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Beethoven & Schumann

Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) in E-flat major, Op.  73 (1809)
Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, 1770 - Vienna, 1827)

There are several stories about how this concerto—the last and, to some, the greatest of Beethoven’s piano concertos—came to be called "The Emperor."  According to one, a French soldier from Napoleon’s army occupying Vienna, jumped to his feet after hearing the work and exclaimed: "L’empereur!"  He may have been impressed by the concerto’s majestic proportions, or else he was reminded of French revolutionary marches by certain themes in the work.  In either case, he was right on target, as a soldier should be.
    The great musicologist Alfred Einstein (1880-1952) once wrote an interesting study on "Beethoven’s Military Style," a style present in most of Beethoven’s concertos.  Beethoven adopted this manner from Giovanni Battista Viotti, a Parisian composer of Italian birth (1755-1824) known mainly for his violin concertos.  Einstein found the connection "unmistakable":

One may characterize it as an idealized quickstep: rapid four-four time, progressing boldly with growing intensity, with dotted eighth-notes and up-beat patterns, with ever-pulsating rhythm—although above this rhythm some cantabile, "feminine" melodies hover, and triplets and virtuoso figurations soar upward.

This description fits the main theme of the "Emperor" Concerto’s first movement to a t.  It appears after a most extraordinary opening, in which a brilliant piano cadenza (not to be improvised but fully written out) is punctuated by orchestral chords that outline the most familiar of all harmonic progressions ("one-four-five-one").  The orchestral exposition that follows abounds in "military" dotted-eighth patterns; after the piano re-enters, however, these models are soon transcended as one of the themes receives an entirely new character.  The second theme, originally all rhythm and angularity, is transformed into a continuous, smooth eighth-note motion played in the piano’s highest register and in a distant tonality.  The accompaniment consists of one clarinet, one bassoon, one cello, and occasional double-bass pizzicatos (plucked notes). It is a short moment of great mystery, cut short by an abrupt return to the initial form of the theme.
    The piano writing is more brilliant that in any of the earlier concertos; it includes, in the development section alone, virtuosic sixteenth-note passages in both hands simultaneously, dashing octave runs, and expressive melodic motifs, often in very close succession.  The recapitulation, which begins with a somewhat shorter replay of the opening piano cadenza, has another, even more stunning, cadenza-like passage at the end.  Yet although it is introduced by the chord (the so-called "six-four") that always precedes cadenzas, what we hear is not an ad-libitum interpolation that can be improvised or written out by the performer.  This becomes clear as soon as two horns quietly join the piano, followed by other instruments.  In fact, Beethoven’s instruction in the score, written in Italian, the international language of music at the time, reads:  Non si fa una Cadenza, ma s’attacca subito il seguente ("There is no cadenza; instead, proceed directly with the following").  Beethoven in this work assumed such total control over every aspect of the composition that it became impossible to leave anything to chance.  (Also, this was his only piano concerto that he was unable to perform himself because of his deafness, and apparently, he didn’t trust his student Carl Czerny enough to allow him to improvise his own cadenza.)  Ultimately, this non-cadenza does fulfill the formal function of the traditional cadenza; it allows the performer to display her or his technical prowess, in a bravura section built upon some of the movement’s most important themes.  Yet the fact that nothing in it is left to chance had important consequences for the further history of the concerto genre, as very few concertos written after Beethoven included any improvised cadenzas.
    The second movement opens with a chorale-like melody played by muted strings; the tonality is a distant B major, a key that has already been touched upon in the first movement.  The piano responds to the chorale with an expressive second theme that moves faster than the orchestra’s chorale.  The two motions are then combined as the chorale melody is taken over by the piano (the strings play along pizzicato), its slow quarter-notes accompanied by the faster triplets derived from the second theme.  After a further variation where the motion intensifies (the triplets replaced by faster sixteenth-notes), the music comes to a halt on the note B.  Beethoven simply lowers this note by a half-step to B flat, to prepare the return of E-flat major in the last movement.
    There is no pause between the second and third movements; in fact, the continuity is assured through the appearance of the finale theme in a slow tempo at the end of the second movement, before it is played in fast motion by the solo piano.  In a Mozart or early Beethoven rondo, the character of the main theme would remain the same throughout; here, however, the exuberant melody becomes more subdued about the middle and touches on many distant keys before it returns in its original form.  The penultimate moment of the concerto is particularly memorable for a suspenseful duo between the solo piano and the solo timpani.  This surprising episode is followed by only a few brief measures to conclude this incomparable concerto.


