Lovers and Dreamers

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61

When really pressed, Ludwig van Beethoven could work fast. In a letter to his publisher in mid-November 1806 there is no mention of the Violin Concerto as work in progress, but on December 23 it was premiered by Franz Clement, a friend of the composer and leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien. As was common with Beethoven, he made continual changes in the manuscript after the premiere until publication in 1808, but the changes were mostly in detail and not in the fundamental conception of the work.

Franz Clement was a formidable musician with a prodigious musical memory, lauded both for his technique and his impeccable intonation and musicianship. From manuscript sources it becomes clear that he tried to advise Beethoven on phrasing and the technical possibilities of the instrument, but that the composer took only a few of his suggestions. In the Concerto Beethoven provided him with immense challenges, both technical and musical. In retrospect, it is clear that the Concerto was the first major violin concerto of the late Classical period, acting as a model for the subsequent works of Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Max Bruch.

The premiere, however, was not a success, nor did the work fare much better the following year. The public simply did not get it. The turning point for the Concerto came in 1844, when 13-year-old Joseph Joachim performed it in London with the Philharmonic Society, Mendelssohn conducting. For the occasion, the Society set aside its rule against the appearance of child prodigies. Joachim at 13 was considered a fully mature artist.

It is an amusing – and often educational – exercise to take a time trip to put oneself in the shoes of an audience who rejected a work of art that subsequently went on to be haled as a masterpiece. So what did Beethoven’s audience object to in the Violin Concerto?

First of all, there is the sheer heft of the piece; even Mozart’s five violin concertos were significantly shorter and lightweight by comparison. Then there’s the opening; Beethoven was no newcomer to controversial openings. Was it the four repeated identical solo timpani beats that form part of the main theme that amazed Beethoven’s contemporaries? Haydn had done the same thing in the Symphony No. 103, the “Drum Roll,” but that was a symphony, not a violin concerto. At the fifth beat, the woodwinds, and particularly the oboe, chime in with a gentle melody, Example 1 but the four notes return immediately, now a motto that carries over in all the themes. Example 2 & Example 3

The Concerto contains cadenzas for all three movements, but it also contains many cadenza-like passages. Clement’s virtuosity and pinpoint accuracy of intonation inspired the composer. While Mozart was a fine violinist, that instrument was not his forte, and his concerti were for his own use. But Beethoven wrote the Violin Concerto for a brilliant young violinist – and composer and conductor as well – whose virtuosity and pinpoint accuracy of intonation inspired him to give special prominence to the E-string. The soloist's entrance in the first movement is a telling example, Example 4 and passages in all three movements occupy the instrument’s stratosphere where even Vivaldi had seldom trod.

The second movement, Larghetto, is a chorale-like theme and a set of four variations. Throughout his life, Beethoven had been an innovator in the ancient genre of theme and variations, the final movement of his Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") being but one example. In the Violin Concerto, the theme is not the standard sequence of two repeated strains. Rather, it is a long melody with no internal repeats. Example 5 Likewise, the soloist doesn't simply embellish the melody with increasingly acrobatic and elaborate decoration, but rather builds the emotional intensity. Near the end of the movement, Beethoven provides a section of new material following the fourth variation Example 6 and a short cadenza, leading without a break into the Rondo Finale. Example 7 This, a lively bravura movement based on a dancing folk-like theme as the refrain, is the technical counterbalance to the emotional intensity of the first two movements. Brahms and Max Bruch were to imitate the ebullient good humor in the finale of their own Violin Concertos. Example 8 & Example 9

One other reason for the initial rejection of Beethoven’s Concerto resides in the violin concertos of the Classical period. Like Mozart’s five concerti, these were modest – although elegant – in their requirements of the soloist. Unlike twentieth-century music lovers, who revere the music of centuries past more than contemporary music, the challenging Italian-style concerti of Vivaldi or Bach had long since become passé in nineteenth-century Vienna. Beethoven was virtually reinventing the genre, setting the stage for a rash of challenging virtuoso violin works by such performer-composers Niccoló Paganini that soon took Europe by storm.

Hector Berlioz (1805-1869)
Love Scene from Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17

Dramatic Symphony after Shakespeare’s Tragedy

As if literature’s quintessential star-crossed lovers didn’t present enough Sturm und Drang, Hector Berlioz’s personal life added a subsequent entanglement to their legend. Around 1827, Berlioz attended productions in Paris of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, performed by the great British actor, David Garrick, and the apparently somewhat less talented actress, Harriet Smithson. Despite the fact that the young composer didn’t know English, he fell madly in love with Smithson, developed an obsessive fixation on her that inspired the Symphonie fantastique, and married her six years later, ultimately making both of them miserable.

The popularization of Shakespeare by the French Romantics in the beginning of the nineteenth century created an impact nothing short of overwhelming. Like most matters artistic in France, it also created controversy. Early translations, all in rhyming couplets, adapted the plays to Ancient Greek dramatic constraints traced back to Aristotle’s Poetics. The three “unities” required that plays take place in the same location, within 24 hours, with no subplots nor – gods forbid – mixing of comedy and tragedy. Gone, therefore, were many of the qualities that for English theatergoers and readers make Shakespeare Shakespeare.

