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Mendelssohn & Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria March 26, 1827)

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21—1800

    The symphony was the most important public music genre in the Vienna of Beethoven's day. Mozart, and even more profoundly, Haydn, were the reigning composers of that genre.  The young, ambitious Beethoven knew well that if he wished to establish himself as a composer in the eyes of the discerning Viennese audiences, he would have to do so by means of the symphony.  
    By 1800 Beethoven was already a celebrated keyboard artist in Vienna, and audiences were impressed with the works that he wrote to display his own amazing artistry.  Beethoven had composed chamber music and piano concertos, using those forms to hone his talents before he finally attempted, at the age of twenty-nine, to present his initial effort as a symphonist.   
     For his first public appearance exclusively as a composer rather than as a virtuoso, Beethoven felt obliged to make his work unconventional and yet absolutely accomplished. Indeed, time and again this symphony does surprise. It is apparent that Beethoven's intention was to challenge Haydn's reputation as the greatest living composer of symphonies.  Yet the younger composer could never have made such an auspicious entry into the ranks of symphonists without a deep understanding of what Haydn, his occasional teacher, had achieved.  One Viennese critic recognized this when he wrote, following an 1806 performance of the work:

    Symphony No. 1 is a masterpiece that does equal honor to Beethoven's inventiveness and his musical knowledge.  Being just as beautiful and distinguished in its design as in its execution, there prevails in it such a flow of the most pleasant melodies, and such a rich, but at the same time never wearisome instrumentation that this symphony can justly be placed next to Mozart and Haydn's.

    From the very beginning of the symphony, Beethoven breaks with convention.  It was virtually unprecedented to open a symphony with chords that obscured rather than identified the tonality.  Beethoven chose to spend the entire slow introduction to his first movement using dissonant chords in question and answer pairs.  The first chord is definitely not in C major, and it is built in such a way that it gives the listener the yearning for resolution into what the ear would perceive as a more stable chord.  
     To twentieth-century ears that are accustomed to dissonance, the phenomenon of the slow introduction to Symphony No. 1 is relatively unremarkable.  We hear three sets of chords that resolve in answer to three more stable chords.  Imagine, however, being at the Hofburgtheater in Vienna on April 2, 1800, at the first performance of this work, stripped of the knowledge of dissonance you've gained in twentieth-century life. You are listening for the first time to something astounding, unexpected, jarring --  a haunting series of wind chords with string pizzicatos to give extra emphasis to the beginning of each dissonance.  A critic at the time said "No one will censure an ingenious artist like Beethoven for such liberties and peculiarities, but such a beginning is not suitable for the opening of a grand concert in a spacious opera house."  
    A beautiful string melody follows this series of question and answer wind chords, and still Beethoven delays presenting the key of the work.  Only after the violins gradually rise up a scale and then tumble infectiously into the fast portion of the movement is C major solidly established with any kind of solidarity.  In other words, the whole introduction is about the tensions of harmonic anticipation—waiting for the key to be established—and melodic contrast—a slow and mysterious introduction leading into a fast and sprightly melody that ultimately turns majestic.  
    The second and third movements are a paradox.  The slow movement is somewhat like an old-fashioned minuet pretending to be a fugue, which broke with the expectations of traditional formal structure. The movement features a courtly theme presented by the second violins and gradually taken up by all the other instruments in succession.  Violas and celli answer the initial statement, while the third entry is the double bass section reinforced by the two bassoons.  The fourth entry of the theme is the first violins.  
    This theme alternates with a more light-hearted melody that sounds a bit like a bunch of young girls giggling and gossiping.  This contrasting theme, based on triplet figures, can be heard most clearly in the first violins accompanied by a solo flute.   
    Listen for Beethoven's masterful use of the timpani toward the end of this movement.  The timpani pulses persistently on C, a throbbing heartbeat that provides the driving force that eventually pivots the music back to the home key.  In the final six measures of this slow movement, Beethoven shows his humor, as if he knows that he has thumbed his nose at tradition and wants to give the listener a mischievous acknowledgement.  These final measures are the nearest thing to a wink one could expect to find expressed musically.  The display of irreverent musical high spirits sounds like an impish sonic smile for Beethoven's closest, most observant and musically astute friends.
    The third movement, spirited and very fast in tempo, is far and away the most original movement of the four in this work.  It provides welcome comic relief after the turbulent first and courtly, soulful second movements.  Haydn had a habit of making his third movements, which traditionally followed the format of the Minuet, more and more vivacious as he aged.  Although Beethoven names his third movement here Minuet as tradition dictates, the unconventionally fast tempo—or "indecorous haste" as contemporary reviewers described its Allegro molto e vivace  tempo—makes this Beethoven's first symphonic scherzo. Tempo is not the only unconventional element in this movement. It also includes modulations, or changes of key, that were unheard of in Beethoven's time.  
    The final movement finds Beethoven at his most playful. A loud, impressive chord from the entire orchestra is followed by the violins slowly playing a scale.  Each time they ascend the scale they add one more note, until at last, after creating a mood of great anticipation, they scamper quickly to the top and Beethoven allows the mirthful allegro section to explode into being. The second theme is also a bit comical, as Beethoven contrasts the delicate melody in the high-voiced instruments with a rustic oom-pah accompaniment in the lower instruments.  
    To close the first section of the movement, Beethoven reintroduces the scalar theme from the slow introduction.  Once again the second violins doggedly take up the scale from the slow introduction, this time pitted against the full might of the orchestra so that they have little chance of being heard.  This scale from the opening plays a large part in the development section.  Fragments of it dart back and forth until at last they tire of the game and explode into a show of fury, interrupted by two dramatic pauses.  Instead of more fireworks after the pauses, the scale timidly reappears, much as it was in the beginning, eventually tumbling over itself once again to get back into the original tune.  
    Every measure of this movement sparkles with humor and vitality, and the high-spirited conclusion reminds us of jubilant children at play.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartoldy (b. Hamburg, Germany February 3, 1809; d. Leipzig, Germany November 4, 1847)

