Category Archives: Beethoven

Beethoven: Symphony No. 4

The Fourth Symphony is probably Beethoven’s least well known, probably because it is sandwiched between the Third Symphony, at that time the largest and most complex symphony ever composed, and the powerful and uplifting Fifth Symphony.

In September, 1806, Beethoven was a visitor at the home of Count Franz von Oppersdorff in Upper Silesia (now in Poland), where he was treated to a performance by the court orchestra of his own four-year-old Second Symphony. A great fan of that work Oppersdorff commissioned a new symphony and, despite having already begun the Fifth, Beethoven set it aside in favor of the work that was to become the Fourth.

Haydn’s influence surely lies behind the symphony’s opening, though it is doubtful whether he ever composed a symphonic slow introduction quite so searching and ambiguous. A more likely inspiration might have been the ‘Representation of Chaos’ that begins Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. A bold Allegro vivace follows leaving the dark opening behind.

The second movement is a tender Adagio with some angry and unexpected outbursts. The third movement is in the form of a scherzo in which Beethoven decided for the first time to expand the form so that the bounding first section is heard three times and the second (in this case a lilting tune for the winds) twice. The humorous mood continues into the finale, a movement again in the spirit of Haydn.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2

Just how did Beethoven find his way from the Rhine to the Danube? The young Ludwig van Beethoven was just over a week past his 20th birthday, when he first met the renowned Joseph Haydn on December 26, 1790, in Bonn. Haydn and the impresario Johann Peter Salomon stopped off on their way to London where Haydn was to perform his own music.

Beethoven met Haydn again on Haydn’s return journey in July, 1792, when Beethoven showed him scores of his recent compositions. Haydn was sufficiently impressed to tell Beethoven that if he could travel to Vienna, he would gladly take him on as a pupil.

Beethoven began lessons with Haydn soon after his arrival in Vienna in November, 1792, but quickly became dissatisfied. Haydn was enormously busy with his own compositions and commissions and in January, 1794, he left for a second trip to London, returning more than a year and a half later. In the meantime Beethoven took lessons with other teachers, often in secret so as not to offend Haydn.

By the time he was in his late twenties, Beethoven was already gaining a wide reputation among cognoscenti as a virtuoso pianist and improviser. Music historians tell us that Beethoven was sketching musical ideas for his concertos while he was still in his teens, and that the first version of his Piano Concerto No. 2 dates from 1795, when he was 25 years of age.

In 1787 Beethoven had visited Vienna, where it seems certain that he met Mozart and may have taken piano lessons from him. In November 1792 he finally moved to Vienna, which would be his home for the rest of his life. In his baggage was the preliminary work he had done on his Piano Concerto in Bflat major.

A high-profile event came Beethoven’s way on March 29, 1795, when he was featured as both composer and pianist in a charity concert at Vienna’s Burgtheater. It was a concert held for the benefit of the Vienna Composers Society, which looked after the welfare of musicians’ widows and orphans. It is widely assumed that he seized this occasion to premiere his Bflat major Concerto.  Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a friend from Beethoven’s years in Bonn, happened to be visiting Vienna at the time, and related that not until the afternoon of the second day before the concert did he write the rondo finale, and then while suffering from a pretty severe colic. In the anteroom sat four copyists to whom he handed sheet after sheet as soon as they were finished.

In the whole of the Bflat concerto the music has a habit of veering off into startling keys: in the first movement, the second theme includes a leap into D-flat major. In the recapitulation that idea will return in an even more striking G-flat major, a distinctively spiced key in those years when pianos were not always tuned in equal temperament.

The Adagio, in E-flat major, sounds Mozartian in style but more nearly Beethovenian in expression, with an elegantly nocturnal atmosphere.

For this finale Beethoven plays the sort of joking game with rhythm and meter that Haydn was given to. One section jumps into a Turkish or gypsy-flavored minor and the soloist ends the story with a blaze of double trills in the right hand, a specialty of Beethoven the young virtuoso.

Beethoven: Egmont Overture

The siege of Vienna of May 10-13, 1809, saw the Austrian capital fall to Napoleon for the second time in four years and Beethoven was forced into an uncomfortable sort of seclusion. Though he chose to stay behind, many of the Viennese elite had fled to safety.

