Program Notes – April 20, 2024
Written by Todd Giles
Ludwig van Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 (1810)
The Egmont Overture is the first in a set of incidental pieces composed by Beethoven to accompany a 1787 play of the same name written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a man greatly admired by the composer. Penned during the Napoleonic Wars, Goethe’s play depicts the life and heroism of the 16th century nobleman, Lamoral, Count of Egmont, who stood up against the oppression of the invading Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands in the 1560s. Though Egmont’s death was a tragedy, it was also triumphant in that his spirit lived on to inspire the successful uprising of his people against the Spaniards.
The theme of national liberation was one Beethoven could easily identify with in 1809, the year the French captured Vienna, where Beethoven had settled seventeen years earlier. In December of that year, Beethoven was commissioned to write music for Egmont. For Beethoven, this was an opportunity to compose a musical counterfoil to the self-glorifying pomposity of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whom Beethoven had earlier admired to the extent of originally dedicating his Third Symphony to him as someone he believed embodied the democratic ideals of the French Revolution. That changed the moment Beethoven learned Napoleon had declared himself Emperor.
The Egmont Overture was one of the last works composed during Beethoven’s “heroic” middle period (1802–1812). Though—or perhaps because—Beethoven was tormented by his increasing deafness, his music during this period became that much more adventurous in its breaking of the accepted Classical forms established by his Viennese predecessors Mozart and Haydn. Seeing his art as a means of seizing fate and rising above his suffering, Beethoven strove to invent a new musical vocabulary to meet his passionate drive to express himself, which in turn inspired the next generation of Romantic composers like Johannes Brahms to come. Other important works from the middle period include the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the Rasumovsky string quartets, the Violin Concerto, and the Third through Eighth symphonies.
The Overture opens in the somber key of F minor, a rare key for Beethoven, exemplifying the shadowy oppression of the Spanish invaders. In the allegro, the tempo picks up with a vigorous and heroic defiance as battle ensues. Having evolved throughout the overture, the opening tyrant’s motif becomes rhythmic and dark towards the end to signify Egmont’s execution. The mood finally becomes triumphant and celebratory as victory against the Spanish is won. In a letter to Goethe, Beethoven wrote, “[t]hat glorious Egmont on which I have again reflected through you, and which I have felt and reproduced in music as intensely as I felt it when I read it.” The Egmont Overture, like most of Beethoven’s music from the middle “heroic” period, is glorious and intense indeed.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622 (1791)
Mozart (1756–1791) wrote his last completed orchestral work, the Clarinet Concerto in A major, in Vienna just two months before his untimely death at thirty-five. The concerto, originally intended for basset clarinet, was penned for his friend and fellow freemason, clarinetist Anton Stadler (1753–1812), who premiered the work in Vienna shortly thereafter. The basset clarinet was a standard clarinet Stadler had affixed an extension to, providing four extra notes at the lowest register. Stadler’s instrument failed to catch on, so when the concerto first appeared in print in 1801, it was rescored by the publisher for standard clarinet. Along with the concerto, Mozart also wrote several other important works in the final year of his life, including the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, the String Quintet in E-flat major, and The Magic Flute.
Mozart’s final concerto follows the conventional sequence of two fast movements with a slow adagio sandwiched in between. The orchestration is subtle and sublime, showing the emotional beauty and depth of his later works, while at the same time requiring a virtuosic player who can explore the entire range of the instrument. Unusual for a concerto, there is no solo cadenza; instead, the intimate relationship between the soloist and orchestra almost has a chamber music quality in its gentleness and lyricism. Here are no trumpets, timpani, nor even oboes, which the composer thought too penetrating for this composition; rather, he employs pairs of flutes and bassoons. The bass line is provided primarily by the cellos, with occasional support from the double bases.
The opening allegro calls to mind the limpid, smooth beauty of the opening of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, likewise written for Stadler two years earlier. The serene and sublimely expressive second movement opens with a hushed tone, the clarinet voicing long, gentle lines above the soft hum of the strings. The finale, marked “Rondo: Allegro,” brings Mozart’s last major work to a close with wistful dance rhythms and a lightness of spirit that might, had the concerto been written earlier in his career, leave one feeling uplifted; instead, the soulful sound of the clarinet here, all things considered, can’t help but leave a sort of bittersweet poignancy in its wake.
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4, Op. 98, E minor (1884–1885)
In much the same way that Beethoven was considered the heir to Mozart and Haydn, Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) was likewise thought heir to Beethoven. It wasn’t until Brahms was forty-three years old, though, that he composed his first symphony in 1876 after working on it for fourteen years; Beethoven too was relatively long in tooth when he completed his first symphony at thirty in 1800; Mozart, however, was a mere eight years old when he penned his Symphony No. 1 in 1764. Even though Brahms only composed four symphonies during his lifetime, he is still considered one of the world’s greatest composers of the form. The Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98, which was inspired by Brahms’ reading of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, presents listeners with a rollercoaster combination of ebullience and heart-rending melancholy. Brahms premiered his final symphony from the podium with the Meiningen Court Orchestra in Germany on October 25, 1885.
Prior to its orchestral premier, Brahms played a version for two pianos for a small, distinguished audience which included music critic Eduard Hanslick, who, acting as one of the page-turners, said following the first movement, “for this whole movement I had the feeling that I was given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.” Not the most pleasant of criticism, but there is certainly a sense of unrest from beginning to end of the opening allegro. Hanslick also wrote that “[for] the musician, there is not another modern piece so productive as a subject for study. It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.”
The second movement opens with a soft, somber sort of fanfare, giving way to the quietly accompanied winds in one of the loveliest of the composer’s themes. This material gradually develops into soaring lyrical melody heard on the cellos, that then fades into ethereal quiet with the woodwinds revisiting the opening fanfare. The third movement, marked “Allegro giocoso” (or “fast and playful”), is a rollicking dance similar to a scherzo that calls to mind Beethoven’s orchestral muscle, bold digressions, and unexpected humor. The concluding movement, labeled “Allegro energico e passionate,” surely needs no translating from the Italian. The finale is one of the mightiest movements in all of symphonic literature. It takes the form of a passacaglia, based on Bach’s Cantata No. 150, with a slow, intensifying eight-note theme played on the woodwinds and brasses, followed by thirty-two variations.
Brahms jokingly referred to this, his favorite orchestral composition, as the “waltz and polka affair,” the waltz being the last movement, the polka the third. Although derogatorily deemed a traditionalist during his lifetime, Brahms did in fact delve deeply into the accepted forms—like the four-movement symphony handed down to him—to stretch its possibilities even further, leaving the symphonic tradition a towering work of striking complexity tinged with a sense of melancholy. While not as radical as his nemesis, Richard Wagner, who suggested that Beethoven had taken the form as far as it could go, Brahms was able to bring his own creativity into conversation with two of his musical heroes to create something which still moves audiences to this day.