Program Notes

Masterworks III – Ludwig van. . .is the man!

Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43a………………………………………………Ludwig van Beethoven

Born in Bonn, Germany on December 17, 1770   Died in Vienna, Austria on March 26, 1827


Beethoven’s output for the stage is certainly less significant and substantive than his nine symphonies, his seven concertos, or his string quartets.    He only finished one opera Fidelio, for which he provided four different overtures, and incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont.    In 1791 he provided some dance music for the Ritterballet.   Ten years later, in 1801, he composed music for a full length ballet based on a libretto by Salvatore Vigano based on the story of Prometheus creating two beings from statues who he presents to Apollo in order to provide them with reason.    This eventually leads Zeus to one of his frequent fits of anger and jealousy in which he has Prometheus tied to a giant rock and daily attacked by eagles.  Prometheus is eventually saved by the intercession of Hercules.   The ballet received 28 performances at Vienna’s Burgtheater.    Few of the 16 pieces written for the ballet receive performances today, but the overture has survived on orchestral concert programs.    The final piece of the ballet contains a theme that Beethoven would use in a set of Contradanses, a set of Piano Variations, Op. 35, and lastly as one of the principal themes of the final movement of his Symphony #3 Eroica.

The overture is Beethoven’s first major attempt in this genre.   His subject is the great mythological figure who captured fire from his father Titan and brings light to a world that had been shrouded in darkness.   Written around the same time as his Symphony #1 and in the same key of C Major, it also begins in the “wrong key”  of F Major and on a seventh chord as well.    The noble theme given to horns and woodwinds is identified by Beethoven as “the solemn appearance of Prometheus.”    The fast section that follows has a lightness and spirit that is more than casually reminiscent of the comic opera overtures of W.A. Mozart.   Like many of Mozart’s overtures, it is in sonata form but lacking a development section.    Beethoven describes this music as depicting “human creatures led to joy” by their creator Prometheus.  In the ballet the Overture leads directly into an introduction of the ballet’s first dance piece, but has been provided a concert ending by its composer who often included the overture on other concerts.

Symphony #4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60……………………………………………….…..Ludwig van Beethoven

This symphony and the violin concerto were written around the same time.  In fact, Beethoven probably was working on both pieces at the same time.   The Symphony was written mostly in 1806, even though work had begun on the 5th as early as 1804. Beethoven was spending part of his summer and early fall at the palace of his friend and admirer Count Oppersdorff.  The Count had an orchestra at his estate, and while Beethoven visited, they performed his Symphony #2 which was a favorite of the nobleman.   Beethoven temporarily abandoned work on his C minor Symphony which would become #5 and set out to create a work more in the style of his first two symphonies, rather than the epic Symphony #3.    1806 was a year in which Beethoven was able to produce several important works; in addition to the Violin Concerto, he also completed a revision of his opera Leonore (which would eventually be retitled Fidelio), the three “Razumovsky Quartets,” Op. 59, the Overture to Coriolanus, and the 4th Piano Concerto.   Of the nine symphonies, Symphony #4 is the least often performed.

The first movement begins with a long and slow introduction which begins not in B-flat Major, but in the “wrong key” like the opening of his Symphony #1.   It takes us through an extended harmonic journey that really doesn’t hint at the home key until just before the transition to Allegro vivace.   Even in the beginning of the fast section, he lingers on the dominant before finally planting his musical feet firmly in B-flat after four measures of F Major.   After all of the chromaticism of the introduction, the harmonic movement becomes very simple, and almost static.   The opening theme moves almost exclusively between the tonic and sub-dominant (E-flat Major) and the melody avoids passing tones, sticking to the principal notes of those two chords.   The second theme is in the dominant (F Major) and incorporates the each of the scale tones in its melody first presented by solo bassoon.   The development section quickly starts to hearken back to the harmonic vagueness of the introduction but this time in the fast tempo.  Beethoven also starts to break up the melodic material into small fragments called motives.

The second movement is an Adagio, the same tempo indication as the first movement introduction.  The key of this movement is E-flat major, and Beethoven is not the least bit vague about quickly and clearly establishing the tonal center.   The movement is in triple meter, but because of the slow tempo is sub-divided into six beats per measure.

The third movement is part Scherzo and part Minuet.   Beethoven also departs from the standard A-B-A form, choosing to add another statement of the Trio and closing with a repeat of the opening section.    The Trio is the” Minuet” part of the movement, where it is suggested that the tempo slow down just a  little when it appears both times.   Because of the tempo adjustments the division and style differences between these sections is heightened even further.

The Finale, like the fast section, goes by pretty quickly, and also with the same degree of slow harmonic shifts in the first theme.  The principal theme in 16th notes also implies a kind of perpetual motion, although the violins certainly require plenty of energy to keep things going.   The second theme is clearly in contrast, more lyrical and centered on solo woodwinds instead of the energetic scrubbing of bows in the strings.   Again the strong relationship of tonic and dominant is present throughout and the sonata-allegro form is clearly spelled out.

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61……………………………………Ludwig van Beethoven  

The pianist Charles Rosen in his wonderful book The Classical Style suggests “the most important fact about the concerto form is that the audience waits for the soloist to enter, and when he/she stops playing they wait for the soloist to begin again.”   Candidly, audiences were shocked at the opening of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto when the soloist plays the opening theme alone before the orchestra has even entered.    Perhaps even more jarring is the length of the orchestral exposition of Beethoven’s Op. 61 before the soloist finally gets to enter.   Stories of the first performance in 1806, suggest that the violinist Franz Clement had to sight read the solo part.   Those accounts also suggest that Clement improvised the cadenzas, and also played the violin upside down in one of his own compositions between the first and second movements to entertain the audience.   It must have been an interesting concert!

The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, opens with five quiet strokes on the timpani and portends to some degree the technique Beethoven uses in the “Fate Motive” of the first movement of his Symphony #5.   These timpani notes are the cement that holds together the various themes and gestures of the opening movement.  The fifth stroke overlaps the first orchestral woodwind entrance.   The solo timpani comes back right away with another five strokes, and the woodwind passage expands leading into the first string entrance and the exposition of the themes.    After this extensive orchestral exposition the soloist and orchestra reinterpret each of these themes.

In the second movement, the Larghetto, the orchestra also introduces a theme, stating the principal idea in muted strings. After much embellishing on the first theme by the soloist, the second theme subject is briefly announced first by the orchestra and then expanded and embellished by the violin. After a recap of the themes, a quiet coda seems to be bringing the movement to its conclusion, but there is a final outburst by the string section and a short transitory cadenza by the solo violin that leads to— The Finale, a spirited Rondo in 6/8 time.

Beethoven saves the best for last, as the flashiest, and most virtuosic passagework for the violin soloist comes in this country-dance-like movement.   And we don’t have to wait this time.   The violin leads things from the first measure, presenting a delightful country dance (don’t expect Tim McGraw) very sparsely accompanied in its first two appearances.  The third time, the full orchestra takes hold of it and expands and adds phrases of melody to create a statement upon which the rest of the movement is based.

The Violin Concerto in D was a turning point for the violin concerto, perhaps even for the concerto itself; an expressive work that pushed the limits and length of the form and is considered the first concerto in the romantic style.   Just as clearly, it is the product and perhaps, also the culmination of the classical style.  Though some critics predicted that Beethoven’s innovations in style would cause a death of the concerto as a genre, it actually provided the next generation of composers a pathway to even greater depth and expression.