Classical Vienna – Program Notes
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43
Ludwig van Beethoven
(b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
Composed in 1801.
Premiered on March 28, 1801 in Vienna.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 5 minutes.
Salvatore Vigano was one of the great dancers of the early 19th century, whose fame during his own time has been compared to that of Nijinsky a century later and Nureyev and Baryshnikov in more recent days. Though he was constantly in demand throughout Europe as performer, producer and choreographer, Vigano showed Vienna the special favor of two extended residencies, the second beginning in 1799. Late in 1800, Vigano devised the scenario for a new ballet based on the Prometheus legend, a work he intended as a compliment to Maria Theresa, second wife of the Emperor Francis. He inquired at court as to which composer might be the most suitable to engage, and was informed that Beethoven, who had recently (and tactfully) dedicated the score of his Septet (Op. 20) to Maria Theresa, would be an appropriate choice. Beethoven was approached, and he agreed to undertake the project.
The following description of the ballet’s plot appeared in the program for the premiere:
“The foundation of this allegorical ballet is the fable of Prometheus. The philosophers of Greece allude to Prometheus as a lofty soul who drove the people of his time from ignorance, refined them by means of science and the arts, and gave them manners, customs and morals. As a result of that conception, two statues that have been brought to life are introduced in this ballet; and these, through the power of harmony, are made sensitive to all the passions of human life. Prometheus leads them to Parnassus, in order that Apollo, the god of the fine arts, may enlighten them.”
The ancient legend of Prometheus had taken on a certain topicality in turn-of-the-century Europe because of the association of the (then) hero Napoleon with the god who stole fire from Mount Parnassus to enlighten mankind. Beethoven, in those pre-“Eroica” years, may have wanted to show his respect for the French general in this ballet, his only work in the genre. It is also likely that the composer saw something of himself in the character of Prometheus. “Music should strike fire in the heart of man,” he once proclaimed. More specifically relating himself with the Prometheus legend was his statement to the Archduke Rudolph in 1823: “There is no loftier mission than to approach the Divinity nearer than other men, and to disseminate the divine rays among mankind.”
The Overture to Prometheus is Beethoven’s earliest work in that form, and one of his most compact. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “When I was a boy, an overture beginning emphatically with an unprepared discord made me expect something tremendous.” So begins this Overture. The characteristic tension — the expectation of “something tremendous” — generated by so many of Beethoven’s works appears here in the very first measure. The electric opening chord initiates a lyrical introduction in slow tempo. The main body of the Overture follows without pause. The first theme is an energetic display of rushing scales propelled by a vibrant rhythmic energy. The second theme is a more delicate melody, entrusted to the piping flutes in duet.
The Creatures of Prometheus, standing on the threshold of Beethoven’s second creative period, points forward to the substance of his later works. Of this prophetic quality, Marion M. Scott wrote, “In [Prometheus], Beethoven occupied himself with the theme of the beneficent saviour of mankind. It was a turning point in his career. His old style no longer contented him. Of conventional religion, Beethoven had none, but his mind was beginning to search into the deepest mysteries of the universe at the same time that he recognized the mission within himself that he must fulfill. The musician must be the liberator of mankind from sorrow.”
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)
Composed in 1785.
Premiered on December 16, 1785 in Vienna, with the composer as soloist.
Instrumentation: flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 35 minutes.
There were some 400 professional instrumentalists in Vienna in 1785, all struggling with those perennial problems of making a living and providing for a family. As long as a player’s health held out, he could earn an adequate income, but when sickness or death intervened his family usually found themselves in dire straits. To help the bereaved relatives of their companions, the Viennese performers established a “musician’s society,” one important function of which was to finance its pension and widow’s relief fund through frequent benefit concerts. These Pension Concerts of the Tonkünstler Societät were a regular fixture of musical life in the Habsburg capital, and most of the musicians in town were, understandably, more than eager to take part and donate their services for the evening. Many new works were introduced at these events during the late 18th and 19th centuries, and it was at such a function that Mozart first displayed his E-flat Piano Concerto. Though the work was originally intended for Mozart’s own subscription concerts of 1786, he willingly agreed to unveil it at the Society’s benefit concert the preceding December.
Mozart’s life was hectic during the winter of 1785-1786. He completed the E-flat Concerto on December 16th, just four days after putting the finishing touches on the Violin Sonata, K. 481. He had recently received a commission from Emperor Joseph II for a musical diversion (The Impresario) to be given at the orangerie of the Schönbrunn Palace in February, and was making revisions and additions to Idomeneo for a revival of that opera in March. Work on numerous chamber and vocal pieces was also squeezed into his schedule, as was the tutelage of a sizable group of private students. His main concern at the time, however, was the composition of The Marriage of Figaro, which he was readying for production in the spring as soon as the theaters opened following the end of the Lenten prohibition of operatic performances. Mozart’s father, Leopold, wrote that his son was “up to his ears” in work during those winter months.
