The manuscript title page of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. showing the composer’s violent correction of the dedication to Napoleon.
Eastman students have been providing program notes for this semester’s concerts by Eastman orchestras: the Philharmonia, Eastman School Symphony Orchestra, and Graduate Chamber Orchestra. Here are the notes from the Friday, February 19 Philharmonia concert, featuring works of Beethoven and Mahler. (The note on Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is the original, longer version of the version appearing in the printed program.)
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Viennese poet and playwright Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771-1811) wrote the tragedy Coriolan in 1804, telling the story of the fifth century BC Roman general Gaius Marcus Coriolanus, who unsuccessfully attempted to wage war against his home city. Despite von Collins’ attempt at writing in a classic Shakespearian style, the tragedy was largely unsuccessful, especially when compared to Shakespeare’s own play, Coriolanus, also based on the legendary military leader. The manuscript to Beethoven’s overture reads, “Based on the drama Coriolan.” Beethoven’s motive for writing the overture years after the von Collin tragedy had become dormant, remains unclear.
The story of Coriolanus, a fateful hero intriguingly fits somewhat into the narrative of Beethoven’s middle period. The opening C minor key, full of nervous energy, represents Coriolanus’ war-like resolve and could possibly foreshadow the Fifth Symphony, composed the following year. The contrasting, tender E-flat major theme could represent the mercy plea of Volumnia, the protagonist’s mother or Coriolanus’ sudden epiphany of affection for his home city. Unlike the Fifth Symphony, the Coriolan ends in tragedy: without an escape, Coriolanus commits suicide, unable to turn against his own army or follow through in the destruction of his home.
Unlike Egmont, Prometheus, The Ruins of Athens, or King Stephen, which originally served as openers to musical accompaniments of stage plays, the Coriolan is an independent orchestral work. The piece was first premiered in a private concert at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, well-documented Beethoven supporter. The concert program also included the premieres of his Fourth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto.
Mahler: Ruckert Lieder
Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was a German Romantic poet whose poetry was especially influential on Gustav Mahler. Mahler set many of Rückert’s highly emotive poems to music, including the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). The Rückert Lieder, unlike the Kindertotenlieder, do not form a cycle and can be performed in any order, as the subject matter, orchestration, and musical styles are quite distinct from one another.
Mahler wrote four of the five Rückert Lieder in the summer of 1901, while completing his Symphony No. 4, starting Symphony No. 5, and setting three more Rückert poems in what would become the Kindertotenlieder. A stressful conducting schedule the year before and a near-death experience due to illness preceded this incredibly fruitful period. Mahler’s brush with death and new lease on life prompted this creative outpouring. Upon completion of the Rückert settings, Mahler immediately orchestrated them and they received their premiere three years later in Vienna. “Liebst du um Schönheit?”, the fifth song , was written in 1902 as a declaration of love for Alma Mahler, his new wife, and was never orchestrated by Mahler.
“Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” is a song that recalls the fragrance of the linden tree, a scent that is associated with the poet’s beloved. The delicate orchestration is reminiscent of the gentle fragrance of linden permeating the poet’s senses.
“Liebst du um Schönheit” was originally written for piano and voice, as were the rest of the Rückert Lieder. It is the most traditional of the set, and the strophic form is more clearly discernable then the other songs. Written as a declaration of love for Alma, it also reflects Mahler’s anxieties about the significant age difference between the two and the potential of her love for him faltering.
“Um Mitternacht” represents the poet’s existential crisis and search for salvation. The ambiguous orchestration alludes to the poet’s wandering through the darkness looking for light. The poet’s journey finally reaches a moment of transcendence with an epic brass fanfare and sobering plagal (“Amen”) cadence.
“Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” is the shortest song in the set and is Mahler’s warning to an audience not to read too deeply into the creative process, and to just enjoy the finished product. This is unique for Mahler, who is known for his highly autobiographical works. The inspiration for the buzzing orchestration is in the second stanza of the poem, about the work of the bees, their hidden hives, and their honeycombs; a metaphor for the artist, his process, and his art.
“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” is by far the most popular song in this set. Its beautifully introspective text, in which the poet is “lost to the world”, resonated strongly with Mahler, who saw himself as an outsider looking for his place in the world. The poet’s loneliness is perfectly encapsulated by the English horn, an instrument often associated with highly emotional and solitary introspection due to its rich and complex tone.
Anthony La Lena
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica“
Over a fish dinner at the little tavern Zur Rose, Beethoven’s poet friend Christoff Kuffner asked him which of his eight symphonies was his favorite. (the ninth was not yet composed). “Ah, ha!” exclaimed Beethoven, “the Eroica.” “I should have guessed the C-minor (fifth),” said the poet. “No, the Eroica,” insisted Beethoven.
Beethoven’s “Eroica” changed music forever. This was the unbridled crucible of the budding Romantic era. It was as if, for the first time, Beethoven stepped out of Plato’s Cave, and instead of seeing shadows of himself in the music of other composers, saw himself among them—above them. Carl August Griesinger, one of the first to hear the piece, said, “Here is more than Haydn and Mozart, here the symphony-poem is brought to a higher plateau.”
