23 Feb 2017

Program Notes: Beethoven & Schumann

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Cathedral wedding Veil

Program Notes: Halekulani Masterworks Beethoven & Schumann
Sunday, March 19 @ 4pm
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017

Overture to Fidelio, Op.72c
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born 16 December, 1770 in Bonn Germany
Died 26 March, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

Approximate duration 6 minutes

First performed by the HSO in 1904

Q:        Why would any composer write four overtures for a single opera?

A:        He had very high standards, and was dissatisfied with the first three efforts.

In the case of Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio — which surely holds a record for the most overtures of any opera in the repertoire — the answer is summed up by the composer’s intense self-criticism.  He was determined to make Fidelio ever better, a mission that prompted him to rework the opera (and rewrite its overture) over a period from 1804 to 1814.  The premiere in November 1805 was a flop, partially because Vienna was occupied by French troops and many of Beethoven’s Viennese patrons had evacuated the city.  Fidelio, which is sung in German, was withdrawn after three performances.  After the second, revised production in 1806 fared even worse — only two performances — Beethoven’s friend Stephan von Breuning commented, “Nothing has caused Beethoven so much vexation as this work.”  Plenty of additional vexation lay ahead.

In its first guise, the opera was known as Leonore, the name of its heroine (she is disguised as a boy, Fidelio, for most of the action).  Leonore is the name borne by the other three overtures that Beethoven penned for this opera.  All three date from the period 1805-1807; all are in C major and incorporate significant themes from the opera itself.  Leonores No. 2 and No.3 have strong thematic and structural resemblances to one another.

The overture that finally satisfied Beethoven is altogether different.  He started with a clean slate:  a brighter key (E major), fresh music (no themes from the opera), and a new, concise approach to form (Fidelio is by far the shortest of the four).  The music is arresting and dramatic, evidence of a mature composer who had written eight symphonies and understood the drama of an orchestra perhaps better than he did that of the operatic stage.  Fidelio‘s overture is at once sparkling and noble of spirit.  An attention-getting fanfare alternates with a pregnant Adagio introduction before the first horns present the overture’s main theme.  With this crisp and rousing overture, Beethoven set a standard for curtain raisers that few have matched since.


The score calls for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani and strings.

Concerto No. 1 in C for Piano & Orchestra, Op.15
Ludwig van Beethoven

Approximate duration 36 minutes

First performed by the HSO in 1967

When Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna late in 1792, he quickly established himself as a gifted piano virtuoso. Gaining recognition as a composer took a little longer – but not much. By the mid-1790s, the young firebrand from Bonn had acquired several wealthy patrons and had an enthusiastic following in the imperial capital. Like other composer-performers of the day, he was his own best advertisement for his music. A piano concerto was an essential vehicle for self-promotion.

Despite its designation as “first” and the early opus number, the C major concerto was not Beethoven’s first piano concerto, though it was the first to be published.  He had tried his hand at concerto writing as a teenager in Bonn with an early work in E-flat.  Better known than that youthful effort is the Concerto in B-flat, Op.19, which was composed in 1795 and appeared on Viennese concert programs in the mid-1790s.  The C major concerto was composed in the late 1790s, possibly as early as 1796 and certainly by 1798.  Beethoven played it frequently at this stage of his career, when he had earned a formidable reputation as a pianist.

Many critics have noted the strong imprint of the Mozartean piano concerto on this work.  In particular the ceremonial/military character, and tonality of Mozart’s 25th concerto, K. 503 in C, invite comparison.  Less obvious but equally compelling is the parallel in virtuosic figuration patterns with Mozart’s D major concerto, K.537 (“Coronation”).  Clearly Beethoven had studied Mozart’s works carefully.

Beethoven expanded significantly on the Mozartean concerto model.  The first movement unfolds over about 17 minutes. The length results in part from Beethoven’s elaborate solo cadenza, but also because of the symphonic treatment of the whole.  Despite its unusual duration, the Allegro con brio feels compact.  The characteristic reworking of motivic ideas mingles with some surprisingly singable melodies.

The slow movement is a lovely cantilena in the sub-mediant key of A-flat.  Both its rich ornamentation and its tranquil spirit look forward to the “Emperor” concerto.  A lovely clarinet solo contributes an intimate, chamber-music-like dialogue to this movement.  The bubbly finale is among the wittiest movements that Beethoven ever composed.  Even its subsidiary themes exude rhythmic vitality, fully realizing the scherzando instruction of Beethoven’s subtitle.

Beethoven used a relatively large orchestra for this concerto.  The score calls for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, solo piano, and strings.


Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 97 (“Rhenish”)
Robert Schumann
Born 8 June, 1810 in Zwickau, Saxony, Germany
Died 29 July, 1856 in Endenich, near Bonn, Germany

Approximate duration 32 minutes

First performed by the HSO in 1950

As Robert Schumann’s mental illness progressed, it took a debilitating toll on his personal life and musical creativity. Still, occasional periods of lucidity eased his torment.  Such times invariably followed a move or change of scenery.  In late summer 1850, Robert and Clara Schumann left Dresden for Düsseldorf, the capital of the Rhineland and frequent site of the important Lower Rhenish Festival. The reason was Robert’s promising new appointment. The conductor and composer Ferdinand Hiller had recommended Schumann to succeed him as conductor of the excellent Düsseldorf orchestra.

Immediately Robert’s spirits and productivity rose. Matters began promisingly. The community and the orchestra both welcomed the Schumann family, and the composer was pleased with the high caliber of the orchestra and chorus he was to lead. New surroundings and the change of venue bolstered his enthusiasm for composing. In practically no time, Robert had written a Cello Concerto; it was published in 1854 as Op.129. Almost immediately on its heels, he began work on the E-flat major symphony, Op.97. (It was actually his fourth symphony, but because it was published earlier than the D minor Symphony, Op.120, it has become known as the third.)

Cruise on the Rhine

To be sure, Robert remained in precarious mental health. He was always vulnerable to the stress of his two-pronged career as both conductor and composer.  Clara Schumann’s journal entries from that autumn describe his “highly nervous, irritable, excited mood.”  She blamed his condition on street noise. He wanted to change their domicile to a quieter neighborhood.  They did take a river excursion on the Rhine that September, during which they observed the installation ceremonies for Archbishop Johannes von Geissel, who was being elevated to Cardinal at Cologne’s magnificent cathedral, which was then an unfinished sanctuary. The ceremony made an enormous impact on Schumann. Two months later, he had incorporated an extra slow movement into the symphony as a direct response to the Cologne experience.

A Burst of Inspiration

The symphony recaptures the immediacy that imbues Schumann’s brilliant piano works from the 1830s, including Carnaval, Kinderszenen, Noveletten, Davidsbündlertänze, and Kreisleriana. He completed it, including the orchestration, in barely over a month, swept along on a surge of enthusiasm that produced his highest quality music in many years. Writing to his friend the conductor Josef von Wasielewski (who became his first biographer), he observed:

I cannot see that there is anything remarkable about composing a symphony in a month.  Handel wrote a complete oratorio in that time.  If one is capable of doing anything at all, one must be capable of doing it quickly — the quicker the better, in fact.  The flow of one’s thoughts and ideas is more natural and more authentic than in lengthy deliberation.

Perhaps he knew how good the music he had written was.  The “Rhenish” Symphony is an exuberant work, filled with rich melodies and a formal mastery that eluded Schumann too often in his later years.  Certainly that was not the case here.  So strong is his opening theme in the first movement that he dispensed with slow introduction — the only time he did so in any of his symphonies — and also chose to forego a repeat of the exposition.  Schumann’s biographer Joan Chissell has described the youthful energy of the opening theme as “the most subtle of all his rhythmic experiments . . . a tug-of-war between triple and duple time … [that] gives the movement an extraordinary rhythmic virility.”

Schumann’s second movement is folklike and innocent, at a relaxed pace that belies its title of Scherzo.  His original title was “Morning on the Rhine.” The movement epitomizes the joyous simplicity of German peasant songs, and has a bit of the magic of Rhenish legend that was later to inspire Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. The ensuing Andante functions as a traditional slow movement, and is consistent with Schumann’s restrained, poetic Intermezzi elsewhere in his compositions.

An extra slow movement

With the fourth movement, Schumann broke with tradition.  Although five movement symphonies had precedent in Beethoven, Berlioz, and Mendelssohn, four movements was still the norm.  Schumann’s extra is a slow movement originally subtitled “In the style of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony.”  It was clearly precipitated by his trip to Cologne earlier that autumn; the introduction of trombones into the orchestration for the first time in the symphony, and the overall ecclesiastical atmosphere of this imposing movement lend it a spiritual quality that has earned this movement the sobriquet “Cathedral Scene,” in spite of the fact that Schumann withdrew subtitles for this and for the Scherzo prior to publication.

With his exuberant finale, Schumann returns to his finest symphonic form.  References to themes from earlier in the symphony make the movement cyclic, and a fitting conclusion to this vivacious and joyous work.

Schumann scored the “Rhenish” Symphony for  woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.