By Chris Morrison
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria
One short biographical sketch on Beethoven begins “The events of Beethoven’s life are the stuff of Romantic legend, evoking images of the solitary creator shaking his fist at Fate and finally overcoming it through a supreme effort of creative will.” Those biographical details, however, such as the deafness that plagued his last three decades of life, his stormy love affairs and his famous ill temper, are dwarfed by his artistic output, which is one of the monuments of music history. He literally mastered and transformed all the musical forms of his day, and extended the range and depth of expression available to composers. Beethoven was no Mozart-like prodigy, although even in his teens he was composing and playing in orchestras. But by his twenties, both his compositions and piano playing had garnered considerable attention. It was around the age of thirty that Beethoven first noticed his encroaching deafness, but soon thereafter began the second, or “middle,” of his creative periods, which included groundbreaking works like the “Eroica” Symphony, the “Appassionata” and “Waldstein” piano sonatas, and the opera Fidelio. After a period of relative musical inactivity in the late 1810s, he entered his so-called “late” period, highlighted by the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets and piano sonatas, in which his music gained a new, very personal depth and freedom.
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43
Duration: 5 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
In 1800, Beethoven was invited to compose music for a ballet based on the myth of Prometheus. His collaborator, Naples-born dancer-choreographer Salvatore Vigano, didn’t depict Prometheus as the heroic, defiant figure who stole fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind. Rather, Vigano dealt with the Prometheus of the Greek philosophers, who, as an early annotator wrote, “found the people of his time in ignorance, refined them by means of science and the arts and gave them manners, customs and morals.”
The ballet’s premiere on March 28, 1801 was a great success. Beethoven later raided his score for other works – most famously, the main theme from the Finale became the basis for his Variations and Fugue, Op. 35 and the final movement of the Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” The ballet’s Overture begins with a solemn Adagio. Then comes the lively Allegro molto con brio, its main theme heard quietly in the violins, then taken up more forcefully by the full orchestra. Two more lyrical ideas are heard, and the three themes are developed briefly before a brilliant coda.
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France
One of the most important composers of the first half of the twentieth century, Maurice Ravel has come to be known as one of the major proponents (along with Claude Debussy) of the style known as Impressionism, with its modal harmonies, ethereal textures, and subtle atmospherics. Among his most famous compositions today are his three ballets created in collaboration with the famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev: Daphnis et Chloé, Ma mère l’oye, and La valse. Ravel entered the Paris Conservatoire as a fourteen-year-old and subsequently studied composition and piano there, working with Gabriel Fauré for fourteen years. Aside from some controversy concerning his failure to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, Ravel led a relatively uneventful life. He had hoped to enlist as a pilot in World War I, but his fragile health forced him to serve as a truck driver instead. Most of his adult life was spent as a semi-recluse living just outside Paris. A piano tour of America in 1928 exposed him to jazz, which became – along with Impressionism, folk music (especially Spanish), Mozart, and the music of the French Baroque – an important element of his mature style.
Le tombeau de Couperin
Composed: 1914-17, arr. 1919
Duration: 16 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, harp, strings
The tombeau (“tomb”), a piece of music written as a memorial, was a form used by many seventeenth century French composers. Ravel’s original intent with Le tombeau de Couperin – probably referring to François Couperin (1668-1733), perhaps the most important member of the musical Couperin family – was to pay tribute to those composers of the past, in a work structured like a dance suite from the Baroque era.
With World War I, though, things changed. Ravel experienced some of the terrors of war as an ambulance driver and nurse’s aide. His truck, which he nicknamed Adélaïde, was frequently under fire. Ravel’s health suffered, and his mother’s death in early 1917 was a further blow. Eventually he broke down, and was given his release by the military. At the family home of Jean Dreyfus, to whom the work’s Menuet movement is dedicated, Ravel completed Le tombeau, each of its movements memorializing friends killed in the war. In its original version for piano, the work had six movements; two, a Fugue and Toccata, were dropped when Ravel orchestrated the piece in 1919.
