King Stephan Overture, Op. 117 (1811)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
Beethoven’s nine symphonies are well known, but his eleven overtures for orchestra include some lesser-known gems such as the King Stephan Overture. All were composed for the theater, and most were designed to preface large dramatic productions. For his opera Fidelio, Beethoven composed four successive overtures before he felt that he had gotten it right. Another three overtures were preludes to particular theatrical events: the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and the plays Egmont and Coriolan. Three more were directly connected with the politics of Francis I, who wore a crown as Emperor of the Austria. In order to focus the energies of Hungarian national partisans on art rather than on politics, Francis ordered the construction of a new theater in the Hungarian city of Pest.
For the opening of the New Theater, Francis commissioned Beethoven and the dramatist August von Kotzebue to stage two back-to-back theater pieces in a gala opening night. Beethoven composed an overture and nine additional musical pieces for the first play, King Stephan, Hungary’s First Benefactor. The music included choruses and a melodrama in which instrumental music underscores the onstage spoken dialogue–a form that Beethoven had already used to stunning effect in Fidelio.
The second drama, The Ruins of Athens, finds Minerva awakening after two thousand years, only to learn that the empires of Greece and Rome have fallen. Fortunately, according to the plot of the play, classical ideals still exist in Pest. A centerpiece drama, The Flight of Béla, was commissioned and later suppressed because of the political volatility of its subject matter. Beethoven later composed a Name Day Overture for his Emperor, to celebrate the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Emperor’s patron saint.
Beethoven referred to his trilogy of overtures (The Ruins of Athens, Name Day, and King Stephan) as “my three overtures” in a letter lamenting their poor reception when exported to London. He noted that the works had gone over well in Austro-Hungarian performances, and he worried that their failure in London would sully his international reputation. In King Stephan, Beethoven used Hungarian-inspired thematic material to create contrasting moods; one ebullient theme later found its way into his ninth symphony.
Dreamsongs (2013, West Coast Premiere)
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. Philadelphia, 1960)
Dreamsongs is a triple commission for Joshua Roman by the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, OH, the Bellingham Festival of Music and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. The eighteen-minute work received its premiere in April 2013, with Mr. Roman and the ProMusic Chamber Orchestra, as part of the farewell concerts for the orchestra’s longtime conductor, Timothy Russell. Tonight’s West Coast premiere celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the Bellingham Festival of Music. In a review of the premiere of Dreamsongs for The Columbus Dispatch, Jennifer Hambrick characterized the first movement, “Floating Dreamscapes,” as “sometimes lushly tonal, sometimes darkly dissonant.” In the West-African inspired second movement, “Kora Song,” Hambrick found “soulful incantations” and “dramatic fantasy.”
Aaron Jay Kernis’ vivid imagination not only informs his music but also extends to the titles of his works, with monikers such as Overture in Feet and Meters, The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine, Too Hot Toccata, Mozart en Route: “A Little Traveling Music” and Musica Celestis. Only ten years after Kernis started to compose at the age of thirteen, he heard the New York Philharmonic premiere his Dream of the Morning Sky, the first of several of his compositions that the orchestra has performed.
He has earned the Rome Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award, the prestigious Nemmers Prize and many other awards. Kernis was one of two runners-up for this year’s Pulitzer Prize as well. Numerous soloists and orchestras have commissioned works, including Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Joshua Bell, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, Sharon Isbin, Emanuel Ax, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 2009 the Seattle Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of his Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Meditations). Kernis in turn supports the work of young composers as a member of the faculty of the Yale School of Music and as the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute.
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 (1876)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, 1840; d. St. Petersburg, 1893)
By the time Tchaikovsky composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme, he was an experienced orchestral composer, having completed three symphonies, two tone poems on Shakespearean subjects, his Piano Concerto No. 1 and, most recently, his tempestuous tone poem Francesca da Rimini. As he composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme, however, he encountered a watershed in his personal and artistic life, and he made a detour from the line of development that his music had taken up to that time.
He met Tolstoy, who was an ardent admirer of his music, and he began an important relationship-by-correspondence with his future patroness Nadezda von Meck, a wealthy widow, businesswoman and philanthropist who supported musicians and musical institutions. It has been argued that Tchaikovsky needed, at this very moment, a retreat to the elegant artistic world of a controlled, faux-Rococo style, in order to brace himself for a storm of personal and artistic crises that he saw looming on his horizon. He looked for musical ways to control the emotional sort of music he had recently unleashed in Francesca da Rimini, and he would increasingly experience the emotions of coming to terms with his own sexuality.
Tchaikovsky composed the variations on a theme of his own, stylistically inspired by the music of the mid-eighteenth century. The seven following variations are a series of self-contained miniatures that demand a considerable range of capabilities on the part of the solo cellist. The virtuosity of the fifth and seventh variations is notable, as is the lyricism of the third and sixth. There are several extended passages for unaccompanied cello, and the orchestral writing demonstrate the composer’s prowess as an orchestrator. It all adds up to a work that has been enduringly popular with cellists. Tchaikovsky conducted the work for the last time in January 1893, only a few months before his death.
Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, op. 55 (“Eroica”) – 1803
Beethoven himself provided the subtitle “Eroica” (“Heroic”) for his Symphony No. 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 half a dozen thematic materials in the opening section (exposition) of the first movement, an unusually large number. Rather unexpectedly, yet another theme seems to appear later on, but Beethoven’s extensive sketches for this work show how he worked out the “new” theme from the theme heard at the very beginning of the work. Early audiences often found these departures from the norm confusing. Composers following Beethoven found it intimidating to deal with the implications of his redefinition of symphonic forms.
Beethoven’s slow movement is a funeral march, punctuated with rays of hope. 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.