March 1, 2016
Program Notes by Martin Pearlman
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus
In 1800, the 29-year-old Beethoven received a major commission to write his first work for the stage, a ballet based on the Prometheus myth. It was to be presented at the Hofburg Theater in Vienna with choreography by the well-known dancer Salvatore Vigano. Beethoven was later said to have been disappointed in the story line of the ballet, which does not include Prometheus’s rebellion or punishment. In it, Prometheus fashions two human figures and brings them to life, but, finding himself unable to teach them reason, he takes them to Apollo to experience music, to the muses to learn tragedy, comedy and dance, and to Bacchus to feel the joys of wine. Only then are they ready to be fully human.
The premiere of The Creatures of Prometheus took place on March 28, 1801, and the work was repeated 23 times in that and the following year. It was an important success for the young composer, leading eventually to the commission of his opera Fidelio. The complete music for the ballet consisted of an overture, introduction and sixteen numbers, but, since the delightful, spirited overture was, for a time, the only overture that Beethoven had written, he often performed it separately to open concerts of his music.
Haydn, Scena di Berenice
Beethoven’s relationship with Haydn was complex, part student and part competitor. Although the young genius studied with Haydn shortly after coming to Vienna, he later claimed not to have learned anything from him and refused Haydn’s request to put the words “pupil of Haydn” on the title page of his first publication. Nonetheless, Beethoven’s early concert aria Ah! perfido, also heard in this concert, was directly modeled on Haydn’s recent cantata Scena di Berenice.
At the time of Beethoven’s lessons, Haydn was preparing for his second visit to England, which was to become one of the highlights of his career. It was at Haydn’s benefit concert in London on May 4, 1795 that his Scena di Berenice received its premiere, along with his last symphony (No. 104). The Scena was written for the most famous prima donna of the day, Brigitta Giorgi Banti, who, according to comments written in a program book by one anonymous listener, “has a clear, sweet equable voice, her low & high notes equally good. Her recitative admirably expressive. Her voice rather wants fulness of tone; her shake [trill] is weak & imperfect.” Haydn too seemed a bit disappointed with his prima donna. In his diary he wrote (in English), “she sang very scanty.” Of the concert in general he was more enthusiastic: “The whole company was thoroughly pleased and so was I. I made four thousand Gulden on this evening. Such a thing is only possible in England.”
The Scena de Berenice (Berenice’s scene) is one of the great eighteenth-century concert arias. The text comes from an opera libretto by the poet Pietro Metastasio. The complete opera, Antigono, had first been set to music by Hasse in 1743 and subsequently set by Galuppi, Piccinni, Paisiello and many other composers throughout the
century. Haydn, however, chose to set a single scene, which occurs near the end of the opera just before the denouement. Berenice has been separated from her lover, Demetrio, and, as he is about to die, she becomes overwhelmed and delirious. The first section of the cantata mixes free dramatic recitative and short ariosos, and the work concludes with a powerful aria in F minor. The irregular form of the work, with a recitative mixed with ariosos and then a final aria, is similar to that in many dramatic concert arias of the time, including Beethoven’s Ah! perfido.
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 2
With this sparkling early concerto, Beethoven made his debut as a pianist and composer before the Viennese public on March 29, 1795. He was 24 years old. According to the Wiener Zeitung, there was “unanimous applause,” and the young musician had the honor of performing it later that same year with the esteemed Haydn conducting.
Over the next several years, he continued to play the work as a show piece but revised it several times. On one memorable occasion, when Beethoven decided to write an entirely new third movement, his friend Wegeler reported that “not until the afternoon of the second day before the concert did he write the rondo, and then while suffering from a pretty severe colic which frequently afflicted him . . . In the anteroom sat four copyists to whom he handed sheet after sheet as soon as it was finished.” Then at the first rehearsal, Beethoven discovered that his piano was tuned a half step lower than the wind instruments, a crisis that required him to transpose his solo part up a half step for that rehearsal.
Although it is called Concerto No. 2, this is the earliest of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. It was written in Bonn, before he moved to Vienna, but, by the time it was published in 1801, his publisher had already issued his next concerto, calling that one Concerto No. 1. This Bb concerto from his teen years thus became No. 2 and was given a later opus number. By then, Beethoven’s style was starting to evolve from the Mozartian character of this concerto toward something quite new. His revisions, even including writing a new third movement, could bring the work only so far toward his current style and his current level of experience. Thus he told his publisher, “I don’t consider it one of my best works” and offered it to him for half the price of his first symphony.
But it is a charming and delightful work with a beautiful slow movement that must have shown off Beethoven’s noted cantabile style of playing, as well as a light-hearted, comic finale. As a great improvisor, Beethoven would have made up his first-movement cadenza on the spot. The written-out cadenza that has come down to us is one that Beethoven created much later (1809); with it, he interestingly inserts a more advanced style of his piano writing into this early concerto.
The fortepiano in this concert was built by R. J. Regier in Freeport, Maine. It is modelled on an instrument by Anton Walter, a leading Viennese maker whose pianos were owned by Mozart and, early in his career, by Beethoven.