The oboe takes the melodic lead, echoed by clarinets, in the fleet, graceful Prélude. This movement was written in memory of Jacques Charlot, an arranger of Ravel’s music. Muted and plucked strings, or pizzicati, and harp harmonics color the accompaniment. Memorializing Basque painter Gabriel Deluc, the Forlane is lively and dance-like, tinged with melancholy and some colorful dissonances.
In the Menuet written in memory of Jean Dreyfus, the oboe is again featured, accompanied by beautifully-shifting colors from the orchestra. Exciting and full of surprises, the closing Rigaudon – composed in memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, brothers who had been childhood friends of Ravel’s and who were killed by the same shell on their first day at the front in November 1914 – is colored by bright outbursts from the brass. In the gentle central section, an oboe spins out a line over string pizzicati that resemble the strums of a guitar. The lively opening music returns for an exuberant conclusion.
Born: December 10, 1822, Liège, Netherlands (now Belgium)
Died: November 8, 1890, Paris, France
Franck showed youthful talent on the piano. He entered the Liège Conservatory at age eight, played his first concerts at twelve, and entered the Paris Conservatoire at age fifteen. He was being groomed, primarily by his father, for the life of a concertizing pianist. But after a series of musical disappointments, he embraced a more settled life as a composer and teacher. Franck did become well-known as both a piano and organ virtuoso, and served as organist in several major churches over the course of his career. In 1872, he became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, where he led a group of young composers, informally dubbed “la bande à Franck” – among its members were Vincent d’Indy and Paul Dukas – who wanted to move French music away from opera and toward symphonic and chamber music. Success as a composer, however, came more slowly. The Symphony in D minor (1888) and the Violin Sonata (1886) are probably his most famous compositions, but many other orchestral, chamber, organ, and piano works are still performed.
Duration: 15 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, solo piano
Pianist Louis Diémer was the soloist in the world premiere of Franck’s Les Djinns, a work for piano and orchestra based on Victor Hugo, on March 15, 1885. It was a big success, one of the relatively few for Franck’s music during his lifetime. Franck was delighted, and decided to reward Diémer with “a little something.” That proved to be the Variations symphoniques, or Symphonic Variations, which he dedicated to Diémer.
The work is in three connected sections. In the introduction, a menacing opening phrase from the strings is answered by the piano. Their extended dialogue leads to a plaintive second theme, heard initially in its full form in the piano. The music turns passionate as these ideas are briefly developed. Then comes the second section, a set of six variations on a variant of the second theme. The piano introduces the melody, then weaves its way through the variations, sometimes taking the lead and sometimes ornamenting the phrases of other instruments as, according to one commentator, “the mood shifts from triumphant assertion to mystical absorption and languishing, muted sighs.” After the sixth variation, in which the cellos present a version of the theme accompanied by piano arpeggios, a trill in both of the pianist’s hands introduces the closing section, in which both of the work’s themes are worked over, in music by turns playful and passionate, before the brilliant conclusion.
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria
The fact that Johannes Brahms is now included with Bach and Beethoven in the famous triumvirate of composers known as the “Three Bs” indicates his stature as one of the greatest of all composers. Dedicated to the style and musical values of his important Classical era predecessors such as Beethoven and Mozart, Brahms also brought to his compositions an expansiveness of form and richness of harmony characteristic of the Romantic period in which he lived. A child prodigy, Brahms earned a living from his teens playing piano in theaters and sailors’ taverns. Around the age of twenty Brahms met the famous violinist Joseph Joachim in Hamburg, who in turn introduced him to Robert Schumann. Schumann became Brahms’ most important mentor, and Schumann’s wife Clara became his lifelong friend and closest confidant. Brahms ultimately settled in Vienna, where he was a very familiar figure for his last 35 or so years of life. His compositions in all the major genres of the day (other than opera, which he never attempted) have become significant parts of the standard repertoire.
Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a
Duration: 20 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle, strings
Sometime around 1870, musicologist Carl Ferdinand Pohl, the librarian of the Vienna Philharmonic, shared with his friend Brahms the score of what seemed to be a newly-discovered piece by the great Franz Josef Haydn. Brahms was particularly taken with the work’s second movement, labeled “Chorale St. Anthoni,” and made a copy for himself. A few years later, during the summer of 1873, Brahms wrote a set of variations on that movement’s main melody while staying in the little Bavarian town of Tutzing, near Munich.
The theme is a fairly simple, straightforward one, although Brahms was intrigued by its unusual structure, ten measures in two sets of five. However, the melody was probably not actually by Haydn. It comes from a Divertimento for winds, one of six long attributed to Haydn but now thought by some to have been written by Haydn’s student Ignaz Joseph Pleyel (later famous as a composer and piano manufacturer). Pleyel (or whoever) also borrowed the theme, a hymn tune called the “St. Anthony Chorale,” used in religious processions on the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua in the Burgenland region near the border between Austria and Hungary.
The stately theme is heard first, much as it appeared in the original score, played by winds with the addition of pizzicato low strings. In the first variation, Brahms changes the mood with pulsating horns, against which is heard one of Brahms’s favorite rhythmic schemes: three against two, with the cellos and violins alternating the triplets and duplets. A burst from the strings in the second variation, something of a Gypsy dance, leads back to a slightly embellished version of the main theme for oboes and bassoons in the third. The quiet fourth variation highlights the oboe and other woodwinds, and the tempo speeds substantially in the bright fifth.
The main theme is played by the winds and brass in hunting-horn style in the sixth variation, the most dramatic of the set. The seventh variation is a graceful waltz, played first by the flute and violas, then by the violins and bassoons. Lines in counterpoint are prominent in the fast, rather mysterious, minor-key eighth variation. The work ends with a passacaglia, in which a repeating bass line, derived from the main theme, becomes the accompaniment for a series of further colorful versions of the melody, first in the winds, then in the entire orchestra, leading to the piece’s grand conclusion.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80
Duration: 20 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, solo piano, choir, six vocal soloists
Beethoven composed this unusual work in the fall of 1808, and was both conductor and pianist in its first performance on December 22 of that year. That infamous, four-hour Akademie concert at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien also featured the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and Piano Concerto No. 4, as well as much of the Mass in C major, the concert aria Ah! perfido, and a piano improvisation by Beethoven. The Theater was unheated, the music insufficiently rehearsed, and breakdowns and problems plagued the evening. In the Choral Fantasy, Beethoven unfortunately forgot to tell the orchestra to ignore a repeat in the work’s Adagio section. So he carried on while the Orchestra went back to its repeat. The performance collapsed, and had to be stopped and restarted.
An early song, “Gegenliebe” (Mutual Love) of 1795, featured the first hint of the melody that became the main theme of the Choral Fantasy. Eventually, the Choral Fantasy provided something of a model for a much more famous composition, the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Fantasy begins with a slow, virtuosic solo piano introduction that moves from minor to major and back. A faster theme is then heard in the cellos and basses, followed by the main theme of the work in the piano. As is the case in the Ninth Symphony, this melody becomes the basis of a set of variations, traveling from flute to oboes to clarinets to string soloists, with the piano occasionally taking the lead, sometimes falling into an accompaniment role. A statement by the full orchestra leads to a lyrical piano interlude. More variations follow, including a march. Soon the chorus enters. Six solo voices are initially featured – two sopranos and alto, then two tenors and baritone – followed by the full chorus, accompanied by the orchestra and piano, working their way through the three-stanza ode (possibly written by Beethoven’s friend Christoph Kuffner) in praise of the expressiveness and beauty to be found in nature, music, and art.