Convinced that the Austrian Empire was the major stumbling-block to his domination of Europe, Napoleon immediately instituted censorship of literature, of the press, and of the theater. The months until the French departed in October were bitter ones for the Viennese. The value of the national currency dwindled, food was in short supply, and freedoms were limited. Soon after the first of the year, with Napoleon’s forces gone, the director of the Hoftheater, Josef Härtel, arranged for the production of a series of revivals of dramas by Schiller and Goethe, the great figures of the German stage. Appropriately, two plays that he chose dealt with the oppression of a noble people by a foreign tyrant, and of the eventual freedom the patriots won for themselves — Schiller’s William Tell and Goethe’s Egmont.

Beethoven was commissioned to write the music for Goethe’s play and Adalbert Gyrowetz was assigned William Tell. (Rossini’s setting of the tale was still two decades in the future.) Egmont, based on an incident from 1567, depicts the subjugation of the Netherlands to the tyrannical Spanish rulers, the agony of the people, and their growing defiance and dreams of liberty.
Count of Egmont
In the play, Count Egmont is a Dutch resistance fighter bent on the liberation of his country from Spanish occupation. He dies heroically while making his stand. It is impossible not to draw a parallel between the character of the Spanish Duke of Alva and the real-life “Emperor” of France.

Beethoven had long since lost his admiration for Napoleon and the bombardment of Vienna would certainly have confirmed his worst fears about the man. Goethe’s play, and the honor of providing it with some powerful incidental music, was perfect medicine for the composer after such dark, lonely months. Beethoven’s incidental music begins with a powerful, strikingly original overture that summarizes the course of the drama, from its ominous slow introduction (suggesting the oppressive tread of Spain with the rhythm of the sarabande) to the transformation of tragedy into triumph in a brilliant coda, which Beethoven echoed at the end of the play as a Victory Symphony.

Beethoven – Violin Concerto

The year 1803 was a turning point for Beethoven. Having come to terms with his growing deafness, he also came into his own as a composer, breaking free from the classical, Viennese style in which he had begun his career and asserting his own voice in a new, “heroic” style marked by his Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” The next five years were a  fertile time for him, and saw the composition of a number of his most famous works, including the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas, a Piano Concerto (1805–6), the first version of his opera Fidelio (1805), and his fourth and fifth symphonies — both completed in 1806, the year he composed the Violin Concerto.

Nikolaj Znaider, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly

The concerto was written for 26-year-old violinist Franz Clement, a conductor at the Theater-an-der-Wien for which Beethoven had begun his work on Fidelio. Beethoven completed the concerto in a rush, finishing either close to or on the day of the performance. Clement not only sight-read the part, but between the first and second movements he also threw in a couple of compositions of his own — which he played with the violin turned upside-down. Such showmanship was typical of musical performances of the period, but though the audience appears to have enjoyed the event, critical response to the concerto was lukewarm. It was not until 1844, almost 20 years after Beethoven’s death, that the work gained popularity when another young virtuoso, 13-year-old Joseph Joachim, took the piece on a European tour with his friend Felix Mendelssohn conducting.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale”

It was Beethoven’s deep love of nature that was the inspiration for his Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale.” Countess Theresa of Brunswick, a student and close friend of Beethoven, wrote: “He loved to be alone with Nature, to make her his only confidante. When his brain was reeling with confused ideas, Nature at all times comforted him.” Others reported that Beethoven refused lodging without nearby trees, could not be dissuaded from long daily walks even in heavy rain (for which he refused an umbrella), that he wandered around jotting down themes in his ever-present sketchbooks, and that he assumed a frightening presence by lapsing into the appearance and behavior of a vagrant. In a letter he wrote, “My bad hearing does not trouble me here.”