Beethoven, Ah! perfido
Beethoven’s Ah! perfido, a dramatic scene for soprano and orchestra, is a monologue for a woman who has been deserted by her lover. In the recitative and aria that make up this scene, she vacillates between asking the gods to punish her lover and wanting them to show him mercy. The work is modeled on the Scena di Berenice, which his teacher Haydn had composed only a year earlier, and, as in Haydn’s cantata, the text for the recitative is by the popular librettist Metastasio. The author of the aria text is unknown.
Despite the high opus number that a publisher gave it, this is a relatively early work. The soloist at its premier in 1796 was the soprano Josefa Dussek, for whom Mozart had earlier written two great concert arias. However, when Beethoven finally brought the work to Vienna, it did not fare so well. On that occasion in 1808, it was part of a notorious four-hour marathon “Academy” concert of his music, and Beethoven had asked the celebrated soprano Anna Milder to give the Vienna premiere. A few years earlier, she had sung the role of Leonore in his opera Fidelio, but this time the irascible Beethoven, who had already alienated most of the orchestra, quarreled with her, and she withdrew from the concert. On short notice, she was replaced by a seventeen-year-old singer who had not yet performed professionally. Not surprisingly, she suffered a tremendous attack of stage fright as she went on stage with Beethoven, and this difficult work, to say the least, did not go well. However, the reputation of Ah! perfido has long since recovered from that early disaster, and the work is today a popular show piece for sopranos.
Symphony No. 5
At the end of the year 1808, Beethoven produced an extraordinary — and exhausting — concert of his own music. The program included the premieres of both his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and of his Fourth Piano Concerto with Beethoven himself as soloist, as well as movements from his Mass in C, the dramatic scene and aria Ah! perfido, and Beethoven’s improvisations on the piano. Originally, the Fifth Symphony was to end the evening, but the composer feared that the audience might be too tired to listen such a demanding piece at the end of such a long concert. So he placed it earlier on the program and then, making the concert even longer, substituted a grand finale of a new, hastily written Choral Fantasy (op. 80), in which he improvised the opening piano solo. The entire event took a full four hours in a bitterly cold hall.
Beethoven’s friend Reichardt wrote that “one can easily have too much of a good thing — and still more of a loud one. Nevertheless, I could no more leave the box before the end than could the exceedingly good-natured and delicate Prince [Lobkowitz],” since Beethoven was conducting the orchestra near them. To make matters worse, the orchestra and chorus did not like or support the cantankerous composer, and there had been so little rehearsal time that some of the pieces had not gotten a single full rehearsal. “Thus,” writes Reichardt, “many a failure in the performance vexed our patience in the highest degree.” Needless to say, the Fifth Symphony, survived its first outing to become one of the most well-known works in the entire orchestral repertoire.
This radical symphony evolved over a surprisingly long time. Beethoven began sketches for it — initially without the famous opening bars — in 1804, immediately after completing his revolutionary Third Symphony (Eroica); but work on it was interrupted by numerous other projects. His opera Fidelio, the Razumovky quartets, the Violin Concerto, the Appassionata sonata for piano, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Fourth Symphony all come from this amazingly fertile time. The commission for the Fourth Symphony required him to revisit the simpler style of his earlier symphonies. But even when he was able to return to his avante-garde Fifth, Beethoven labored simultaneously on his Pastoral (Sixth) Symphony, a work in a much gentler spirit.
Almost from the beginning, the Fifth Symphony has taken on extra-musical meaning for many people, even though the composer himself insisted that he was not writing program music. Beethoven’s friend and biographer Schindler started a popular legend, which has survived to the present day, when he claimed — rather questionably — that the opening motive was meant to represent “fate knocking at the door.” From the Napoleonic Wars through World War II, this symphony has been adopted in patriotic causes, and over time it has become so ubiquitous in concert halls and in popular culture that it can be difficult for an audience to listen to it with fresh ears. The challenge, a richly rewarding one for both performers and listeners today, is to play or listen to this astonishing work with the sense of excitement and danger that it demands.
The symphony opens with what is certainly the most recognizable motive in all of classical music — and also one of the most powerful. It is a highly compressed four-note motive that appears in almost every measure of the first movement. But many other details have also drawn comment from composers and critics through the centuries: the unusual and beautiful variations in the slow movement, the unprecedented intensity of the third movement Scherzo, the surprisingly static but tense transition to the Finale, and the grandiose, triumphant character of the Finale itself. With that Finale, the key of C minor, a dark and impassioned key for Beethoven, gives way to a bright, triumphal C major, in which the sound of the orchestra is suddenly filled out by the addition of a contrabassoon at the bottom, a piccolo at the top, and trombones in the middle range. It is perhaps the most controversial movement of the symphony, a “meaningless babel” to Beethoven’s contemporary Louis Spohr and a brilliant appearance of the sun to others. It ends with an almost obsessively long sequence of repeated C major chords, a conclusion which writer Charles Rosen explains is necessary “to ground the extreme tension of [this] immense work.”