Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Beethoven wrote the Overture and incidental music for a production of Goethe’s 1788 play Egmont at Vienna’s Burgtheater. The play (and music) depict the story of the historical Count of Egmont, who fights valiantly for freedom from the oppressive Spanish regime in the Netherlands, ultimately giving his life for the cause. With the French invasions of Vienna at the time, the theme had particular resonance with Beethoven, who celebrated the Count with some of the fiercest music he had ever written. Of the overture, musicologist Joseph Kerman comments, “The Egmont overture is a tough, lucid one that comes by its Pyrrhic victories easily.”
The powerful overture depicts an epic struggle but simultaneous is a magnificent display of Beethoven’s seemingly effortless manipulation of classical structure to achieve his dramatic ends. An underlying sonata form dictates the formal organization here, but the proportions, thematic material, and key areas are bended to Beethoven’s will for an exhilarating ride. The unusual slow introduction, beginning with a huge orchestral unison F held too long, hints at the tonal journey that is to come (from F minor to A-flat and D-flat major). When the first theme finally enters, it seems to descend to the point of disappearing completely, answered by a little four-note motive whose last note is accented (not unlike the famous “Fate” motive of Beethoven’s Fifth). Shockingly, the music gets “stuck” on this four-note motive, repeating it over and over as if trying to grasp something just out of reach. The second theme, in major, is an almost humorous exchange of gestures between the strings and winds. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it development section leads to a repeat of these themes, but without the expected return to F minor. Instead, Beethoven tacks on a raucous coda in a triumphant F major.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 premiered in December 1813, at a concert arranged by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the famed inventor of the metronome (among other musical devices), to benefit Austrian soldiers injured in the battle of Hanau. The extent of Beethoven’s deafness by this time was alarming, and yet he insisted on conducting the orchestra himself. Louis Spohr, who played in the violin section at the premiere, described Beethoven’s most unusual conducting techniques: “At [a soft dynamic], he would crouch down lower and lower… and at the entrance of the forte, he jumped into the air… [At a certain] pianissimo passage, he crouched clean under the desk!” According to Spohr, at times Beethoven—not being able to hear the softer passages at all—would be conducting bars ahead of where the orchestra was playing and would have to re-orient himself when the louder sections arrived. Despite these difficulties, the work was received with wild enthusiasm, as Spohr reports: “[The premiere was] a brilliant success. The execution was a complete masterpiece in spite of the uncertain and frequently laughable direction of Beethoven.” In particular, the Allegretto became an instant favorite, with audiences demanding immediate encores of the movement at most of the early performances. Beethoven himself repeatedly called the symphony “one of my most excellent works,” and its magnetic rhythmic appeal and dancing melodies have made it one of the most popular symphonies of all time.
The description Berlioz gives of the innovative opening gesture of the symphony captures its spirit perfectly: “The entire mass, striking a chord both loud and short, discovers an oboe during the silence that succeeds…. No more original mode of opening could be imagined.” The substantial introduction to the first movement ends with a slow repetition of a single note, E, that splendidly builds tension and anticipation until the Vivace finally breaks through. The main theme, played first by a solo flute, sounds like a peasant tune, its skipping dotted rhythms dominating the remainder of the movement. The movement is ripe with vitality and energy and full of remarkable moments such as the beginning of the development, which humorously continues the loping rising scale in octaves that ended the exposition. The coda crowns the movement with a monumental climax that surely elicited a wild response in Beethoven’s day when between-movement applause was the norm.
With its note repetitions and continual long-short-short-long-long rhythms, the A minor theme of the second movement is as plain as can be. Yet from this simple seed, Beethoven generates a movement of incredible power and beauty through a series of increasingly intense variations which introduce a countermelody that sings a passionate lament. Interspersed among these variations is a second theme in A major that opens up the texture and provides a breezy recollection of happier times. In the final variation, the mood is subdued again as the theme is quietly passed from section to section in the orchestra.
The F major Presto serves as a scherzo and trio, with two repetitions of the trio section giving the movement the form A-B-A-B-A. In the A section, a staccato theme dances through a series of descending scales. In contrast, the D major B section is meant to evoke an Austrian pilgrim’s hymn, sung by the winds and horns over an A, which is essentially sustained by the strings for over 50 measures. At the end of the final repetition of A, Beethoven fools us into thinking that B will be repeated again until a quick cadence brings the movement to a close.
The finale has been described variously as a musical orgy, a peasant celebration, and the product of a drunken madman (!), but music commentator Martin Bookspan puts it best when he calls it “one of the great whoops in the symphonic literature.” Remarkably, the brilliantly energetic theme bears some resemblance to the somber theme of the second movement, albeit now played at warp speed in a major key. The ornamented turns in the violins drive the unrelenting momentum, and diversions through a dotted note motif accompanied by off-beat accents only serve to build suspense for the return of the boisterous first theme. The swirling movement ends with an appropriately thunderous coda.
Program notes by Jon Kochavi