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In this age of celebrity one often wonders if concertgoers (or record buyers for that matter) are more interested in the music itself or a star performer. Beethoven gave us material for both appetites, his seven concertos providing marvelous vehicles for the star performers, and his incomparable nine symphonies permanently established the place of extended compositions to form the core focus of a concert-music purely for the sake of music.
Despite the distress that his increasing deafness brought, and the turbulence of ongoing wars Austria suffered at the hand of Napoleon, the decade between 1802 and 1811 was a very productive compositional one for Beethoven: seven symphonies, chamber music, five concertos, several of his large piano sonatas, the opera Fidelio--just to mention some of the larger works. The Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 was the last in this genre that Beethoven wrote for himself as soloist. The piece was completed in 1806 and received its first performance at a private concert at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, Vienna in March, 1807. The first public performance took place on December 22 the following year at the Theatre an der Wien. In his earlier concertos, Beethoven had followed the conventional classical concerto form perfected by Mozart-a grand sonata for soloist and orchestra. Works in this form were crafted in three movements: the first beginning with a tutti (everyone plays) orchestral exposition presenting the upcoming major themes, a respectful pause before the soloist's entrance, and following a working out of the sonata form, a cadenza showing off the performer's technical and improvisational skills, and concluding with a brief coda. The second, slow movement displayed poetical/lyrical dialogue between soloist and orchestra, with the final movement, usually a rondo, devoted to pure fun.
Imagine the amazement of Beethoven's fourth concerto's first audience, to hear not the expected orchestral exposition, but the gentle tones of the piano at the beginning. This surprising start sets the tone for the pervading lyricism of the entire concerto. The piece is not without vital intensity, but the essence of tranquility is preserved throughout. Built around a remarkable dialogue between stern unison strings and the piano's serene chorale-like theme, the second movement displays another break with the conventional classical piano concerto. The effect of the piano standing aloof from the orchestra recalls the desolation expressed by the composer upon realization of his isolation due to increasing deafness, "Forgive me then, if you see me shrink away when I would fain mingle among you ... All alone ... I must live like an exile." (Heiligenstadt Testament). Immediately following, as from a distance, the march-like Rondo theme is briefly introduced by the strings. The rollicking entrance of the piano confirms the transformation of the mood from despair to gaiety.
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Symphony No. 7 in A Major
Beethoven himself said on more than one occasion that his Symphony No. 7 in A Major was one of his best works. Completed in the spring of 1812, it was first performed in conjunction with the premiere of Wellington's Victory, Symphony No. 8, and pieces by others, on December 8, 1813 at a Vienna concert to benefit Austrians and Bavarians wounded in the battle against Napoleon at Hanau. The concert, with the composer conducting and several famous musicians of the day attending or performing in the orchestra, was such a great success that it had to be repeated four days later. Although Wellington's Victory was the hit of the evening, the symphony was well received, and the second movement, Allegretto (even today one of Beethoven's most popular works) was encored on the spot. Following the composer's own precedent in Symphony No. 6, nineteenth century writers have endeavored to put a program to the work, or at least attach extra-musical meaning to it, such as "Apotheosis of the Dance" (Wagner), "a second Pastorale Symphony" (Lenz), "a knight's festival" (Nohl). While Beethoven did not give a specific program or meaning to this work, one may justifiably experience a festive mood upon hearing it. Indeed, the audiences at the first performances would have been in a mood to celebrate the victory over Napoleon and the hope for peace at last.
This symphony is constructed in the "classical" arrangement of four separate movements, with the slower movement placed second, but stretching the genre in new directions. The slow introduction is extensive--almost a movement in itself. Listen for loud chords with solo winds left to carry the melodies. When the main theme finally arrives, it is introduced by a solo flute. The popular Allegretto movement has sometimes been billed, and used, as a funeral march, but Beethoven's tempo marking indicates otherwise. The genius of it lies not in a memorable melody or distinguished harmonies, but in the insistent pulse and the passing of theme throughout the orchestra. Even in the melodic middle section, the cellos and basses continue the pulsating rhythm. The third movement outdoes the expected scherzo with presto (and a scherzo-trio- scherzo-trio-scherzo arrangement instead of the usual three part form). The final movement engages players and listeners alike in its swirling patterns and tremendous energy, concluding with a coda matching the introduction of the first movement in its length and complexity. In disagreeing with a critic who thought that Beethoven was drunk when he composed the finale, French writer and Beethoven biographer, Romain Rolland, remarked, "It was indeed the work of an intoxicated man, but one intoxicated with poetry and genius."
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