Despite the commissions, the grand plans and the facility with which he worked, Mozart was troubled. Always something of a spendthrift, he was sinking into a difficult debt-ridden financial situation from which he would never be able to extricate himself. The first of what became a steady stream of letters to friends begging for money was sent to Hoffmeister, his publisher, on November 20, 1785. Mozart’s health, like his finances, was also showing signs of deterioration. Though not yet thirty, he was often seriously ill, and he started to be plagued by thoughts of his own death. A few months after his letter to Hoffmeister he wrote, “I never lie down at night without reflecting that — young as I am — I may not live to see another day.” Many of the works of 1785 reflect his growing seriousness of mind: the D minor Concerto (K. 466), the last two of the “Haydn” Quartets (K. 464 and K. 465), the C minor Piano Fantasia (K. 475), the G minor Quintet (K. 478), and the Masonic Funeral Music (K. 477). It was just such music that bemused the fickle Viennese public. These probing compositions were not the simple little ditties and pretty musical bonbons that they demanded, but something that puzzled them, and perhaps touched an emotional chord that they felt was as well left undisturbed on a pleasant evening after a tasty supper. The audience that Mozart had built during his first five years in Vienna began to slip away, and this E-flat Concerto, more gallant in style and closer to the popular taste than most of its neighbors (though with a surprisingly Romantic slow movement), was probably an attempt to win back the support of his patrons.
Richness of sonority and dignified grandeur are two of the chief characteristics of the E-flat Concerto. In his study of Mozart’s keyboard concertos, Cuthbert M. Girdlestone wrote, “Of all his concertos, this one is the queenliest. Combining grace and majesty, the music unfolds like a sovereign in progress, the queen of the concertos.” H.C. Robbins Landon noted, “For sheer beauty of sound no Mozart concerto approaches K. 482,” which point Philip Radcliffe reinforced with a thought about the work’s “luxuriant leisureliness.” The sound world of this piece is created largely by the prominent use of the winds, whose noble, rich tone colors are in part achieved by the substitution of clarinets for oboes, their first appearance in a Mozart piano concerto.
The orchestral introduction opens with a broad rhythmic gesture immediately answered by a brief response in the burnished sonorities of bassoons and horns. Further melodic ideas tumble one after another until the soloist’s entry, which acts as a bridge to the second exposition and the pianist’s elaboration of the earlier thematic materials. Following the main theme group, Mozart chose to turn briefly to a darkly shaded minor tonality rather than to begin the second theme area in the dominant key, casting a certain Romantic spirit over these measures. The expected dominant key arrives with a rising scalar melody for soloist, after which the exposition concludes with rippling pianistic flourishes supported by a buoyant orchestral accompaniment. The central section, less a true development than a free fantasia, is dominated by the soloist, with the orchestra serving as the subdued background for the display of tasteful virtuosity. The recapitulation recalls themes from both the introduction and the exposition while providing the obligatory cadenza opportunity for the pianist.
The second movement is a hybrid form, with elements of rondo, variations and ternary constructions. Its unusual structure, however, is precisely suited to its mood, which is introspective and almost solemn in its rich harmonic coloring. Musicologist Alfred Einstein described this music as “expression unadorned, almost an exhibition of sadness, false consolation, despair and resignation.” (It is an interesting note that, at the work’s premiere, the audience encored this movement rather than the sunnier outer ones. This incident may have led Mozart to believe that his listeners were ready to accept more from him in this Romantic vein, an idea resoundingly dispelled by the lukewarm reception extended by the Viennese to The Marriage of Figaro just five months later.) This splendid Andante is beautiful and moving, and it opens expressive vistas that bring to this Concerto the emotional richness characteristic of all Mozart’s great music of his last years.
The finale, one of Mozart’s jauntiest rondos, returns to the gallant world of the first movement. Its effortless theme is announced by the violins and then the full orchestra before the soloist responds with an answering strain. Following the second return of the rondo theme, there is an episode in the manner of a tender Romanza, initiated by clarinets and bassoons, after which the galloping good cheer of the rondo resumes — with a brief pause for a cadenza — to close this “Queen of Mozart’s concertos.”
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Opus 90
(b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)
Composed in 1882-1883.
Premiered on December 2, 1883 in Vienna, conducted by Hans Richter.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 40 minutes.
