Program Notes for July 1st, 2011

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by  Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by
Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Leonore Overture #3, op. 72a (1806)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)

By the time Beethoven completed the final revision of his only opera, Fidelio, he had cast aside three fully finished and orchestrated versions of the overture. Among the outcasts was Leonore Overture #3, now widely recognized as one of the composer’s most powerful compositions. The reasons behind this paradox lay deep in Beethoven’s humanity: Fidelio was for him a Herculean labor of love. The opera’s subtitle, The Triumph of Married Love, is of biographical significance because of Beethoven’s own yearning for marriage. There were candidates; he probably proposed (and was rejected) at least once. He wrote a letter to an unidentified “immortal beloved,” composed a song cycle with the title “To the Distant Beloved”, and entered into a protracted court battle with his sister-in-law over the guardianship of his nephew Karl. Fidelio was his only success in this arena, his hymn to conjugal loyalty. As Beethoven’s conception of the opera evolved under various real or anticipated performing conditions, three different versions eventually emerged. This required four librettists to work on the text, a decade of large-scale restructuring and small-scale tinkering, and a change of title from Leonore to Fidelio. A crucial musical passage halfway through the drama, where the wrongly imprisoned Florestan makes his entrance, underwent nearly twenty revisions.

Leonore Overture #3 was the curtain-raiser for the 1806 version of the opera. The 1805 version had not been a success: Difficulties with official state censors had delayed the performance for months, and it was not until Napoleon’s troops had entered Vienna that the opera was performed. By this time Beethoven’s noble and moneyed supporters had fled the city, and the work closed after three performances. With the return of the aristocratic fugitives, Beethoven revised the opera, now offering a two-act version, a reworked text and the new Leonore Overture #3. This time there were only two performances. It was not until 1814 that the opera reemerged, once more thoroughly revised both textually and musically, and with yet another overture. Beethoven probably discarded the Leonore Overture #3 not because it wasn’t good enough but because it was, paradoxically, too good. It tells the story of the opera even before the curtain rises. One hears the characterizations of the protagonists, the oppression of political imprisonment and the trumpet-call moment of rescue. There is a marvelous section, following the trumpet calls, in which the music portrays the reactions of the individual characters at the unexpected turn of events. The conclusion of the overture is a thrillingly virtuosic orchestral passage–the composer’s vision of a world that he could never inhabit.

Leonore Overture #3 no longer appears as an overture in the opera house; during much of the twentieth century, however, it was inserted as an interlude between the last two scenes of Fidelio, following a practice begun by Mahler. In the present day the overture is heard almost exclusively in the concert hall.

Piano Concerto #3 in C Minor, op. 37 (1800-1803)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
By the time Beethoven premiered his Piano Concerto #3, he was well established in Vienna as a piano virtuoso. He had also toured as far as Prague, Dresden, and Berlin to great acclaim, receiving particular accolades for his improvisations. The Bohemian composer Vaclav Tomars, in which he revealed the extent of his depression, saying that it was only his art that kept him from acting on his thoughts of suicide. The document, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, was opened only after the composer’s death, in accordance with the instructions on the envelope.

The first performance occurred in a concert that also included his first two symphonies and his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. With the exception of the first symphony, all of these works were new to the public. Beethoven was the piano soloist; his page-turner, Ignaz von Seyfried, a friend who would later be entrusted with conducting the premiere of Fidelio in 1805, gave an insider’s view of the concerto performance. Seyfried reported that Beethoven played mostly from memory and that great swatches of the manuscript were either empty or consisted of unintelligible scribbling. In any case, Beethoven would have improvised cadenzas in the appropriate places. Numerous composers, including Beethoven himself, Brahms, Clara Schumann, Liszt and Fauré, also wrote out cadenzas for the first movement, giving the modern-day performer a wide choice in this matter.

Piano Concerto #3 is Beethoven’s only one in a minor key. It may seem to anticipate the C-Minor seriousness of the Fifth Symphony, as if driven by the same hand of fate, but here the mood is more controlled. A beautiful slow movement, one of Beethoven’s loveliest, is in the remote key of E Major, far enough away from the C-Minor turmoil to provide a glimpse into an entirely different world. The first sounds of this movement magically dispel the mood of the opening movement. The finale seems at first to share the fate-laden view of the first movement, but there are moments of respite here; even the foreign key of E Major reappears briefly. Finally, as in the later Fifth Symphony, the outlook turns triumphantly to C Major, and the concerto ends in an affirmation of well-being. Perhaps this is Beethoven’s counter-statement to his Heiligenstadt Testament.

Symphony #8 in F Major, op. 93 (1812)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
Beethoven sometimes worked on compositions in pairs, publishing them with consecutive opus numbers. In such a case, the second work contrasts with and complements the first. If the first composition is of monumental scope, then the second might be more modest in its proportions. If one work makes its point with a bold, outward expression, the other might employ a more subtle style of argument. Such is the case with the Symphony #7 in A Major, op. 92, and its complement, the Symphony #8 in F Major, op. 93. Both were sketched in 1811 and completed in 1812. When the A-Major work was premiered it found instant success, and it remains one of Beethoven’s most popular symphonies. Richard Wagner called it the “apotheosis of the dance” and choreographed it to prove his point. The Symphony #8 traveled a slower path to acceptance. Indeed, in some early performances of the symphony, the Andante movement from the Symphony #7 was sometimes imported as a substitute second movement. In a later era, Toscanini wrote out trombone parts for the Symphony #8 in an attempt to give the work greater orchestral weight. Hearing the result, though, he quickly abandoned the project and thereafter trusted Beethoven’s judgment.

The great critic Edward Downes once remarked that the opening movement of the Symphony #8 exhibits the same characteristics of contrast and complement that Beethoven’s pairs of works sometimes show. The movement has two ways of unfolding its information: a balanced series of Mozart-like themes and terse, driving, “Beethovenian” transitional sections. In describing one of these transitional passages, Donald Francis Tovey pointed out that it would be virtually impossible to predict what ought to come next. Even Beethoven was not initially sure of the latter point: After the first performance he changed the ending of the first movement, adding a passage and working the music up to fever pitch before letting it wander off whimsically. In the Allegretto scherzando second movement Beethoven paid his respects to that new invention, a prototype of the metronome. His former teacher, Haydn, would surely have appreciated the musical wit and good humor. Unusually, a true minuet, not a trademark Beethovenian scherzo, is the style of the third movement. Again following Haydnesque tradition, Beethoven lets some of the winds show off toward the middle of the movement. Musical jokes in the final Allegro vivace include a “wrong” note that gets sounded loudly early in the movement and the almost-unpardonably “wrong” key of F-sharp minor that shows up later. As it turns out, the two events are related; the “wrong” note eventually leads into the “wrong key”. Getting back to the “right” key is a more complicated matter; that, too, is part of Beethoven’s greatness.

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.