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor, Op. 64—1844

    While Felix Mendelssohn was an excellent violinist, he did not compose this concerto to display his own talents.  Instead, it was for his long-time friend, violin virtuoso Ferdinand David.  Mendelssohn and David became acquainted while Mendelssohn was conducting Berlin's  Königstädter Theater Orchestra in 1826, with David as concertmaster.  The two musicians often played chamber music with one another, and by the time the young conductor left Berlin in 1829, they had become good friends.  When Mendelssohn became the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1836, he appointed David as  concertmaster; and when he founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, David became the first head of the violin faculty.
    Although Mendelssohn began today's concerto in 1839, its first draft was not finished until 1844. David premiered the work on March 13, 1845, with Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.  The audience responded with wild enthusiasm, and since that day the Concerto in E Minor  has been among the most important nineteenth century works for violin.
    Mendelssohn was thirty-five years old when this composition was completed and was destined to live only another three years. As the last work he wrote for large orchestra, the Violin Concerto represents Mendelssohn's most mature orchestral style.  It is also one of his most painstakingly written works.  Although he was busy as the conductor of a very active professional ensemble, Mendelssohn was known for his easy, fluid compositional process. The six full years that he labored over this particular work are therefore both unusual and significant.  He had recently rediscovered Johann Sebastian Bach's music, and introduced the Leipzig public to the wonders of counterpoint perfected by the earlier master. With study, Mendelssohn absorbed aspects of Bach's style, and in this concerto, his own style of writing achieved a new elegance.  
    The work is innovative in a number of ways. The three  movements typical of a concerto are ingeniously and seamlessly connected.  It breaks the convention of allowing the orchestra to introduce all the melodic material in the first movement before the soloist enters.  Instead, here the soloist bursts forth almost immediately in an impassioned, rhapsodic style.  Mendelssohn used his own intimate knowledge of the violin and his insight into the talents of his friend David to create a work that showcased all that was most beautiful about the instrument.  The composer's study of Bach made him especially sensitive to the idea of using time and rhythm in elastic, ever-changing, subtle ways. The result is an extraordinary expressiveness that leads most critics to hail this as the first truly Romantic violin concerto.
    The first theme is profound, suggesting an elegy or a tender lament. Some critics hear in it Mendelssohn's intense feelings about the death of his much-loved sister Fanny while he composed the work.  A glorious cadenza, or solo passage for violin alone, links the development and the return of this beautiful first melody toward the end of the movement.  Mendelssohn did not choose to leave this solo passage up to the performer to improvise, as earlier concerto composition convention dictated.  Instead, he laboriously wrote out the thirty-six measures of solo he wished the performer to play, to ensure that the cadenza dovetailed seamlessly into the following orchestral section precisely as he wished.  Ferdinand David mentioned that the wickedly difficult and demanding cadenza "caused him some anguish" as he prepared for the premiere.  
    The slow second movement is an expressive, song-like melody with two similar outer sections framing a contrasting inner melody.  The inner section of this movement uses virtuosic double-stops which require the violinist to play more than one note at a time, so that the  melody sounds even more full and sonorous.  This movement is both serene and sublime, a moment of splendid repose before the playfully elfin closing movement.   
    The finale is capricious, and the solo violin part reveals the playful, impish sense of humor that Mendelssohn and David are said to have shared in one another's company.  The sonata-rondo form brings the same theme back again and again, contrasting its familiarity with various other melodies. Throughout the movement Mendelssohn requires the violinist to mix virtuosity with extremely sensitive musicality.  A series of trills and devilish double-stopped chords in the solo violin signal the orchestra to join in the triumphant push to end this work, destined to become one of the single most influential pieces of music in the violin repertoire.

