Stewart Goodyear, piano
Ludwig van Beethoven
Overture to Goethe’s Egmont, Op. 84
The German poet and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the historical drama Egmont between 1775 and 1787. Based on historical events – although with considerable poetic license – the play conveys Goethe’s idealism and passion for political and individual freedom. Historically, Lamoral, Count of Egmont, was a Dutch patriot and a Catholic who unsuccessfully attempted to attenuate the power of the Inquisition in the Netherlands, which was under Spanish rule during the mid-sixteenth century. Caught between the Dutch resistance and his loyalty to King Philip II, Egmont was imprisoned and hanged for treason.
Goethe’s Egmont bears only scant resemblance to the historical Count of Egmont. In the play, Egmont organizes a resistance movement against the Spanish forces who invade and occupy the Netherlands, led by the ruthless Duke of Alva. Egmont is cast as a martyr for freedom of thought, managing to rouse the populace to revolt as he is about to be executed.
In 1809 the director of the Imperial Theater in Vienna commissioned Beethoven to compose music to accompany Goethe’s tragedy. Sharing the ideals of the Enlightenment with the playwright, Beethoven went to work enthusiastically. In addition to the overture, he wrote nine pieces of incidental music, including two soprano arias. He also added a narrator to bridge the gaps in the story and thus, according to Goethe, “…it can be performed as an oratorio.” Goethe was pleased with Beethoven’s efforts, commenting, “Beethoven has followed my intentions with admirable genius.”
The Overture, which quickly acquired a life of its own, captures the essence of the drama. It opens with snarling minor chords symbolizing the Spanish brutality, answered pleadingly by the oboe and upper woodwinds, representing the Dutch suffering.
The central allegro theme in 3/4 time has no specific narrative significance but rather, reflects the general dramatic tension, especially the sighing appoggiaturas in the violins.
The Overture ends with the “Victory Symphony,” the final section of the incidental music, signifying Egmont’s call for the Dutch uprising that eventually drove the Spanish out of the Low Countries.
Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra
The musical idiom of jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of this century from ragtime and from the blues. It was however in Europe, where American dance bands were very popular, that composers first incorporated the new American idioms into their classical compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog’s Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918); and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du Monde (1923).
George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the classical music audience. The performance of his Rhapsody in Blue at the Paul Whitman concerts in 1924 made history as a groundbreaker. It was, however, his Concerto in F, commissioned by Walter Damrosch for the New York Symphony and which premiered in December 1925, which was the first large-scale jazz composition in a traditionally classical form.
Gershwin, who by that time was already a famous composer of songs and musical comedies, had no experience in orchestration. In the Broadway tradition, this was usually left to professional orchestrators. Even the Rhapsody in Blue had not been orchestrated by Gershwin, but by his colleague Ferde Grofé. But for the Concerto in F, he decided to score it himself. From the telling results, we can see what a fast learner he was.
Although billed as a concerto for the concert hall, the Concerto in F adheres only to the most basic elements to the classical models for form and structure: three movements, fast-slow-fast. There is no attempt at recreating sonata form in the movements themselves, although the finale is a rondo.
Gershwin employed different jazz styles in the three movements. The First movement, Allegro, employs the quick and pulsating rhythm of the Charleston. The unusual opening is for timpani and trap set, which sets the prevailing rhythm of the movement and announces in no uncertain terms: This is jazz!
The main theme, introduced by the piano, becomes a motto for the concerto, recurring in the Finale.
Instead of developing core thematic material, the tunesmith Gershwin rolls out a series of melodies in contrasting rhythms and moods, expanding each one in the manner of a jazz riff, the first a Charleston,
the second more Latin in feel
and the next, another Charleston.
The climax of the movement is a full orchestral repeat of the main theme.
The slow second movement has, as Gershwin himself explained, “…a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues…” It is about two big themes, both of which are delayed to produce a sense of expectation that drives the movement and reflect the melancholy sense of longing that characterizes the blues in general. The movement begins with a long introductory section for solo winds, including clarinets, saxophone, trumpet and oboe based on a small rhythmic motive that sets the bluesy atmosphere and contains little hints of the important themes to come.
As in the first movement, the piano introduces the main theme,
the accompaniment to which contains the motivic germ of the movement’s second big theme
that will come into its own a full eight minutes into the movement.
Note that both main themes contain within them no harmonic resolution. This Gershwin further delays until the end of the movement.
The Finale, the only movement with a classical structure, is a rondo, actually a toccata consisting of rapidly repeated notes. From a pop music perspective, the movement is a quickstep.
The first episode brings back in variation the motto from the first movement.
