Program notes by Nancy Rowland
Welcome to the second concert of the Northern Neck Orchestra’s 2019-2020 season led by Michael Repper, music director and conductor. This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). For this concert Maestro Repper dedicated the entire program to Beethoven, selecting hidden gems that are not often performed. We will hear Beethoven’s overture to King Stephen, the first symphony, and the unique Triple Concerto. All three selections provide the exciting and dazzling music we expect from Beethoven.
Overture to King Stephen
The concert opens with a rousing overture that Beethoven wrote in 1811. He was commissioned to orchestrate texts that commemorated Hungarian history. The occasion was the dedication of a new theater in Pest (the city later joined with Buda on the other side of the Danube). Beethoven named the music for the saintly King Stephen who converted the country to Christianity around 1000 AD. Stephen was canonized soon after his death and is the patron saint of Hungary.
The exciting music met an enthusiastic audience who demonstrated their national pride by calling for repeat performances. The music we hear in this concert was the overture to a long work that included many songs Beethoven wrote using the texts provided.
The overture music begins with a trumpet fanfare, and then introduces colorful Hungarian themes with exotic sounding harmonies and rhythms that were easily recognized by the audience. The main theme is filled with syncopation. Beethoven used every device he knew to build excitement through the piece, ending in a stirring coda.
Symphony No. 1 in C Major
Beethoven began his career composing chamber music and piano sonatas. Late in what is considered his first, or “classical,” period he decided to tackle symphonies and string quartets. When he began writing his first symphony in 1795 at age 25 he was clearly influenced by his teacher Haydn (still alive), whose last symphony had appeared five years before, and by Mozart (dead only a few years), whose last symphony (“Jupiter”) had been written 12 years previously. Beethoven did these two masters homage by modeling his first symphony on theirs, and at the same time he one-upped them with his own mastery and innovations.
The symphony was premiered in 1800 in a concert arranged by Beethoven that also included symphonies by Haydn and Mozart. The new symphony received contemporary praise as a “masterpiece” full of “originality” and a “wealth of ideas.” However, the critics also said that the wind instruments were overused so that it sounded to them like a military band concert and not like an orchestra concert.
The symphony is not revolutionary or heroic but it does combine classical forms with the unexpected. Beethoven used plenty of unexpected tonal shifts; he included clarinets which were not yet a standard orchestral instrument, and he did indeed make prominent use of all the woodwinds.
The four-movement structure of the symphony follows the classical layout. The first movement begins adagio molto (quite slow) and then erupts with playful energy into allegro con brio (fast, with gusto). Beethoven used counterpoint skillfully to intertwine the woodwinds with the strings in presenting the melodies.
The second movement is marked andante cantible con moto (moderate, singing, with movement). It begins with a wistful, charming theme in the second violins alone. Then we hear a more lighthearted melody. One innovation is the use of both timpani and trumpets in a slow movement. Here they add a delicate coloration to the mood.
The third movement is labeled as a minuet, but since the tempo is marked allegro molto e vivace (very fast and speedy) the music is really a scherzo: the ancestor of all Beethoven’s later symphonic scherzo movements. This is animated, energetic, relentless music, not a majestic poised minuet dance.
The finale begins with an adagio section, suddenly followed by allegro molto e vivace. Flurries in the violins start softly and then scale heights to ever louder dynamics. This technique, first used in the previous century, was called a “Manheim rocket” because it sounds like fireworks going off. Beethoven uses the technique multiple times in this movement. The victorious conclusion has a wildness that we recognize as uniquely Beethoven.
The second half of the program features Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” (1804) for violin, cello, and piano. The soloists for our performance include two members of the orchestra, concertmaster Moises Cunha on violin and conductor Michael Repper on piano. The cello soloist, Camden Archambeau, recently graduated from high school and is now a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
The triple concerto is unique in all the musical literature: there is no other such composition to be found. When Beethoven sent it to his publisher he called it “really something new.” In spite of its originality, or more likely because of it, the piece was rejected by the publisher and Beethoven had to find another publisher several years later in 1808.
Beethoven sketched the first movement in early 1803. This was the period just after his dramatic year of 1802 when he realized his deafness, finally rejected suicide, and resolved to “live for my art.” He completed the work in 1804.
Beethoven is believed to have composed the piano part with his student in mind, the Archduke Rudolph, who was 15 years old at the time. The Archduke was a student, a friend, and later a benefactor of Beethoven. The showy music is a testament to the Archduke’s considerable abilities on the keyboard. The violin and cello parts were written for professional virtuoso soloists. Their dazzling parts wind around the splendid piano part so that every member of the trio displays virtuosic talent.
The fashion at the time was for single-star concertos. The problem with three soloists is that each should be given a chance to star by stating themes and having solo cadenzas to play. Beethoven solved this problem by effectively writing a concerto for piano trio, i.e. for the whole group, so we hear something like a chamber group playing with orchestral accompaniment.
There are plenty of opportunities for virtuoso playing by all the soloists. The themes are relatively brief and simple, giving each player a chance to shine. In all three movements the cello is given the first statement of themes so that its part would be distinctly heard. Also, Beethoven writes much of the music for the high register of the cello to bring out its sound, and at the same time writes the violin part extremely high to separate the two string sounds. This puts great demands on both string soloists.
The first movement is marked allegro (fast). The cello enters first, then the violin, then the piano. We hear throughout the movement many themes, decorative solo passages, variations, repetitions. The orchestra supplies murmuring accompaniment from the cellos and basses. The orchestra and soloists alternate passages.
The second movement is slow and dignified (largo). The solo cello opens the movement with a sublime melody. Then both cello and violin have melodic passages with piano accompaniment.
There is no pause before the third movement begins, simply some dramatic repeated notes to start. The music is a rondo alla polacca or a polonaise with a glittering Bolero-like rhythm that dominates the entire movement. The conclusion is majestic and rousing, as we have come to expect from Beethoven.