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Andrews University Symphony Orchestra
February 5, 2000

Beethoven: Leonore Overture, No. 3 | Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in e minor, Op. 64 | Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in c minor

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Leonore Overture, No. 3

The compositional process was never easy for Beethoven as his many sketch books and versions of works demonstrate, but writing for the stage was especially difficult for him.  It was while living in an apartment in the Theater an der Wien, having convenient access to stage productions that Beethoven undertook his only opera, Fidelio.  The themes of undeserved suffering and heroic resolve were very much in his consciousness at the time. Therefore the plight of Floristan, the political prisoner, and his loving, faithful wife, Leonore (Fidelio) was especially appealing to him.  To millions who have never seen the opera staged or heard a note of it sung, Fidelio is primarily known by its overtures—there are four of them.  Leonore Overture, No. 1 is the least played.  It may have been written first, then discarded, or it may have been composed for a planned production that never materialized.  Leonore Overture, No. 2 was used for the premiere of the opera in 1804.  For the second run in 1806, Beethoven provided a new opener—the piece we hear tonight,  Leonore Overture, No. 3.  One of the most popular of overtures, it is actually a symphonic poem.  That’s why it’s not a good curtain raiser.  In a dramatic production it’s not a good idea for the orchestra to steal the show before it begins.  For the 1814 revival of the opera, Beethoven produced a new opener of more appropriate proportions.  This Overture to Fidelio is still in use today, but Leonore Overture No. 3 continues with a life of its own, most often as a separate concert piece.  However, many conductors can’t bear to do the opera without it, so they often insert it between scenes in Act II, at least not stealing the show quite so early.

The overture begins with a short, loud chord.  Quiet scales descend into a quote from Florestan’s tender aria recalling memories of past happiness with wife Leonore.  Listen for themes  of  urgency, pathos, an off-stage trumpet call announcing deliverance, and finally, triumph.

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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in e minor, Op. 64

Allegretto non troppo. Allegro molto vivace
Allegro, molto appassionato

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has become established in the repertoire as one of his best-known and popular works, and indeed of the violin concerto repertoire as well.  The piece was written for the composer’s friend, Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the prestigious Gewandhaus Orchestra, of which Mendelssohn was the conductor.  “I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter,” he wrote David in July 30, 1838.  “One in e minor runs through my mind, the beginning of which gives me no peace.”  “Next winter” in the life of a busy conductor, composer, performer, musicologist, and conservatory director, became six years later.  The concerto was finished September 16, 1844, but Mendelssohn, still not satisfied, continued revising it with David’s assistance.  The composer was absent for the first performance, which took place March 13, 1845 at a Gewandhaus concert, David soloing and conducted by Danish composer, Niels Gade.  From the first hearing, the concerto has been a great success.

The work consists of three movements, played without pause.  Mendelssohn presents some interesting innovations, the first being that the soloist begins the first restless theme almost immediately, rather than waiting for a full orchestra exposition.  Mendelssohn (and David) gives us a cadenza, but rather than an appendage to the end of the movement, it is used structurally to connect the development section to the recapitulation.  The bridge from the coda to the tranquil second movement is accomplished through a single note by the bassoon.  (Sometimes in performance, enthusiastic audience applause obliterate this effect.)  Soloist and orchestra provide the connection to the final movement with material related to the opening theme of the first movement.  The high-spirited scherzando theme of the last movement makes one wonder if Mendelssohn might have been revisiting Puck’s world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in c minor

Andante con moto
Allegro - Allegro. Presto
Allegro con brio

Three G’s and an E-Flat.  How this simplest of themes has echoed through the two centuries since the creation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor. Actually, it’s not surprising that the work’s debut didn’t attract much notice. It was first heard in Vienna on December 22, 1808. The four-hour-long concert of Beethoven premieres also included Symphony No. 6, Piano Concerto in G (with the composer as soloist), two movement from Mass in C, the aria Ah, Perfido, an improvisation by Beethoven, and the Choral Fantasia. Understandably, with so much new material to be prepared (from manuscript parts no less), the inadequate performance did not put the music in its best light. On top of everything else, the theater was cold, the soprano got stage fright, and the Choral Fantasia fell apart so badly it had to be started again. Reviews of the concert had more to say about the performance disasters than the music itself. One and one-half years later, a review of another performance by writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann marked the Fifth Symphony as the enduring landmark of music history that it has proven to be.

The three G’s and an E-flat, a most economical motive, propel us harmonically and rhythmically through the first movement. The second movement, a set of variations actually using two themes, comes as a great relief from the relentless energy of the first.  Rather than a playful,  glorified dance movement, the Scherzo movement gives us a mysterious opening theme contrasted with the trio, a kind of contrapuntal game led by the double basses. Following the restatement of the mysterious scherzo theme, all becomes still, except the throbbing of the timpani, leading us to the sunshine of the final movement.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2000.
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