Nakamatsu Plays Grieg
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, Germany December 16, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria March 26, 1827)
When a commission to provide a music score for Goethe’s Egmont was offered in 1809 for the first Viennese performance of the play, Beethoven eagerly snatched up the opportunity. An admirer of Goethe’s writings, he was particularly drawn by Egmont’s subject: the struggle for freedom. Goethe’s play depicts the Spanish persecution of the people of the Netherlands during the inquisition of 1567-68. Count Egmont, a Catholic who is loyal to the Spanish, nevertheless sees the injustice of their actions and pleads for tolerance from the Spanish King. Greatly displeased, the King sends the cruel Duke of Alva to command the Spanish forces in the Netherlands to do the King’s will. Egmont is arrested and sentenced to death. Yet he knows that rebellion is in progress, and firmly believes that soon the people will be free.
A performance of Beethoven’s complete incidental music for Egmont, including two songs and several orchestral interludes, would take approximately 40-45 minutes. It is seldom heard today in its entirety; but the Overture is a staple in the concert hall repertoire because of its strength, nobility, and triumphal character. Still incomplete for the play’s initial performance with music in May of 1810, it was first heard at the fourth performance of the drama on June 15, 1810.
The Overture begins in a somber and serious mood. Marked Sostenuto ma non troppo, or sustained, without hurry, the dark music of the opening conveys profound oppression of the spirit, and the opening motive clearly represents the ominous tyrant of the play. Soon the tempo picks up, speeding into a vigorous Allegro featuring the cellos; and we hear the hero’s onfidence and heroic defiance as he descends into the depths of battle. The tyrant’s motive from the introduction evolves throughout the overture, becoming increasingly rhythmic and dark until at last Egmont’s execution can be heard. Immediately the mood of the work turns triumphant and celebratory, featuring the strings in the highest register and the shimmering sound of the piccolo. The music embodies Egmont’s conviction that death is not an end when hope thrives and ideals remain intact.
Edvard Grieg (b. Bergen, Norway June 15, 1843; d. Bergen, Norway September 4, 1907)
To understand Grieg’s music, one must imagine the narrow, steep-walled inlets of the sea along Norway’s western coast, created long ago by the chiseling of receding glaciers. The majestic fjords of Norway were where Grieg’s heart and soul were at home. He went to study in Germany because he was given a government grant to attend the Konservatorium in Leipzig. But unlike other German-trained composers who abandoned the music of their homeland to enter the world of “scholarly” German-inspired composition, Grieg held fast to his Norwegian identity, and his music remained Scandinavian through and through. Indeed, he is known today as one of the greatest nationalistic composers of the late nineteenth century.
Grieg was the first composer from Norway to achieve major international recognition, and it was his Piano Concerto that brought him his first major success. Written when he was a young man of 25, it was to become one of the most popular piano concertos ever composed. After its first public performance in Copenhagen on April 3, 1869, another government grant allowed Grieg to visit Italy, where he showed off the concerto to Liszt at his residence near Rome. Liszt played it and encouraged Grieg to “go on and don’t let anything scare you.”
Many scholars have noted the similarities of the piece to Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor; for example, they share the same key, and both begin with a dramatic opening orchestral chord immediately followed by fiery, virtuosic flourishes up and down the keyboard by the soloist. The resemblances are no coincidence. As a student at the Leipzig Konservatorium Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform her husband’s concerto – an experience he described as one of the highlights of his stay in Leipzig -- and he developed a deep admiration for the older composer’s music.
It is entirely appropriate that Grieg’s only large-scale orchestral work is a piano concerto, for the piano was central to all his compositional output. Hans von Bülow even called him “The Chopin of the North.” However, Grieg was no mere imitator. He built on the stylistic inheritance of the German romantic tradition, but he also integrated elements of Norwegian folk music; and his music is deeply imbued with a quality all his own.
The concerto opens with a drum-roll and solo cascade of octaves, after which the woodwinds play a simple main theme with periodic, intricately embroidered statements by the soloist. A contrasting theme, heard from the cellos, is soulful, almost plaintive. Trumpets usher in the development section and sound prominently once again at the recapitulation. Just before the end of the first movement, we hear a solo cadenza.
The second movement is a structurally uncomplicated Adagio in 3/8 time that begins with introspective, muted strings over which the piano rhapsodizes. Throughout the movement a series of delicate trills signal the entrance of the piano, until a dramatically angular version of the main theme shatters the placid mood. Eventually, the serenity of the beginning of the movement returns and leads to a quiet ending that lapses without pause into the stellar third movement.