Symphony No. 2 in C major, op. 61 (1845-46)
Robert Schumann (Zwickau, Saxony, 1810 – Endenich, nr. Bonn, 1856)

The Second Symphony was written as Robert Schumann was recovering from a serious nervous breakdown, suffered after a long concert tour to Russia the composer had undertaken with his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann in 1844.  The tour was a triumph for Clara, but Robert’s "nervous fever" (actually, a severe depression) was debilitating for a good part of the Russian journey. His symptoms, which included dizziness, anxiety, and hallucinations, continued through much of 1845 and '46.
    The health crisis was possibly linked to what must have seemed overwhelming artistic challenges in Schumann’s career.  The composer, who had spent his early years writing exclusively for solo piano, was striving to establish himself in the large-scale forms.  (The composition of his only opera, Genoveva, occupied him throughout much of the late 1840s.)  In the symphonic realm in particular, he felt that, despite the accomplishments of his "Symphony Year" of 1841 (which had produced the First Symphony and the first version of what is now known as the Fourth), he had yet to write a work to match in grandeur Schubert's "Great C-Major" Symphony (Schumann had discovered the manuscript of that symphony in Vienna and had boundless admiration for it).  In an effort to concentrate on composition, Schumann relinquished the editorship of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, of which he had also been the chief music critic.  At first, however, this only gave him a sense of loss that was not helped by his relocation from Leipzig to Dresden in the fall of 1844.
    Schumann enjoyed a respite from his ailments in December 1845.  It was during this period of Aufschwung (to borrow the title of a famous youthful piano piece, which translates approximately as "upward swing") that the Second Symphony was begun, though the orchestration and the revision of the score took up the better part of 1846, amidst some more ups and downs in the composer’s state of health.  Schumann himself felt that the difficulties experienced before and during composition had an impact on the work; he wrote to D.G. Otten, the music director in Hamburg, in 1849:

    I wrote my symphony in December 1845, and I sometimes fear my semi-invalid state can be divined from the music.  I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement, and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work.  All the same it reminds me of dark days.

   In his book on Schumann (Oxford University Press, 1997), musicologist John Daverio identified the "chorale" idea as one of the underlying themes of the Second Symphony.  The opening horn-call develops into a chorale that, in various subtle ways, feeds the whole movement. It will returns triumphantly at the end of the first movement, and then, after a passing hint in the scherzo, again at the end of the entire symphony.  In the slow movement, Daverio has found allusions to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (to the aria "Erbarme dich," though, rather than one of the chorales) and to scene of the armored men from Mozart’s Magic Flute, which is based on a chorale melody.
    Another way of understanding this symphony would be to view it as a struggle between the "forces of light and darkness."  The two opposing forces are present from the symphony's opening measures, where a fanfare motif in the brass is set against some mysterious chromatic figures in the strings.  (The fanfare theme is closely related to the beginning of Haydn's Symphony No. 104).  Transformations of both motifs dominate the entire first movement.  The "light" fanfares seem to have the last word at the end of the first movement they will also reappear briefly, in the second and third movements).  The "dark" chromaticism returns at the beginning of the second-movement Scherzo which, for all its briskness and dynamism, has been aptly described by British author Brian Schlotel as "pervaded by a mood of restlessness and uncertainty."  The Scherzo has two trios (as did the Scherzo of Schumann's First Symphony).  Both are more relaxed than the main section of the Scherzo and dispense with its complicated modulations and "dark" chromaticism.  The first trio moves in a light-footed triplet motion led by the woodwind; the second is a chorale (again!) for strings, in which one may recognize the first germs of the last movement's final melody, the ultimate goal of the symphony's progress.
    The Adagio espressivo is one of Schumann's most profound slow movements.  In it, echoes of Bach are combined with some very personal touches including an unusually subtle orchestration.  Schumann wrote in the above-quoted letter to Otten:  "That my melancholy bassoon in the Adagio, written into that place with special affection, did not escape you gave me the greatest pleasure."  First intoned by the strings, the main theme of the slow movement is soon taken over by the "melancholy bassoon" and an equally melancholy oboe; other woodwind solos follow.  After a short fugal interlude, the main melody returns.  Although the tempo is slow to begin with, there is a further ritardando (slowing down) near the end, and the final chords are marked molto Adagio.
    Musicologist Anthony Newcomb has written of the finale:  "[It] starts as one thing and becomes another, and this formal transformation is part of its meaning."  The opening suggests a cheerful movement with a spirited melody that returned like a rondo theme after an episode of equally bright character. Then, about halfway through the movement, we reach three solemn C-minor chords followed by general rests  In Newcomb's words,

     the grand C-minor cadence at measure 273 brings us to a crucial point in our story.  We have returned to the resigned melancholy (and the C minor) of movement three—a return in the development section of the finale [that] makes a striking reference to the emotional and thematic design of Beethoven's Fifth.  Unlike Beethoven, however, Schumann . . . will not handle this moment the same way the second time.

Instead, he introduces a new theme, one that will eventually, and gradually, evolve into a quote from Beethoven’s song cycle To the Distant Beloved.  One of the songs in this cycle (both its words and its melody) had a profound meaning for Schumann and his wife:

Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder,
die ich Dir, Geliebte, sang . . .


(Take them now, these songs
that I sang to you, my beloved . . .)

He had already quoted this passage prominently in his Fantasy for piano in C major (Op. 17, 1836).  This time, the melody becomes the triumphant conclusion of the symphony; the ending is made even more grandiose by the spectacular timpani solo in the last measures.

Peter Laki

 

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