Category Archives: Beethoven

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.