This final movement is perhaps the most affected by Grieg’s Norwegian origins. It begins with a main theme presented by the piano that incorporates rhythmic patterns from the halling, one of Norway’s national folk dances. Sound effects such as bare fifths and a drone and slides to dissonant pitches are characteristic of the Hardanger fiddle, a particularly Norwegian folk instrument much like a violin, yet with a distinctive sound created by the presence of a set of sympathetic strings.
The movement’s second subject is quicker, more sprightly, and far more elaborate, but no less folk-like. After a tranquil episode introduced by the solo flute, the main theme returns for an extended development. The piano soloist performs a brief cadenza, the music transforms from minor to major, and yet another folk dance theme picks up the pace even further. The concerto concludes with a brilliant, virtuosic final cadenza filled with Lisztian bravura, and a triumphant ending based on the earlier solo flute melody, now transmuted into the major key. It is a flash of majesty to match the magnificence of Norway’s fjord coastline.
Jean Sibelius (b. Finland December 8, 1865; d. Finland September 20, 1957)
From 1914 to 1918, Europe was engulfed in the brutality and chaos of World War I – a war more devastating than anything the world had yet encountered. Writing under extraordinarily difficult conditions, Sibelius completed his fifth symphony between 1915 and 1919, composing no fewer than three versions of the work before settling on a final version that premiered in Helsinki on October 21, 1921.
For some composers, composition is a painstaking and painful process. Beethoven and Sibelius had this in common. Notorious for working and reworking his scores, Sibelius compared his compositional practice to the search for the proper reconfiguration of scattered mosaic tiles flung down from heaven. Particularly in his later works, he labored under merciless self-criticism, battling to balance competing compositional and philosophical ideals.
To this burden was added deep concern about the world upheaval around him and a mis-diagnosis of throat cancer in 1916. On the heels of World War I, Finland had to deal with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The small country declared its independence, ending over a century of Russian rule, but the brief, bloody civil war that followed affected Sibelius even more than had the World War. Russian troops took over Sibelius’ hometown of Järvenpää early in 1918, and he and his family fled to Helsinki. There they took refuge in a mental hospital administered by the composer’s brother, where they suffered heavy German bombardment and horrendous conditions; the composer lost some 40 pounds during this period. Eventually Sibelius returned home to resume revision of his fifth symphony. Despite all the turmoil, the glorious work that resulted was to become the most popular of the composer’s seven symphonies.
Under revision, the fifth symphony evolved from four movements into a tightly constructed combination of three movements. The final version combines what were the first two movements of the first version. The resulting first movement is an amazing feat of compositional craftsmanship with the combined whole working as a single smooth and unbroken musical arch. The arch moves through an unhurried progression, from a quiet, almost mysterious opening to an exciting ending filled with ferocious, unstoppable energy.
The second movement is an ingenious set of variations on a rhythm. The basic motion of the theme is two groups of five quarter notes separated by a quarter note rest. This pizzicato pattern is established in the violas and cellos and is soon accompanied by a countermelody for clarinets, bassoons, and horns that is heard as a brief, diaphanous whisper just before the rhythmic theme starts. The intense, rhythmic theme is varied several times and the atmospheric woodwind haze remains in place for much of the movement.
In the translucent section written for violins divided into eight parts in the center of this movement, one can sense fright lurking nearby. The movement ends with the strings taking up a broad melody derived from the opening woodwind accompaniment. Amidst this spacious melody, deep in the low strings one hears the first murmuring of the proclamative theme that dominates the coming finale.
The inspiration for the symphony’s final movement seems to have been the landscape and wildlife around Sibelius’ beloved hometown. Early in the process of writing this symphony, Sibelius wrote excitedly in his journal about a flight of swans that he watched one day circling above his home. The melody that serves as the basis of the finale is Sibelius’ musical reaction to that beautiful sight. At the beginning one can hear the fluttering of a great number of wings in the whirring, buzzing flutter in the strings. Suddenly, rising out of this fluttering, the sublime “swan theme” is played first by the French horn and then by the entire brass section. This transcendent music returns throughout the movement. There is a long middle section leading back to the main idea, which includes a dissonant transformation of the theme by the trumpets. When the “swan theme” returns, the sense of concord triumphing over dissonance is a moment of true excitement. This epic work ends with a startling moment of silence followed by an exultant shout of victory in six widely-spaced fortissimo chords.