Claude Debussy (b. St.-Germain-en-Laye, France August 22, 1862; d. Paris, France March 25, 1918)

La Mer: trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre
(The Sea: Three Symphonic Sketches for orchestra)—1903-05
1.'De l'aube à midi sur la mer' [From Dawn 'til Noon on the Sea]
2.'Jeux de vagues' [Play of the Waves]
3.'Dialogue du vent et de la mer' [Dialogue of the Wind and Sea]    
 
    Claude Debussy began La Mer in 1903 in France and finished it in Eastbourne, a picturesque English town along the English channel, in 1905.  The composer was fascinated with everything about the sea--  its color, its sound, the unequalled light it cast, and above all, its raw force during stormy weather.  To capture its effects, he needed a large orchestra full of instruments that could produce the most colorful sounds. With these, Debussy succeeded in achieving a delicate, transparent effect that can capture powerful waves and stormy seas, and also, somehow, light shimmering on the water. 
    In La Mer Debussy bypassed conventions about combining textures and instrumental sound qualities in a large orchestra, replacing them with a revolutionary new approach.  Instead of using the strings as a cohesive block of sound, he divided the string voices into over a dozen individual lines. He intentionally paired wildly disparate voices—such as the piccolo and contrabassoon— to create a unique combined sound. In addition, he violated all the accepted rules of harmony, embracing chord patterns traveling in parallel intervals and dissonant chords that never resolve into consonance.  While other composers focused on one identifiable melody moving into another, Debussy combined fragments of melodies to create a tapestry of sound.
    The first performance of La Mer was received indifferently by Parisian audiences, in part because the orchestra had inadequate time to rehearse the complex score, in part because of the composer's desertion of his wife for a liaison with a banker's wife of doubtful reputation. Two years later, in 1908,  Debussy conducted La Mer for the Concerts Colonne, in what is often considered the work's true debut. Both audience and the critics were enthusiastic. One critic wrote of the work "I see in it the greatest and most beautiful musical poem in French music."   Another called it "a performance that brings the sea about us, swirling through the mind, subduing the senses and the spirit—the sea with its "husky-haughty voice," its timeless fascination, its mystery and its might."
    La Mer's opening, 'De l'aube à midi sur la mer,'  gives the impression of beginning a narrative based on time passing, opening with dawn and moving toward a radiant vision of the midday sun.  At first, everything is misty and undefined.  As the movement continues, Debussy builds flowing motives that suggest waves ebbing and flowing in the emerging light. 
     In 'Jeux de vagues,' hushed tremolos in the strings and a sustained chord in the winds, with delicate splashes of tone color from the glockenspiel and harps, all suggest a calm sea.  The flutes enter into a chromatic, sinuous melody that is taken over and expanded by the clarinets. Much of this movement is framed around the tritone, an interval in music that was considered "the devil in music" for many years before Debussy taught audiences to savor the exotic dissonance.
     'Dialogue du vent et de la mer' begins in a mood of menace and violence.  Where the tritone expressed sensuous melancholy in the second movement, here it evokes the drama and force of crashing waves.  This is a movement of contrasts.  In a central section of the movement, a calm, sustained chorale melody in the winds emerges from the chaos of sound like a voice from the deep; the surface of the water is briefly tranquil.  Soon the menacing theme returns, and the movement alternates between these two contrasting ideas.  In the end, elemental violence and passion take control, as this tumultuous evocation of the sea in all its moods rises to a powerful conclusion.

Program Notes by Dr. Beth Fleming
 

 

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