Anton Felix Shindler reported that Beethoven’s favorite book was a copy, dog-eared from use, of Christian Sturm’s Reflections on the Works of God in the Realm of Nature and Providence from which he copied passages such as: “One might rightly designate Nature the school of the heart; she clearly shows us our duties toward God and our neighbor.”
Heiligenstadt in Beethoven’s time

Although completed in the summer of 1808 in Weisenthal, near Heiligenstadt (then a rural resort near the bank of the Danube), sketches for the Pastoral are found in Beethoven’s notebooks as early as 1803. The most telling are two attempts that year to transcribe the sound of a stream, which eventually would emerge as the undulating introduction to the second movement. Although Beethoven provided descriptive titles for each movement, he cautioned against interpreting his intentions literally. He wrote in his sketchbooks: “The hearers should be allowed to discover the situations.” “Pastoral Symphony: no picture but something in which the emotions are expressed which are aroused in men by the pleasure of the country, in which some feelings of country-life are set forth.”

Beethoven said from the outset that his sixth symphony be titled “Pastoral Symphony, or a recollection of country life. More an expression of feeling than a painting.” The label is found in a letter Beethoven sent to his publisher in 1809. The titles of each movement were published in the program book at the first performance and on the engraved first violin part.

I. “Erwachen heiterer Gefühle bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande” (“Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country”) – Beethoven draws us in immediately with a gorgeous flowing theme over a rustic open-fifth drone (think rustic bagpipes).

II. “Szene am Bach” (“Scene by the brook”) – The mood of calm contentment continues as the strings invoke the sound of a gently babbling brook. Barely a minute from the end of the movement, the steady lilting activity halts as Beethoven introduces three bird-songs: a nightingale in the flutes, a quail in the oboes and a cuckoo in the clarinets. Lest there be any doubt, he actually labels each one in the score.

III. “Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute” (“Merry gathering of the country folk”) – We encounter country folk for the first time, intruding upon the solitude with a lusty peasant dance, though not for long. Nature will soon reassert itself to show who’s really the boss

IV. “Gewitter, Sturm” (“Storm, Tempest”) – Augmenting the instruments used so far, Beethoven adds a piccolo, trombones and tympani to add wind, rain, thunder and lightning to his musical portrayal of Nature’s tempest. The movement ends in a ravishing transition of a gently rising flute scale which signals the subsiding storm, parting clouds and the glorious light of the sun upon Nature’s pastoral landscape.

V. “Hirtengasang. Frohe, dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm” (“Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm”) – The final movement is perhaps the most heartfelt of all. It begins with an Alpine hunting call that evolves effortlessly into a bucolic Rondo, perhaps one of the simplest of Beethoven’s works, completely saturated with the joy of Nature.

Beethoven Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”

When Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) arrived in Vienna in 1796, he began a rapid rise to fame as a performer and later as a composer.  Roughly concurrent with his arrival he started to experience trouble with his hearing, a condition that worsened with time.

Under the guidance of Haydn, Albrechtsberger, Förster, Salieri and others, he quickly mastered the classical style and his early works were well received.  Despite this success, he began to feel that he had absorbed everything his teachers had to offer.  The decision facing him was whether to devote his life to emulating the Viennese classicists or to seek a new avenue of expression.  To those close to him, he spoke of a ‘new path’.  To many others, he didn’t speak at all.  His hearing, by then, had deteriorated to the point where he was avoiding social contact.

In the autumn of 1802, while resting in Heiligenstadt, Beethoven drafted a tortured letter in the form of a will that has come to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.  In this document, he bequeaths his belongings to his brothers but writes mostly of his realization that his hearing was worsening and would likely leave him completely deaf in time. Though he struggled for the words, his fears were eventually laid to rest and his determination led him in the direction of a new, revolutionary style of musical expression.

Soon after his return from Heiligenstadt, Beethoven approached his work with renewed energy.  His philosophy and style of composition underwent a transformation and his music from that point on possessed a new expressive dimension.  Within weeks of returning to Vienna, he began his first sketches for the Eroica.  Clearly, the Testament had been a means of exorcising his fears but the Eroica would became an impassioned codicil to that will, a yearning to strike out on a new path. Self-determination and triumph over adversity may well be the program of the Eroica with Beethoven as hero.

Much is made of Beethoven’s intention to dedicate his symphony to Napoleon and his change of mind when he learned of Napoleon’s assuming the title of Emperor. Beethoven did indeed scratch out the name Napoleon on the title page of his symphony. It seems that Beethoven was making plans for a move to Paris and thought that this dedication would ease his introduction. When it became apparent that this move would not materialize but that Prince Lobkowitz was interested in licensing the symphony for a period of time, Beethoven removed the so called dedication and renamed the symphony “Eroica.”

