wrong tonality to match the revised beginning of the opera. The compact Fidelio Overture, in E major, is now always heard to open the opera. The Leonore No. 3 often appears between the two scenes of Act II, a practice instituted by Otto Nicolai when he produced Fidelio in Vienna in the early 1840s. Both are regular entries on concert programs.
The Leonore No. 3 is one of the most magnificent overtures in the orchestral literature. It distills the essential dramatic progression of the opera into purely musical terms: the triumph of good over evil, the movement from darkness to light, from subjugation to freedom, is integral to this music. It is a musical/philosophical road Beethoven also travelled in his Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, and in this sweeping Overture it is compressed into a tonal document of staggering power. The structure of the Overture follows the basic sonata-allegro design, but adapted by Beethoven to fit the dramatic requirements of his subject. It begins with a broad, slow introduction, by turns lugubrious and threatening, during which the clarinets and bassoons intone the opening phrases of the aria Florestan sings in his dungeon prison. In a faster tempo, the violins present the arch-shaped main theme, which grows to a riveting climax before the entry of the complementary theme, a lyrical strain introduced quietly by flute and violins. The development section is filled with sudden dynamic changes and affective harmonic excursions that mirror the perilous struggles of the play. Then, in an unforgettable coup de théâtre, a distant trumpet call signals deliverance for Florestan and his faithful Leonore. The recapitulation of the themes glows in triumph. A jubilant coda, begun with whirling scales in the strings, brings this superb work to a stirring close.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125, “Choral”
Ludwig van Beethoven
Composed in 1822-1824.
Premiered on May 7, 1824 in Vienna, conducted by Michael Umlauf under the composer’s supervision.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion and strings.
Duration: approximately 70 minutes.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it! Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller!” shouted Beethoven to Anton Schindler, his companion and eventual biographer, as he burst from his workroom one afternoon in October 1823. The joyful announcement meant that the path to the completion of the Ninth Symphony — after a gestation of more than three decades — was finally clear.
Friedrich Schiller published his poem An die Freude (“Ode to Joy”) in 1785 as a tribute to his friend Christian Gottfried Körner. By 1790, when he was twenty, Beethoven knew the poem, though it is uncertain how it came to his attention. The poem’s philosophy of love and brotherhood was relevant enough to the composer as a young man in revolutionary Europe that he became a Freemason, a lodge dedicated to those ideals, and he remained a member until the organization was banned in Austria in 1795 for its alleged subversive activities. He considered a musical setting of An die Freude as early as 1793, as evidenced by a letter from Ludwig Fischenich to Charlotte Schiller, the poet’s sister. “He proposes to compose Schiller’s Freude,” wrote Fischenich on January 26th. “I expect something perfect, for as far as I know him he is devoted to the great and the sublime.” Beethoven had already given evidence of his grand artistic vision in a setting of a similarly idealistic text as a cantata for the coronation of Joseph II in 1790. Schiller’s poem first appeared in his notes and sketchbooks in 1798.
Beethoven produced his first eight symphonies in the dozen years between 1800 and 1812. Those compositions are, of course, the stylistic base on which the last Symphony rests, but there was also an occasional work written during those years that looks directly forward to it — the Choral Fantasia of 1808. In trying to describe the recently completed Ninth Symphony to the publisher Probst in a letter of March 10, 1824, Beethoven noted that it was “in the style of my Choral Fantasia, but very much more extended.” He indicated several qualities shared by the two works: both were for chorus and orchestra; both were grand settings of an uplifting, idealistic text; both were in variations form; and both were based on a folk-like theme.
It is among the sketches for the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, composed simultaneously in 1811-1812, that the first musical ideas for Schiller’s poem appear. Though these sketches are unrelated to the finished Ode to Joy theme — that went through more than 200 revisions (!) before Beethoven was satisfied with it — they do show the composer’s continuing interest in the text and the gestating idea of setting it for chorus and orchestra. Curiously, he envisioned the piece at that time in the single-movement form of the Choral Fantasia, rather like a grand overture. The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies were finished by 1812, and Beethoven immediately started making plans for his next composition in the genre, settling on the key of D minor, but getting no further. It was to be another dozen years before he could bring this vague vision to fulfillment.
The first evidence of the musical material that was used in the finished Ninth Symphony appeared in 1815, when a sketch for the theme of the Scherzo emerged among Beethoven’s notes. It was marked “Fugue,” and proves that the rich, contrapuntal texture of the Symphony had been decided even before the notes existed to inform it. He took up his draft again in 1817, and by the following year much of the Scherzo was sketched. It was also in 1818 that he considered including a choral movement, but not as the finale. His tentative plan called for voices in the slow movement — “a pious song in the ancient modes,” something Greek rather than Christian, he thought. With much still unsettled, Beethoven was forced to lay aside this vague symphonic scheme in 1818 because of ill health, the distressing court battle to secure custody of his nephew, and other composing projects, especially the monumental Missa Solemnis.
The awesome Missa dominated Beethoven’s life for over four years, during which nothing could be done on the Ninth Symphony. By the end of 1822, the Missa was finished except for the scoring and some minor revisions, so Beethoven was again able to take up the symphony sketches and resume work. The chronology of these compositions — the great Mass preceding the Symphony — was vital to the creation of the Symphony, and is indispensable to understanding the last years of Beethoven’s life. Irving Kolodin wrote, “The Ninth owes to the Missa Solemnis the philosophical framework, the ideological atmosphere, the psychological climate in which it breathes and has its existence.... Unlike the Missa, however, it is a celebration of life, of man’s earthly possibilities rather than his heavenly speculations.” The 1822 sketches show considerable progress on the Symphony’s first movement, little on the Scherzo, and, for the first time, some tentative ideas for a choral finale based on Schiller’s poem.