Brahms had reached the not inconsiderable age of 43 before he unveiled his First Symphony. The Second Symphony followed within eighteen months, and the musical world was prepared for a steady stream of similar masterworks from his pen. However, it was to be another six years before he undertook his Third Symphony, though he did produce the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures, the Violin Concerto and the Second Piano Concerto during that time. When he got around to the new symphony, he was nearly fifty, and had just recovered from a spell of feeling that he was “too old” for creative work, even informing his publisher, Simrock, that he would be sending him nothing more. It seems likely — though such matters always remained in the shadows where Brahms was concerned — that his creative juices were stirred anew by a sudden infatuation with “a pretty Rhineland girl.” This was Hermine Spiess, a contralto of excellent talent who was 26 when Brahms first met her in January 1883 at the home of friends. (Brahms was fifty.) A cordial, admiring friendship sprang up between the two, but this affair, like every other one in Brahms’ life in which a respectable woman was involved, never grew any deeper. He used to declare, perhaps only half in jest, that he lived his life by two principles, “and one of them is never to attempt either an opera or a marriage.” Perhaps what he really needed was a muse rather than a wife. At any rate, Brahms spent the summer of 1883 not in his usual haunts among the Austrian hills and lakes, but at the German spa of Wiesbaden, which just happened to be the home of Hermine. Work went well on the new symphony, and it was completed before he returned to Vienna in October.
More than just an attractive girl was on Brahms’ mind in 1883, however. He had recently suffered the deaths of several close friends, including his dear teacher, Marxsen, and he was feuding with the violinist Joseph Joachim, who had been a champion of his music for thirty years. Many cross-currents of emotion therefore impinged upon the Third Symphony, though Brahms certainly had no specific program in mind for the work. It has nevertheless been called his “Eroica” (by Hans Richter and Eduard Hanslick), a forest idyll (Clara Schumann), a rendering of the Greek legend of Hero and Leander (Joachim), a depiction of the statue of Germania at Rüdesheim (Max Kalbeck), and of a young, heroic Bismarck (Richard Specht). It is all of these, at least to these individuals, but, more importantly, it is really none of these or any other specifically non-musical subject, because this Third Symphony of Brahms is the pinnacle of the pure, abstract symphonic art that stretched back more than a century to Haydn and Mozart. It is a work of such supreme mastery of all the musical elements that it is a distillation of an almost infinite number of emotional states, not one of which can be adequately rendered in words. “When I look at the Third Symphony of Brahms,” lamented the English master Sir Edward Elgar, “I feel like a tinker.”
When the Third Symphony first appeared, it was generally acclaimed as Brahms’ best work in the form, and perhaps the greatest of all his compositions, despite well-organized attempts by the Wagner cabal to disrupt the premiere. Critical opinion has changed little since. This, the shortest of the four symphonies, is the most clear in formal outline, the most subtle in harmonic content and the most assured in contrapuntal invention. No time is wasted in establishing the conflict that charges the first movement with dynamic energy. The two bold opening chords juxtapose bright F major and a somber chromatic harmony in the opposing moods of light and shadow that course throughout the work. The main theme comes from the strings “like a bolt from Jove,” according to Olin Downes, with the opening chords repeated by the woodwinds as its accompaniment. Beautifully directed chromatic harmonies — note the bass line, which always carries the motion to its close — and long-range goals — lead to the pastoral second theme, sung softly by the clarinet. The development section is brief, but includes elaborations of most of the motives from the exposition. The tonic key of F is re-established, not harmonically but melodically (again the bass leads the way), and the golden chords of the opening proclaim the recapitulation. A long coda based on the main theme reinforces the tonality and discharges much of the music’s energy, allowing the movement to close quietly, as do, most unusually, all the movements of this Symphony.
The second and third are the most intimate and personal movements found anywhere in Brahms’ orchestral output. A simple, folk-like theme appears in the rich colors of the low woodwinds and low strings to open the second movement. The central section of the movement is a Slavic-sounding plaint intoned by clarinet and bassoon that eventually gives way to the flowing rhythms of the opening and the return of the folk theme supported by a new, rippling string accompaniment. Edward Downes noted about this lovely Andante that its “almost Olympian grace and poise recall the spirit if not the letter of Mozart.” The romantic third movement replaces the usual scherzo. It is ternary in form, like the preceding movement, and utilizes the warmest tone colors of the orchestra.
The finale begins with a sinuous theme of brooding character. A brief, chant-like processional derived from the Slavic theme of the second movement provides contrast. Further thematic material is introduced (one theme is arch-shaped; the other, more rhythmically vigorous) and well examined. Brahms dispensed here with a true development section, but combined its function with that of the recapitulation as a way of tightening the structure. As the end of the movement nears, the tonality returns to F major, and there is a strong sense of struggle passed. The tension subsides, and the work ends with the ghost of the opening movement’s main theme infused with a sunset glow.