One of the most perplexing issues of the Eroica-Napoleon connection has been: why did Beethoven include a funeral march followed by a joyous scherzo and finale?  Nineteenth century commentators were at a loss to explain the seeming contradiction of death and celebration in the context of an homage to Bonaparte.

Additionally, early writers noted thematic similarities between the Eroica and Beethoven’s own ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Promethus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op 43 as well as his Variations, Op 35 and 12 German Contradances WoO 14.  They were able to trace, passage by passage, the parallels to be found in the music but never touched upon the deeper kinship between the Eroica and Prometheus.  The distinguished Beethoven scholar William Kinderman, citing the work of Constantin Floros, has now proposed the possibility that the whole of the Eroica symphony is an allegory for the Promethus legend.  That is to say, the Prometheus legend as portrayed in Beethoven’s ballet.

In the various Greek versions of the legend, Prometheus is punished by being chained to a rock where upon an eagle eats his liver every day only to have it regenerate each night.  After years of suffering Prometheus is finally freed.  In the version staged by Beethoven and the dance master Salvatore Vigano, Prometheus is put to death for his transgression and is later re-born.

Tracing the sequence of certain events in the ballet and comparing the resulting scenario to the progression of movements in the Eroica we arrive at a convincing fit.  Kinderman:

“Floros’s work has shown that the links between the ballet and the symphony are more substantial than has usually been assumed. Floros traces various rhetorical and formal parallels between the opening Allegro con brio of the symphony and, in particular, the eighth piece of the Prometheus music, the ‘Danza Eroica’. Still more important is the affinity of the two following pieces of the ballet, the ‘Tragica scena’ (no. 9) and ‘Giuocosa scena’ (no. 10, in which the dead Prometheus is restored to life), to the progression from the Marcia funebre to the scherzo in the symphony.”  Beethoven, William Kinderman; Oxford University Press, 1997

That the Eroica could be a symphonic expansion of the Prometheus ballet, with the main character symbolizing the tortured and misunderstood artist, is more than plausible.  The scenario – heroic, tragic, joyous – seems to be more than a coincidence.

Premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7

DEC 8 1813 Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 92, was premiered with Beethoven himself conducting at the University of Vienna, a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. Beethoven addressed the participants with the words: “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.” Op. 91, Wellington’s Victory was also performed at this concert. PIC Horace Vernet’s painting “Battle of Hanau”


Beethoven: Symphony No. 2

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) spent the summer months of 1802 in Heiligenstadt, in Beethoven’s time a hot-spring spa destination outside of Vienna. His hope was that an extended break from the noise and bustle of Vienna might improve his health in general and his declining hearing in particular. There had been signs of growing deafness for some time, indications which he had done his best to ignore and conceal. As his condition deteriorated the composer came to realize that he would probably lose his hearing.
Beethoven was emotionally devastated, terrified, and deeply ashamed. He wrote a highly emotional letter intended for his brothers, in which he gave vent to his feelings. It speaks of “blighted hope” and “courage disappeared” and is a tragically poignant description of his depression. Especially heartbreaking is his recounting of a moment when “someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.” This famous Heiligenstadt Testament was not discovered until after Beethoven’s death.

The summer in Heiligenstadt and the letter he wrote may have served as a kind of emotional release, since the Symphony in D major he composed at that time bears no trace of the dark emotions at play within him. Its highly successful first performance took place in Vienna on April 5, 1803.

In the surprisingly substantial introduction to the first movement, the opening call to attention alternates with soulful musings, all the while creating an engaging sense of expectation. Then it’s off to the races in a vivacious and carefree Allegro. In the serene, glowing meditation of the second movement, Beethoven demonstrates how convincingly expressive he can be all the while displaying his love for surprises and sudden shifts in dynamics.

Movement 3, the first official scherzo (playful, joking music) in a Beethoven symphony is less genteel and more rhythmically complex than any comparable minuet movement by Haydn or Mozart. Its character lies closer to a country fair than to any ballroom. Wind instruments take the spotlight in the central Trio and the party continues and intensifies in the truly rambunctious final movement.