At this point in the composition of the work, in November 1822, Beethoven received a commission from the London Philharmonic Society for a new symphony. He accepted it. For several months thereafter, he envisioned two completely separate works: one for London, entirely instrumental, to include the sketched first movement and the nearly completed Scherzo; the other to use the proposed choral movement with a German text, which he considered inappropriate for an English audience. He took up the “English Symphony” first, and most of the opening movement was sketched during the early months of 1823. The Scherzo was finished in short score by August, eight years after Beethoven first conceived its thematic material, and the third movement sketched by October. A few months earlier he had jotted down a melody for possible use in the finale of the “English Symphony,” but was displeased with its symphonic potential and later moved it into the A minor Quartet, Op. 132. With the first three movements nearing completion, Beethoven found himself without a finale. His thoughts turned to the choral setting of An die Freude lying unused among the sketches for the “German Symphony,” and he retrieved it and decided to use it in the work for London, language not withstanding. The “English Symphony” and the “German Symphony” had merged. The Philharmonic Society eventually received the symphony it had commissioned — but not until a year after it had been heard in Vienna.
Beethoven had one major obstacle to overcome before he could complete the Symphony: how to join together the instrumental and vocal movements. He pondered the matter during his summer stay in Baden in 1823, but had not resolved the problem by the time he returned to Vienna in October. It was only after more intense work that he finally hit upon the idea of a recitative as the connecting tissue. A recitative — the technique that had been used for generations to bridge from one operatic number to the next — that would be perfect, he decided. And the recitative could include fragments of themes from earlier movements — to unify the structure. “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” he shouted with triumphant delight. Beethoven still had much work to do, as the sketches from the autumn of 1823 show, but he at last knew his goal. The composition was completed by the end of the year. When the final scoring was finished in February 1824, it had been nearly 35 years since Beethoven first considered setting Schiller’s poem.
The premiere on May 7, 1824 was a splendid affair. Not only was the Ninth Symphony heard for the first time, but three movements from the Missa Solemnis were also given their Viennese premiere. The Consecration of the House Overture filled out the evening. Beethoven was, understandably, at fever pitch for the concert. Joseph Böhm, a violinist in the orchestra that night, recalled of the composer, “Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand (the actual direction was in Umlauf’s hands; we musicians followed his baton only) and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment, he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor. He flailed about with both his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.” The audience’s reaction was overwhelming. Beethoven, completely deaf and enraptured by the sounds in his mind, did not realize that the music had ended and the applause begun. One of the soloists, the alto Karolina Unger, turned him toward the audience, and the house erupted. The police had to be called to ensure that order was maintained. Beethoven, totally exhausted, had to be helped home, where he slept through the night and most of the next day in the clothes he had worn to the premiere.
The Symphony begins with the barren interval of an open fifth, suggesting some awe-inspiring cosmic void. Thematic fragments sparkle and whirl into place to form the riveting main theme. A group of lyrical subordinate ideas follows. After a great climax, the open-fifth intervals return to begin the highly concentrated development section. A complete recapitulation and an ominous coda arising from the depths of the orchestra bring this eloquent movement to a close.
For the only time in Beethoven’s symphonies, the Scherzo is placed as the second movement. The hammer-blow octaves of its theme were said to have occurred to the composer as he once stepped from darkness into a sudden light. The form of the movement is a heady combination of scherzo, fugue and sonata that exudes a lusty physical exuberance and a leaping energy. The central Trio section shifts to duple meter and is more serene in character, but forfeits none of the contrapuntal richness of the Scherzo.
The Adagio is one of the most sublime pieces that Beethoven, or anyone else, ever wrote. Its impression of solemn profundity is enhanced by being placed between two such extroverted movements as the Scherzo and the Finale. Formally, this movement is a variations on two themes, almost like two separate kinds of music that alternate. One interesting detail of scoring here concerns the elaborate part for the fourth horn. It seems that the player of this part at the Viennese premiere was the sole local possessor of a primitive valve horn, still in its experimental stages in 1824, and Beethoven eagerly included the expanded expression offered by this new instrumental development in this great movement.
The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, though not usually happily disposed toward Beethoven’s music, once wrote, “To my mind, two composers and two only, have been able to write music which is at the same time serious, profound and cheerful — Bach in the ‘Cum Sancto’ of the B minor Mass and Beethoven in the finale of the ‘Choral’ Symphony.” This majestic closing movement is divided into two large parts: the first instrumental, the second with chorus and soloists. Beethoven chose to set about one-third of the original 96 lines of Schiller’s poem. To these, the composer added two lines of his own for the baritone soloist as a transition to the choral section. A shrieking dissonance introduces the instrumental recitative for cellos and basses that joins together brief thematic reminiscences from the three preceding movements. The wondrous Ode to Joy theme appears unadorned in the low strings, and is the subject of a set of increasingly powerful variations. The shrieking dissonance is again hurled forth, but this time the ensuing recitative is given voice and words by the baritone soloist. “Oh, friends,” he sings, “no more of these sad tones! Rather let us raise our voices together, and joyful be our song.” The song is the Ode to Joy, presented with transcendent jubilation by the chorus. Many sections based on the theme of the Ode follow, some martial, some fugal, all radiant with the glory of Beethoven’s vision.
The Ninth Symphony is “one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit,” according to musicologist Edward Downes. “It stands taller, strides longer, reaches higher toward the Infinite than any work remotely like it,” wrote critic Irving Kolodin. And it was Frédéric Chopin, probably the Romantic composer least influenced by Beethoven but one who certainly knew well the possibilities of musical expression, who told a friend, “Beethoven embraced the universe with the power of his spirit.”
©2012 Dr. Richard E. Rodda