The theme of the next episode is original to this movement.
In the third episode, Gershwin brings back the main theme from the second movement as a quickstep.
The climax of the movement is a near repeat of the fully orchestrated motto. A rapid coda recalls the rondo theme with a timpani flourish and jazz trill for the horns.
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44
With a well-established reputation as composer, conductor, and pianist, Rachmaninov left Russia in December 1917 with his family, having lost all his property in the revolutionary upheaval. With a family to support, he resigned himself to life as a full-time career pianist, leaving little time to compose. The Third Symphony is one of the few works he composed after settling in the West.
Achieving such a reputation had been a hard-won battle for Rachmaninov. The premiere performance of his First Symphony took place in St. Petersburg in 1897. It was a dismal failure, in large part due to the shoddy conducting of Aleksander Glazunov, who was drunk. The disappointment brought on severe depression, and for three years Rachmaninov was unable to do any significant composing. Finally, in 1900 he went for therapy and hypnosis to Dr. Nikolay Dahl. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Rachmaninov was able to return to creative work, resulting in his Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Dahl. Relapses into depression dogged Rachmaninov, however, for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions, as well as most of the rest of his oeuvre, are in minor keys.
Rachmaninov refused to publish the failed symphony, only acknowledging its existence by calling his next one, composed in 1906-07, No. 2. It took him nearly 30 years to premiere his Third Symphony, composed in 1935-36, with his favorite orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.
This Symphony is to some extent a departure from the late-Romantic language of its predecessors. Except for the first movement, which is quite accessible both melodically and formally, the composer’s lush themes and flowing melodies are significantly attenuated. Instead, the musical language is more austere, chromatic and dissonant, also revealing Rachmaninov’s interest in the qualities of individual instruments. One idiosyncrasy of the Symphony is the abrupt change in tempo and the introduction of new music about halfway through every movement, where the composer goes off on a musical digression – a fast one in the middle of the slow movement, and a slow one in the middle of the allegro movements. There is also considerable thematic unity in the Symphony, both within movements and between them.
One of the bits of thematic glue occurs in the opening notes – a feature not uncommon in composers as early as Haydn – but Rachmaninov puts a slightly different take on it by using a major second instead of a minor second and adding a third note in the motive in the opening of the second movement while retaining just enough of its features, including its melodic contour and rhythm, to be recognizable.
The contrast in tempi that characterizes the Symphony is suggested early in the crashing measures after the slow opening of the first movement, after which the movement begins in earnest with the first in a series of themes introduced by a pair of oboes.
Typically with Rachmaninov, it is the second theme that is the lushest and the one that he develops most thoroughly in his orchestral works, but in this Symphony, the second theme is similar to the first, although now in the major.
After a repeat of the exposition and a short foray into a classical development, Rachmaninov proceeds on his first “intra-movement” digressions, a series of short, often nervous and unmelodic themes – including a folksy xylophone lick – that provide the climax to the movement.
The burst of energy exhausts itself with a recapitulation of the brief three-note introduction and the formal classical recapitulation. A short coda provides the final repeat of the introductory motive.
As already noted, the introductory measures of the Adagio are based on the introduction of the first movement. The principal theme of the movement makes its first appearance as a lovely violin solo.
This movement also undergoes a long digression with sparkling orchestration. A long fanfare leads to its main theme.
As in the first movement, the energy gradually winds down into a reprise of the Adagio and a repeat of the introductory motto from the first movement. By comparison with the familiar morose Rachmaninov and his seemingly inevitable quotes from the Dies Irae, the Finale seems positively joyous.
Nevertheless, the chromatic and tonally ambiguous second theme is not as lyrical as expected of this composer.
While this movement does not contain a lengthy section in a contrasting tempo, it does regularly alternate between the sprightly main theme and more attenuated passages. A third theme that begins as if it’s going to be another Rachmaninov blockbuster melody is cut off by a whimsical interruption by the bassoon.
In the same vein, later the composer inserts a short Hispanic dance
and further on a Russian one, a slow version of the little xylophone passage from the first movement
that creeps up the chromatic scale, gradually increasing in tempo. The Symphony’s motto appears in its final form, now embellished and as a quiet but jaunty dance in the upper winds
just preceding the exuberant conclusion.
The Symphony disappointed the audience and critics, who had expected another “Second.” The lukewarm reception at the premiere, in turn, disappointed the composer, who felt misunderstood. He wrote to a friend after the premiere that the Philadelphia Orchestra played wonderfully. “…both audience and critics responded sourly. Personally, I’m convinced that this is good work. But – sometimes the author is wrong, too! However, I maintain my opinion.”