The way this piece got its name is almost as famous as the piece itself. In 1804, Beethoven waxed hot and cold on the issue of Napoleon. At first Beethoven revered him, then merely approved of him as first consul. But by the time he finished the symphony, Napoleon had promoted himself to emperor, which was anathema to the composer. Beethoven was so disappointed, he tore the symphony’s title page in two and took to it with a knife, crossing out his dedication “intitola Bonaparte” and leaving a gaping hole in the paper. In the first printing of the symphony in 1806, the title page tells us only “Sinfonia Eroica”, a “heroic symphony … composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” presumably, pre-Emperor Napoleon. “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being?” Beethoven asked. “Now he, too, will trample upon all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition…It’s a pity I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music. I would conquer him!”
Sketches for the third symphony can be found as far back as 1801, in the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. This was a light-hearted allegorical work written with the classic Greek tale of Prometheus in mind. It was the primordial soup in which Beethoven fashioned his own Promethean artistic tendencies. Considering himself flag bearer of humanitarian principles, he joined with those who tended toward the democratic ideals of ancient Greece, as reflected in the aspirations of the Jacobins of post-revolutionary France, at the head of which was Napoleon himself — the modern Prometheus. Beethoven saw this man as a repository of hope for the social enlightenment of humankind.
If any hero emerges free from the pages of the symphony, it is the symphony itself paving the way for Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and Shostakovich. For all the credence given to it in the modern era. the “Eroica”’s reception was initially mixed. Griesinger’s enthusiasm was a minority response to the new work. Most thought it was too long, too self-aggrandizing, and too protracted. One spectator in the gallery at the first performance reportedly yelled, “I’ll give another Kreutzer if the thing will only stop!” The length of a symphonic work was simply one of the many expectations brought by audiences to concerts—this was, in contrast to previous pieces, the longest symphony ever written.
It was partly the musicians who exerted the most pull on public performance of the work. Concerning a Leipzig performance in 1807, one critic remarked, “The orchestra has voluntarily gathered for extra rehearsal without recompense, except for the honor and special enjoyment of the work itself. They performed with unmistakable enjoyment and love.”
The Allegro con brio first movement gives the symphony much of its weight. There is no introduction: instead, it starts with two forceful staccato chords in E-flat Major followed by cellos outlining the E-flat triad turned sideways in melody. The syncopation of the violins leads to a long C-sharp derailing the cello melody. The intrusion of dissonance is but a glimpse of the complex events that lay before us. After the concise exposition we have the lord of all development sections.
The beginning of the development is hushed but not quiet. Each instrument builds sonorously towards tension and release throughout. As the development nears its end, in the words of Michael Steinberg, “Three things now happen at the same time: the rate of harmonic change becomes very slow, the surface action speeds up, and the dynamic level drops from FF to pp. This transition is agonizingly slow, generating a feeling of suspense. As the violins tremble on B-flat and A-flat, a horn, as though unable to wait any longer, sounds the first notes of the principal theme. The horn has begun the recapitulation while the strings are still preparing for it.” Indeed, one of Beethoven’s brightest students, sitting with the composer during the first rehearsal, exclaimed in anger at the hornist’s “mistake”, drawing the ire of the angered Beethoven. The recapitulation settles the movement confidently in the key of E-flat major.
Next begins the Adagio, a funeral march for the hero. It puzzled some literal-minded people, who believed this should come at the end. But Beethoven wasn’t writing a biography, he was portraying heroism and heroic grief. It has two contrasting sections, one with forceful dotted rhythms, the other a more flowing legato. A return to C major lifts us up for a bit, but ultimately the music becomes more austere and sad before becoming fragmented at the end. It is an epic lamentation for heroes long dead in defense of humanity’s freedom.
The scherzo is exuberant, which confused many critics — why the buoyancy after the funeral march? Beethoven plays with metric ambiguity: is it in duple or triple time? This movement is a true showcase for the horn section.
The finale capitalizes on the heroic spirit and its creative vitality. It is a set of eleven variations on a theme from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, each one a cosmos unto itself. There is also a recall of the Prometheus melody in the first movement, linking beginning and end—a technique utilized to great effect in his momentous fifth and ninth symphonies. The theme takes some time to emerge, with a harmonic sketch of it given to the bass. The variations work their way through late-classical and early-romantic styles, from military march to fugue. This is the destination, a resolution of the entombed tension, and as James M. Keller says, “a harbinger for the drama to which all ensuing composers of symphonies would aspire.”
Another critic, deploring the composer’s ways of achieving “a certain undesirable originality,” stated, “genius proclaims itself not in the unusual and fantastic, but in the beautiful and sublime…[Beethoven’s third] is unendurable to the mere music-lover.” As Michael Steinberg rightly points out, “having no difficulty ourselves finding Eroica ‘beautiful and sublime’, we slip easily into a position of feeling superior to this critic. We would do well at this point to remember that we are unlikely to find it ‘unusual and fantastic’ either—which, if so, is very much our loss.”
The relentless march of time is unforgiving. The characters amble on, on a dimly lit dirt road in agony with arms outstretched waiting for their time in the sun. Some make it but most do not. In the doldrums of life, who can be expected to come forth with an idea that propels the lot along? Occasionally — no, rarely, though, something divine occurs and the trees part giving way to progress. It settles in the minds of the people, matures, and there it is evergreen. Less than an hour after the “Eroica”’s first notes were heard in 1805, music was never the same.