Program Notes — Opening Night 2016



By Steven Ledbetter



Coriolan Overture, Opus 62

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He composed the Coriolan Overture early in 1807, and the work was first performed in two different subscription concerts given at the home of Prince Lobkowitz and possibly also in a private concert at the home of Prince Lichnowsky in March of that year. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration is about 8 minutes.

Beethoven knew and admired the works of Shakespeare in the prose translation of Eschenburg. The composer’s Coriolan Overture was not inspired by the Bard’s Coriolanus, however, but rather by a much less elevated source, a play by Matthäus von Collin which had enjoyed a brief vogue in Vienna during the years from 1802 to 1805 as a vehicle for the actor Lange. Originally the play was performed with second?hand music, adapted by Abbé Stadler from Mozart’s Idomeneo. Beethoven apparently admired the somewhat hackneyed poetic tragedy for the ideals of classical virtue embodied therein (and the author was, in any case, a friend of his, and an influential one at that, since he served as Court Secretary).

The only information we have for the dating of the work is Beethoven’s own indication “1807” on the manuscript and the fact that it had been performed by March of that year not once but twice in subscription concerts given at the home of Prince Lobkowitz. The program of the two subscriptions concerts sponsored by Lobkowitz included the first four symphonies, a piano concerto, arias from Fidelio, and the new overture. According to an evaluation in the Journal des Luxus und der Moden: “Richness of ideas, bold originality and fullness of power, which are the particular merits of Beethoven’s muse, were very much in evidence to everyone at these concerts; yet many found fault with lack of a noble simplicity and the all too fruitful accumulation of ideas which on account of their number were not always adequately worked out and blended, thereby creating the effect more often of rough diamonds.” Yet the overture must have made a fairly strong impression, for by April 24 the management of the Imperial Theater (the Burgtheater) mounted a single performance of Collin’s drama, using Beethoven’s overture, so as to unite the play with the music that it inspired. It is most likely that this happened at the suggestion of Prince Lobkowitz himself, who was a director of the theater.

The combination of music with drama seems to have been no improvement over the music alone; the play has apparently never been performed since. Beethoven’s overture, on the other hand, recognized from the first as being “full of fire and power,” is one of his most admired short orchestral works, a probing essay in musical drama. The tension of Beethoven’s favorite dramatic key, C minor, is heightened by orchestral chords punctuating the weakest beat of the measure at the phrase endings in the Allegro theme. Formally the design is striking in that the second thematic group, representing Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, is the only part of the exposition that is recapitulated. Finally the opening theme returns in the home key, but it is transformed rhythmically into a short series of lamenting fragments, and the whole overture ends with a wonderfully dramatic use of silence–a musical suggestion of tragedy far more potent than that accomplished by the prolix rhetoric of Collin’s verse.



Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770 (he was probably born the day before), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He began to sketch the Fifth Symphony in 1804, did most of the work in 1807, completed the score in the spring of 1808, and led the first performance on December 22, 1808. The symphony is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 31 minutes.

   Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was first heard in a long concert that he gave at Vienna’s Theater?an?der?Wien to present an amazing series of his own works, all first performances. The evening began at 6:30 p.m. with the Sixth Symphony, followed by the concert aria Ah, perfido!, two movements from the Mass in C, and the Fourth Piano Concerto (with the composer himself as soloist) on the first half. After intermission the audience heard for the first time the Fifth Symphony, a piano fantasy improvised by the composer, and the Choral Fantasy. The last piece did not end until 10:30!

Given the length of the evening, most of the reports on the one real catastrophe of the evening, when the orchestra fell apart in the middle of the Choral Fantasy and the whole piece had to be started over. Thus, the most important and influential reaction to the Fifth Symphony did not come until a year and a half later, when the famous writer E.T.A. Hoffmann (who was also a composer) gave an enthusiastic appraisal of the Fifth Symphony as a landmark in the history of music.

Early audiences were stupefied or exhilarated. When someone asked Beethoven, “What does it mean?” he replied, “Thus Fate knocks at the door.” As such things go, it was appropriate enough. Fate working out a path to victory has long been associated with the piece. The “victory” is inherent in the music itself. This is why the score grips us today no matter how many times we have heard it.

Is it possible, at this late date, to listen to Beethoven’s Fifth not as if it were the most familiar of symphonies, but rather as if it were brand new? The opening four?note figure assumes great importance from the outset, but we gradually realize that this musical atom is not a theme in itself; it is the rhythmic foreground to an extraordinarily long?limbed melody, made up of a chain of four?note atoms. We hear a long phrase, but no one in the orchestra actually plays it. Instead one section overlaps another, then another. The tensely climbing phrase is an aural illusion. The rapid interplay of orchestral sections, a constantly boiling cauldron in which each has its own brief say before yielding to the next, lends a dramatic quality to the sound of the orchestra from the very opening.

The drama in the Fifth Symphony is musical: How to achieve a coherent and fully satisfying conclusion in the major mode to a symphony that begins in the minor? Throughout the four movements of this symphony, C major keeps appearing without ever quite exorcizing the haunting sense of C minor—never, that is, until the end of the last movement. In the opening Allegro, the C major appears right on schedule where it is conventionally expected—at the recapitulation of the secondary theme. But then the lengthy coda goes on—in C minor—to show that there is still a struggle ahead.

In the Andante, Beethoven keeps moving with a surprising modulation from the home key of A flat to a bright C major, reinforced by trumpets and timpani. But that C-major idea is never once allowed to come to a full conclusion; rather, it fades away, shrouded in harmonic mists and sustained tension.

The very unjoking scherzo (in C minor) turns to C major for a Trio involving some contrapuntal buffoonery, but the fun comes to an end with a hushed return to the minor?key material of the opening. Finally we begin to approach the light, moving through the darkness of a tense passage linking the movements to a glorious sunburst of C major that opens the finale. Even then we have one more struggle. Beethoven recalls the scherzo and the tense linking passage just before the recapitulation (another shift from gloom to bright day). Only then have we safely arrived in C major. An extended coda—an extraordinary peroration—needs to be as long as it is because it is not just the conclusion of the last movement, but rather of the entire symphony, culminating a demonstration of unification on the very grandest scale to which virtually every composer since has aspired, though few have succeeded. 


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He began his Fifth Symphony in May 1888 and completed it on August 26. Tchaikovsky himself conducted the premiere in St. Petersburg on November 26, 1888. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, three timpani, and strings. Duration is about 50 minutes.

   By 1888, when Tchaikovsky composed the Fifth Symphony, he was far from being the hypersensitive artist—virtually a neurotic cripple—of popular accounts. To be sure, ten years earlier he had gone through a major emotional crisis, brought on by his ill-advised, catastrophic marriage (undertaken partly in an attempt to “overcome” his homosexuality) and a series of artistic setbacks. But his own brother declared that he “seemed a new man” by 1885. The masterly achievement of the Fourth Symphony (premiered in 1878) had marked the end of the real crisis.              

   Tchaikovsky’s decision to write a symphony again after ten years was an overt expression of his willingness to tackle once more the largest and most demanding musical form. He began it in May 1888, completing the full score by mid-August. The premiere, which took place in St. Petersburg that November, was a success, though critics questioned whether the Fifth Symphony was of the same caliber as the Second and Fourth. Tchaikovsky himself ran hot and cold in his reactions to the new work. In March 1889 he went to Hamburg for the German premiere, where Brahms, visiting from Vienna, stayed over just to hear the first rehearsal. The two composers had lunch afterwards. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother, “Neither he nor the players liked the Finale, which I also think rather horrible.” But later he wrote, “I have started to love it again.”

   Certainly listeners have long loved the Fifth for its warmth, its color, its rich fund of melody. Tchaikovsky always wrote music with “heart,” music with an underlying emotional significance, though he was wary of revealing that meaning publicly, preferring to let the listener seek it personally.

   The Fifth Symphony is dominated by a motto theme that might be identified with “the inscrutable predestination of Providence” mentioned in a memo of the composer’s. The motto recurs in each of the four movements. We first hear hushed and mysterious at the very beginning. The movement is expressive, but it is misleading to try to read too much beyond a certain emotional quality.

   The second movement contains one of the most famous instrumental solos ever written, an ardent song for the horn, of great emotional intensity. The contrasting middle section builds to a feverish climax dramatically interrupted by the motto theme blared out by the full orchestra. The opening melody restores calm and seems to be dying away, when the motto theme bursts

in again, pounding all to silence and closing with only a few broken phrases, devoid of energy.

   Few composers have written a full-scale waltz for the third movement and even fewer have managed one of such grace. At the end the waltz is undercut by a ghostly reminder of the motto theme in the clarinets and bassoons.

   Brahms’s doubts regarding the finale no doubt had to do with what many have considered the least convincing gesture in the symphony: having just heard the motto in a threatening form at the end of the waltz movement, it opens the finale blazing firmly in the major. The victory seems too easily won, accomplished without even a pitched battle. Following the recapitulation, the rhythm of the motto builds to a massive climax and a grand pause. This sounds dangerously like the end of the piece, but there is more struggle to come. A presto section restates thematic materials from earlier in the finale, while the close of the coda is a new statement of that nervously syncopated little tune from the very beginning of the symphony, now ringing out with the most glorious assurance as a majestic trumpet fanfare in the major key—a triumph of sorts, if only by sheer assertion. Tchaikovsky puts on a bold front to conceal what might seem like whistling in the dark—but it is a brave whistle for all that.


© Steven Ledbetter (