Program Notes By Ed Rutschman
Consecration of the House, op. 124 (1822)
Beethoven found exactly the right touch when he composed his orchestral overture The Consecration of the House, commissioned for the reopening of the Josephstadt Theater in Vienna in the autumn of 1822. The occasion was important, since the reopening was scheduled to coincide with the name day of Emperor Francis I of Austria. It had long been customary to celebrate elaborately on the festival day of the saint for whom the Emperor had been named.
Composer, audience and critics alike were pleased with the nobility and grandeur of the work, with its unforgettable slow melody heard early on and its massive, Handel-inspired conclusion. Beethoven accepted an extended round of applause, and the musical press was favorable. More ominous were the reports of Beethoven’s attempt to conduct the performance. Unable to hear, and perplexed by the visual responses he received from his orchestra, the composer was unaware that the musicians had made arrangements to follow the cues of another musician standing behind him.
In May 1824, when the much-anticipated premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony took place, the composer chose to begin the concert with his Consecration of the House. The overture had already been taken up internationally, and it has since acquired a rich reception history. Performances of the work consecrated the reopening of the Bayreuth Wagner Festival in 1951, the rebuilding of Venice’s La Fenice Theater in 2003, and the Beethoven Festival in Bonn in 2007. Tonight Consecration of the House celebrates the return of the Bellingham Festival Orchestra.
Piano Concerto #5 in Eb major, op. 73 (“Emperor”) – 1809
When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, he was convinced that the word “van” in his name identified him as a member of the nobility. His patrons in Bonn, with their important Viennese connections, had already spread the word about his prowess as a performer, and he quickly gained access to high circles of society.
The fact that Beethoven also cultivated a brusque, at times antisocial manner seems only to have increased his exotic attraction, and it was only later in life that he learned, through a discouraging court case, that his pretensions to nobility were not defensible.
Among Beethoven’s friends in Vienna was Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the younger brother of the Emperor Francis. Beethoven dedicated several works to his friend, including the Piano Concerto #4 and the “Emperor” Concerto. Another dedication, the Sonata in Eb (“Les adieux”), shows the strength of the friendship. Here Beethoven portrayed his anguish at Rudolph’s forced exit from Vienna in the face of Napoleon’s arriving troops.
The “Emperor” Concerto does exhibit great musical nobility. Here Beethoven employed his “heroic” key of Eb (“Eroica” Symphony, “Les adieux” Sonata), and he gave the piano cadenza-like passages of heroic proportions at the outset. Beethoven had already tinkered with concerto form at the beginning of his Piano Concerto #4, but the “Emperor” Concerto goes much further in this respect, assigning the piano three eruptive outbursts before the orchestra takes over for the normal concerto-like orchestral introduction. Noble horn-call figures pervade the first movement, and the scope is large in every way.
The second movement is another world entirely, with a stately opening melody that returns in ever-finer new clothes (real clothes for this Emperor’s brother). An unprecedented, magical effect occurs at the end of the movement. As the ethereal music imperceptibly turns into the powerhouse theme of the final movement, time seems to be suspended, and the effect is breathtaking.
Near the end of the ebullient third movement there is a lull, just as the music gathers strength for a final flourish. The emperor’s musical horses are reined in briefly (piano accompanied only by timpani), and then there is a furious bolt to the finish. Ironically, Beethoven completed the “Emperor” Concerto not long before the Archduke and his family had to flee Vienna.
Symphony #3 in Eb major, op. 55 (“Eroica”) – 1803
Beethoven himself provided the subtitle “Eroica” (“Heroic”) for his Symphony #3, but he nearly published it under the title “Bonaparte.” Completed in 1803, performed publicly in 1805 and published in 1806, the symphony was renamed when it became clear, in 1804, that Napoleon’s imperial designs were no match for Beethoven’s egalitarian views. Beethoven rededicated it to “the memory of a great man.” And heroic it is, setting a new standard for symphonic length and scope. Indeed, Beethoven threw down the gauntlet and issued a challenge that several generations of composers following him struggled to accept. Arguably, the famous problem posed by the question “what do you do after Beethoven?” begins with the “Eroica” Symphony.
In the “Eroica” Symphony Beethoven discovered new problems to be solved. He lengthened the time-span of the first movement considerably, and in doing so he found it necessary to rethink the proportions of symphonic form. He also decided to redesign the nature of his musical themes. There are six thematic materials in the opening section (exposition) of the first movement, an unusually large number, and another theme appears, rather unexpectedly, later on. At the point at which the first movement traditionally should have ended, a monumental coda continues to develop the thematic material. Early audiences often found these departures from the norm confusing; symphonic composers following Beethoven found it necessary to deal with the intimidating implications of his redefinition of first-movement form.
Beethoven’s slow movement is a funeral march, punctuated with rays of hope that foreshadow some of the great scenes of his opera Fidelio-a drama of heroism, domestic loyalty and personal sacrifice. In Beethoven’s day, many members of the composer’s Viennese audience would have been acutely aware, through their Parisian relatives, of the public funeral-march displays associated with the recent revolution and reign of terror. This music, then, is both public and private.
The third movement is Beethoven’s radical version of the expected minuet movement, here speeded up beyond recognition and instead titled Scherzo. Both the scherzo genre and this particular movement are among the composer’s lasting contributions to the symphonic cycle of movements. The three horns (a new symphonic combination) get to show off in the central trio section.
The finale is a set of variations on a theme beloved of Beethoven and already previously used by him in his “Eroica” Variations for piano and his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. In a slow variation near the end the composer displays the tender side of heroism.
Beethoven himself had to deal with the startling implications of his new work. For him the question soon became “what do you do after the ‘Eroica’ Symphony?” He spent the rest of his career working out the details.
Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.