On the other hand, for Victor Hugo, the father of French literary Romanticism, and Berlioz, Shakespeare was the nearest thing to God. Nearly all of Berlioz’s music was based on or inspired by literary or personal narrative. He used a number of Shakespeare’s plays as texts or models for his music: the opera Béatrice et Bénédict (from Much Ado about Nothing), Overture to King Lear, Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet, La mort d’Ophélie, and Roméo et Juliette.

In selecting Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz said that the play belonged to the body of secular scripture that every educated man should know by heart. In the process he continued to develop new ways of combining music and poetry, creating a “dramatic symphony, with chorus, soloists, and a prologue in choral recitative, after Shakespeare’s drama.”

The work is in four parts with most of the vocal sections in the first and fourth movements. It is a carefully calculated mixture of genres, incorporating elements from opera, cantata and symphony. Each part is further subdivided into scenes that only roughly follow the chronology of the play and omit or rearrange many important plot elements.

The instrumental selections from Roméo et Juliette are mini-tone poems, closely coordinated with the poetry. They are almost all through composed, Berlioz’s equivalence to Shakespeare’s non-strophic and usually unrhymed blank verse.

A master of orchestration and instrumental innovation, Berlioz called at the premiere for forces of 200 musicians, including three soloists, two choirs, and an expanded orchestra. Performances of the complete work have always been rare, but orchestral excerpts are frequently performed.

For Berlioz, the arch-Romantic, Romeo and Juliet represent the ideal of ultimate, all-embracing love. In a preface to the score he wrote that for the Love Scene he would have felt hampered by words, even Shakespeare’s words, preferring the freedom of instrumental music. He considered the music he wrote for this scene as among his best. Example 3

Roméo et Juliette was premiered in Paris in November 1839, under the composer’s direction, before an audience of artists and intellectuals described by novelist Honoré de Balzac as “the brain of Paris.”

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Háry János Suite

Zoltán Kodály is remembered today primarily as the musician who revitalized Hungarian music. By collecting his native folk songs, training young musicians in the study of folk idioms and using indigenous melodies in his own compositions, he made authentic Hungarian folk music respectable in the concert hall. Kodály believed firmly that music is primarily melodic and, therefore, singable and communal. He was more conservative in his harmonies and musical forms than his life-long friend and collaborator Béla Bartók, never veering far from the folk idiom he promoted. Kodály was also deeply concerned with music education for young children, believing that all children should be musically literate. His concepts and methods inspired a complete system of music education that is still widely used in Europe and the United States.

Kodály composed the opera Háry János in 1926, basing the plot and much of the music on Hungarian folk material. In doing so, he made the melodies and the story of the yarn-spinning soldier into a national treasure. Kodály even incorporated into the score a cimbalom, a Hungarian folk instrument similar to a hammer dulcimer, commonly used by the Gypsies. The highly nationalistic flavor of the opera has prevented it from establishing worldwide popularity, but the Suite is a chestnut and especially suitable for introducing elementary school children to orchestral music. It has become a perennial favorite of orchestra players and audiences and is Kodály’s most popular work.

The opera consists of a series of scenes based on Háry János’s fantastic and self-promoting tales of adventure, in which he rescues the Emperor Franz Joseph’s daughter – also Napoleon’s wife Marie Louise – tames a wild horse, cures the old Emperor, leads his army against Napoleon, whom he fights single-handed and takes captive. Although Marie-Louise offers herself and half the empire as a dowry, Háry chooses to remain faithful to his girlfriend Ilka.

The Suite opens with a mighty orchestral sneeze, an Eastern European folk tradition that marks the ensuing story as a tall tale. Example 1 The sneeze leads into the Prelude, based on a single mock-morose theme Example 2 that becomes increasingly melodramatic. Example 3 The second movement, “The Viennese Musical Clock,” uses only the upper brasses and woodwinds together with the percussion, piano, celesta and bells. Example 4

In the third movement, “Song,” a nostalgic folk melody initiated by a solo viola Example 5 and taken up as a series of orchestral variations, indicates that Háry, while on foreign adventures, has not forgotten his home. This scene also prominently features the cimbalom. Example 6 “The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon,” recounts Háry’s single-handed rout of Napoleon’s army. It begins with a raucous march interrupted by a bizarre trumpet call, Example 7 followed by the battle itself. A tuba solo spoofs the Marseillaise. Example 8 After Napoleon’s defeat the opening march returns, played on a whining saxophone (“Napoleon’s Lament”). Example 9

The fifth movement, “Intermezzo,” again uses an authentic folk song featuring the cimbalom with the full orchestra Example 10 and a horn solo in its middle section. Example 11 The dazzling Finale, “The Entrance of the Emperor and His Court,” is set in the rhythm of the verbunkos, the preeminent indigenous Hungarian dance music of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, used also by the Austro-Hungarian army as military recruiting music. Example 12 It brings Háry’s musical autobiography to a farcical end.

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn