Concerts & Events

Program Notes

Masterworks V: River of Life

Erin Wall, Soprano

Richard Wagner, Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdammerung

First performance: Bayreuth Festival, August 17, 1876
First and most recent QCSO performance: 1967
Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

Even in a time (the nineteenth century) and a place (Germany) notorious for grandiosity, Richard Wagner had no equal. His operas are famously lengthy: performances of Die Meistersinger, Parsifal, and Tristan und Isolde routinely top four hours, often lengthened considerably by multiple long intermissions. His sprawling writings on music, religion and philosophy (some sublimely poetic, others abhorrently antisemitic) span well over 3,000 pages. He even persuaded Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose construction projects include the iconic, Disney-inspiring Neuschwanstein Castle, to build a festival opera house in Bayreuth exclusively for performances of his operas.

Yet in his opera cycle Des Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Niebelungs”) Wagner outdid even himself, writing a series of four evening-length operas, for a total of about 15 hours of music. Its various plots and subplots are taken from Norse mythology; many of its tropes will be familiar to fans of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, especially the fixation on “one ring to rule them all.” Its most famous passage of music is the Ride of the Valkyries, well-known from its many uses in television commercials and Bugs Bunny cartoons (“Kill the wabbit!”, etc.).

 While taking in a full Wagner opera—or the entire Ring cycle—might seem overwhelming, the fact is Wagner’s work earned its high place with most audiences, particularly audiences in America’s heartland, by way of concert excerpts. One might even argue that Wagner’s music shines brighter in the concert hall than in the opera house; absent the laborious narrative context and imposing duration, his orchestration seems more luminous, his harmony more pungent and colorful. Perhaps tacitly aware of this fact, or at least of the possibility of reaching a wider audience, Wagner himself adapted and approved most of his well-known concert excerpts.

Götterdammerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) is the last of the Ring’s four operas, and is every bit as fatalistic and apocalyptic as its title suggests. The excerpts on tonight’s program are taken from the opera’s prologue, during which the Norns (similar to the Greek Fates) are abruptly relieved of their duty of weaving the Rope of Destiny, ominously portending the end of the age. The cycle’s hero, Siegfried, then departs a high mountain for the Rhine valley with the horse and shield of his newfound love, Brünnhilde, headed ultimately toward his own brutal demise and the destruction of the Norse gods and their heavenly castle, Valhalla.

Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs (1948)

Texts by Hermann Hesse (1.-3.) and Joseph von Eichendorff (4.)
First performance: Kirsten Flagstad, soprano, Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond., May 22, 1950, Royal Albert Hall, London
First and most recent QCSO performance: 2004
Instrumentation: Solo soprano, piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, celesta, and strings.

The life of Richard Strauss spans an indescribably tumultuous period in German national history: his 1864 birth in Munich predated German unification by seven years, and he had a front row seat as that empire dissolved into the Weimar Republic in 1918 and eventually the Third Reich in 1933. At the time of Strauss’s death in 1949, his native country stood divided between East and West.

Tracing the arc of Strauss’s works shows a similarly turbulent artistic path. Works from the first third of his career marked him as the spiritual heir to the revolutionary Richard Wagner. Two of Strauss’s early successes in this vein, both written in 1888, will be fresh in QCSO listeners’ ears: the tone poem Don Juan (heard on Masterworks I) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano (heard on Naha Greenholtz’s Signature Series recital in February). The most remarkable and notorious expression of Strauss’s early radical style was the opera Salome of 1905, which used overt sexuality and radical harmonic language to scandalize both musical traditionalists and the Viennese censors, who banned the work for over a decade.

Yet after about 1910, as his young friend Arnold Schoenberg’s adventures in atonality grew ever wilder, Strauss instead charted a decidedly less modernist path, tempering his dissonance dramatically and producing more audience-friendly works, imbued with warm, familiar harmony and often playful comedy. Having previously served as an iconoclastic standard-bearer, Strauss in his later works became something of a disappointment to musical progressives, even as these works cemented Strauss’s reputation as a favorite of audiences and performers throughout Europe and the Americas.

Strauss’s Four Last Songs, composed in 1948, are a touching farewell to the musical and political world in which he had seen so much change and turbulence. The dominant theme of the texts is resignation in the face of death. In the second song, “September”, the soprano sings: “Summer smiles, amazed and exhausted, on the dying dream that was this garden.” Strauss never heard these songs performed publicly; he died in September 1949, eight months before their premiere.

 

Richard Wagner, Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

First performance: March 12, 1859 (Prelude only), Hans von Bülow, cond., Prague.
First QCSO performance: 1941
Most recent QCSO performance: 2008 (Prelude only)
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, harp, and strings.

Of all of Wagner’s operas, the one most worthy of the title “ground-breaking” is arguably Tristan und Isolde, a tale of medieval star-crossed lovers whose frustrated passions find fulfillment only in death. The score is saturated with intense chromatic harmonies and unresolved dissonances, which elicited horrified responses from critics, audiences, and some musicians (it was “the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life,” related Clara Schumann). The scandal, as scandals do, emboldened not only the composer but generations of future musical mavericks, among them Richard Strauss.

Aside from the thrill of enraging the critics and inspiring the next generation, Wagner also had a story-telling reason for the harmonic departures in Tristan. Our experience of tonality, whether we are conscious of it or not, is based on our expectation of patterns of tension and resolution. As a very simple example, no one would feel content if the song “Happy Birthday” concluded after the first statement of “Happy birthday to you.” Tonality dictates that the open-ended nature of that melodic and harmonic moment (known as “dominant function”) demands resolution toward a musical home (or “tonic”). But if someone wanted, for example, to write an opera about a dissatisfying or tragic birthday party, stopping the song at the end of the first phrase would be a good way to start the story. And, in far grander fashion, this is exactly how Wagner depicts the unconsummated nature of the passion between Tristan and Isolde.

The prelude begins with the opera’s most famous example of ambiguous and frustrated harmony, the so-called “Tristan” chord. Striking enough in isolation, the chord is even more puzzling in its resolution; though it seems to resolve to a seventh chord (the epitome of “dominant function”), subsequent phrases in remote keys ensure that, though Wagner knows well our psychological need for resolution, such resolution will remain elusive. The Liebestod (“love-death”) passage, which follows the Prelude in this weekend’s performances, is Isolde’s farewell to Tristan prior to her death at the opera’s conclusion.

 

Ravel, Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2

First performance: June 8, 1912, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris
First QCSO performance: 1962
Most recent QCSO performance: 2004
Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp, and strings.

Erik Satie would be pleased that in a program of mostly German works, the last word would go to French-Basque composer Maurice Ravel. Amid Wagner’s utter domination of the late-Romantic musical scene, Satie issued the call for a distinctively French approach to music, “without sauerkraut!” That call inspired a national style most familiar in the works of Claude Debussy, the sextet of composers comprising Les Six (including Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc), and Maurice Ravel.

But Ravel, famously equivocal, himself toned down the anti-Wagner rhetoric. He said in a 1924 interview, “Now that we are free, and the terrible influence of Wagner doesn’t disturb us anymore, we can talk about him without prejudice and proclaim that he was a very great musician, with equally strong virtues and defects.” He added, provocatively, “His major shortcoming is his orchestration.”

From almost any other musician, this jab might betray an underlying jealousy of Wagner’s orchestral gift, but the comment has power coming from Ravel, who is arguably without peer as an orchestrator. Indeed, the opening shimmer of Daphnis et Chloé has no analogy in any of the other music on tonight’s program in terms of pure seductiveness and transparency. His work also contrasts with Wagner’s in its absence of grandiosity; though he writes many big moments, Ravel never attempts to create anything akin to Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” Explaining in the same interview what it was to be a French composer, he said, “We neither want nor do we know how to produce colossal works.”

Ravel wrote the ballet Daphnis et Chloé on commission from Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev for performance by the troupe Ballets Russes in Paris in 1912. These were heady times for Diaghilev, having facilitated the enormously popular successes of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911); the now-infamous scandal of Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) was still a season away. While Stravinsky’s Ballets Russes commissions would go on to join the concert repertory in their entirety, Ravel shortened Daphnis for the concert hall by redacting two orchestral suites from the hour-long ballet, the second of which has become a staple of orchestral repertoire.

The suite can be heard in three broad sections, the first of which depicts dawn on the Greek island of Lesbos with rapid gurgling in the woodwinds, birdsong in the flutes and string harmonics, and a lugubriously slow-moving bassline. As the sun rises, the mythic lovers Daphnis and Chloe find each other and embrace; they had previously been separated tragically, and believed their reunion was arranged by the god Pan. In the suite’s second main section, the two join with shepherds and nymphs for a “myth-within-a-myth,” honoring Pan by enacting a legend about him and his love, Syrinx. The drama gradually rises in intensity, finally erupting into the suite’s final section, an exuberant and sensual pagan celebration.

 

Program notes by Jacob Bancks.


 

Masterworks VI: St. Matthew Passion

Johann Sebastian Bach, Matthäus-Passion (“St. Matthew Passion”)
 

Libretto by Picander, based on Martin Luther’s translation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
First performance: April 11, 1727, St. Thomas Church, Leipzig
First and most recent QCSO performance: 1967
Instrumentation: Two orchestras, each consisting of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings, and continuo; soloists; and two choruses.

Frequently our modern experiences of classical music occur in circumstances quite different from those which shaped a work’s inception. This is unavoidable and not necessarily unfortunate: Wagner’s operatic music holds up as well or better in a concert setting, as does Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe, and we probably enjoy Handel’s Water Music at least as much as the monarch for whom it was written (and moreso without the immanent risk of drowning). But the disconnect between modern and original performance circumstances is perhaps most acute in concert performances of expressly sacred works (sacred meaning not simply religiously-themed, but intended for use within official Christian worship).

Hence the inherent challenges of performing St. Matthew Passion, which J. S. Bach wrote in his capacity as kappelmeister at the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, a post he held from 1723 until his death in 1750. This powerful and lengthy reflection on the death of Christ was intended for use on Palm Sunday during a Lutheran worship service, and there is no evidence Bach ever imagined the work would serve any other role. But Felix Mendelssohn discovered it decades after Bach’s death and, overwhelmed by its profundity and genius, mounted a revival in 1829, inaugurating the long tradition of performing Bach passions in public concerts.

As one might imagine, the migration from church to concert hall, and from Leipzig to the world, has precipitated no small amount of discussion among musicians as to what comprises an ideal performance of St. Matthew Passion. During much of the nineteenth and twentieth century, audiences often heard the work performed by massive choruses and full symphony orchestras; renewed awareness of original performance practices has slowly led musicians to prefer ensembles closer to the modest forces which would have been familiar to Bach in Leipzig. Another important performance decision is whether to use, outside German-speaking lands, the original German text or a vernacular translation; the former preserves the beauty of Bach’s impeccable text-setting, while the latter emphasizes the Lutheran ideal of immediacy in communicating religious sentiments and stories.

    Bach’s texts come from three main sources: the account of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion from the Gospel of Matthew, devout poetry reflecting on the passion’s themes, and well-known Lutheran hymns, which Bach reharmonized and which would have been familiar to Bach’s congregation. The juxtaposition of these textual sources ends up painting the drama of Jesus Christ’s final hours in highly multifaceted theological detail. For example, at the moment of Jesus’s betrayal by Peter, the biblical text declares, “and [Peter] went out and wept bitterly.” An alto aria follows, with the soloist amplifying the disciple’s grief: “Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears.” A chorale text responds in turn with the soul’s self-reassurance of future redemption, “I do not deny my guilt, but Your grace and mercy is much greater than the sin that I constantly discover in me.” At other times, Bach simply allows the biblical text to speak for itself in all its raw power. Perhaps no moment in all opera or oratorio is as overwhelmingly horrific as when the crowd demands the release of Barrabas instead of Jesus, a brutal moment which requires no pious commentary.

    Like other settings of the passion text, Bach’s telling of Christ’s death stops short of relating the scriptural account of his bodily resurrection. The liturgical necessity of this is obvious: the work was to be sung on Palm Sunday and followed days later with a setting of the passion according to St. John, both pointing forward to the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. But liturgical explanations aside, in a concert context Bach’s conclusion seems surprisingly modern, concluding with a simple, deeply personal graveside farewell. “We sit down with tears and call to You in the grave: rest gently, gently rest!”

 

Program notes by Jacob Bancks.

Masterworks III: Water Music

George Frideric Handel, Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major

First performance: July 17, 1717, on the River Thames, London.
First QCSO performance: 1938
Most recent QCSO performance: 1985
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, strings, and continuo.

Overture (Allegro)
Alla Hornpipe
Minuet
Lentement
Bourrée

What dad doesn’t want his kids’ friends to think he’s cool? And when you’re not just a dad but King of England, things can get quickly out of hand. This was essentially the predicament of England’s King George I (1660-1727), who in 1717 was reportedly concerned that his son and daughter-in-law, the Prince of Wales and the future Queen Caroline, were hogging the British royal spotlight. To amend the matter, he arranged for a magnificent public display of sovereignty: he would ride amid a splendid entourage down the River Thames on a warm summer evening, thereby inspiring awe, reverence, and respect from his subjects, and reminding them that, whatever his heir’s ambitions, he was still King. Oddly enough, it worked: everyone seemed thoroughly impressed.

What made this incident infamous in the history of music was the splendid instrumental music written expressly for the occasion by the King’s court composer, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). A barge full of musicians rode along with King George for the entire evening, performing and repeating Handel’s three newly-composed orchestral suites, together titled Water Music, from 8:00 PM until after midnight.

Handel, like King George himself, was a transplant to England from Hanover, Germany, where the two had a long and somewhat complicated relationship. Handel first served as Kapellmeister (director of music) to the monarch while the latter was still merely Prince George, Elector of Hanover. But irritated with Handel’s lengthy absences in England, George fired him in 1713. Immediately upon his accession the British throne in 1714, however, he rehired the composer and doubled his salary. This odd bit of employer-employee relations may have contributed to the oft-repeated legend that Handel had arranged the floating orchestra of 1717 and composed Water Music to make amends with his royal patron after some kind of falling-out. As intriguing as this version of the tale might be, nothing in the historical record supports it.

The suite played this weekend by the QCSO is the second of three, in the very royal key of D major. As in much ceremonial music, the opening Allegro movement features musical phrases played and then repeated by a different section antiphonally: the trumpets play a phrase, for example, and it’s immediately played again by the horns. It’s not difficult to imagine how certain musical features—long trills, ringing chords separated by silence—both added to the regal atmosphere and were conducive to the acoustics of playing on the water. The second movement, Alla Hornpipe, features the suite’s most familiar tune, the recessional you have at your wedding if you don’t want the Mendelssohn Wedding March from Masterworks II. Listen for the less-familiar, more tender, brass-free central section, featuring gently contrapuntal string solos. Compared to the minuets we most often hear in eighteenth and nineteenth-century symphonies, the suite’s Minuet is extremely formal, with broad strokes in the strings, more grand than lilting. The characteristic eighth-note rhythm is made more ceremonial and staid by sounding on repeated pitches. The double reeds are featured in the movement’s central section. The slow penultimate movement, marked Lentement and reminiscent of a Sarabande, has moments of warm reverie, the only place in this suite where Handel sounds vaguely sentimental. The suite concludes with a brief, syncopated and lively Bourée.

 

Edward Elgar, Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85

First performance: London Symphony Orchestra/Felix Salmond, cello/Edward Elgar, cond. October 27, 1919.
This is a QCSO premiere.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, solo cello, and strings.

Adagio — Moderato
Lento — Allegro molto
Adagio
Allegro — Moderato — Allegro, ma non troppo — Poco più lento — Adagio

The early musical engagements of British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934) were many but extremely modest: freelance violinist and teacher, organist in St. George’s church, Worcester (a post his father also held before him), and “composer-in-ordinary” at the local insane asylum. As the fourth child of seven, you could even say he suffered from a case of middle child syndrome: due to financial constraints, his family was unable to support his dream of attending the Leipzig Conservatory. From within his early obscurity he did have one great turn of fate: in 1889, he “married up”, to the consternation of his bride’s noble family. Caroline Alice Roberts (nine years his senior) would become his wife, his most ardent supporter, and his closest friend.

The work that finally won him some enduring praise came ten years later, the magnificent and vivid Enigma Variations of 1899. Then 42 years old, he thereafter steadily rose in prominence, was knighted in 1904, and enjoyed a highly successful if relatively brief career: a mere twenty years after Enigma, he wrote his last important work, the Cello Concerto of 1919. His wife Caroline would die of lung cancer a few months later, in 1920. She had once reportedly said, “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman,” and without her constant attention, Elgar composed very little in his remaining 14 years, busying himself instead with hobbies like amateur chemistry and riding about the countryside on his bike, which he affectionately named “Mr. Phoebus.”

At the work’s opening, pay particular attention to the whispering, minimalist accompaniment that surrounds the cello’s passionate, free recitative. After this brief introduction, Elgar introduces the movement’s first main theme, a lonely and ambling tune in the violas which sounds somewhat like Smetana’s main theme from Die Moldau. The cello takes up the theme, more vigorously but still not too loud, until finally the theme is proudly proclaimed by the entire orchestra. This is a reversal of the classical model, where a first movement’s opening tune was often introduced in the orchestra and then elaborated by the soloist. After this emotional outburst, the clarinets and bassoons lighten the mood slightly, maintaining the tempo and meter but adding a dotted rhythm that signals a warmer second theme, a sunny passage reminiscent of Enigma. And in the same manner that they introduced it, the clarinets and bassoons dampen the second theme and the dark E minor opening tune returns. After much drama, it settles down onto a low E, which is held over as a bridge to the next movement.

Like the first, the second movement opens with a cadenza-like passage; the cello’s two kinds of material—guitar-like chords interspersed with murmuring sixteenth notes—are reminiscent of a troubadour's epic song. The sixteenth notes eventually take flight into a sparkling, fleeting and light main section, which like the first has a dotted-rhythm foil in its secondary theme group. Elgar contains his emotions more in this movement than he did in the first, and at the movement’s conclusion the tempo increases while the dynamics remain very soft, commencing in a final troubadour chord.

Aside from two brief measures in the middle of the movement, the cello is in charge of the entire Adagio, set in the key of B-flat major, far from our the concerto’s base key of E minor. The elegant, slow gestures that open the movement each end somewhat precariously, as if the cello is trying to find its voice. Pulsing offbeats in the strings eventually help it forward as it continues its melancholic song, which ends on a “half cadence”, the musical equivalent of a comma or question mark.

The answer to this question comes fatefully at the opening of the last movement, with a startling B-flat minor chord. Over eight very fast measures Elgar traverses the wide musical space back to our home key of E minor, where the cello has another dramatic recitative. This time the instrument sounds more like an operatic tenor than a troubadour, concluding the movement’s opening section with an overwhelming cadenza. In the movement’s main theme which follows, the cello is forceful and demanding, accompanied by stern offbeats in the orchestra. The second theme, in closely-related G major, is more unstable harmonically and covers a wider emotional range. After a very long passage of fretting sixteenth notes, the main theme returns in the orchestra, this time with the soloist accompanying. Eventually the entire cello section joins in this theme, offering something of a climax and signalling the end might be near. However, Elgar takes an expressive detour in the concerto’s last moments, closing with a serious, chromatic and expressive passage which includes flashbacks to earlier themes. A final operatic recitative ushers in a brief, decisive restatement of the movement’s main theme.

 

Robert Schumann, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97, Rhenish

First performance: Robert Schumann, cond., Düsseldorf, February 6, 1851.
First QCSO performance: 1970
Most recent QCSO performance: 1996
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

Lebhaft
Scherzo: Sehr mäßig
Nicht schnell
Feierlich
Lebhaft

Composer, pianist, and critic Robert Schumann (1810-1856) had few truly sunny times in an otherwise troubled life. One was in 1840, when after a protracted legal battle he and virtuoso pianist Clara Wieck finally married. The creative outpouring that immediately followed their nuptials is breathtaking in its scope and provides evidence both of Schumann’s creative genius his simmering mental illness. Among the transcendent works of 1840 is Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), Schumann’s most sublime and profoundly expressive song cycle.

One of the songs in Dichterliebe illustrates Schumann’s love of the Rhineland and his fascination with the Cologne Cathedral which sits on its banks. “In the Rhine, in the holy stream, there is mirrored in the waves, with its great cathedral, great holy Cologne,” goes Heinrich Heine’s text, and Schumann’s music thunders mightily like rolling river waves, or the pedals of a massive pipe organ.

Schumann would return to the topic of the Rhine and its most famous cathedral once again in his Rhenish Symphony, during another especially happy time, just after his 1850 appointment as municipal music director in Düsseldorf, another city on the Rhine about thirty miles from Cologne. Unfortunately, given his increasingly erratic behavior, the official post in Düsseldorf did not last long. In a tragic twist of irony, Schumann attempted to drown himself in his beloved Rhine during a manic episode in 1854, three years after the premiere of the symphony. Though he survived the ordeal, he would spend his remaining years in a mental hospital, isolated from his devoted family.

Though published as his third symphony, his Rhenish is actually the fourth and last symphony Schumann wrote, and represents the apex of his orchestral music. Though his piano works and lieder (songs) have always enjoyed a place of privilege in the repertoire, some have judged Schumann’s symphonic music less favorably, pointing particularly to his dense, over-doubled orchestrations, though the same charges have been made about the orchestral music of Schumann’s friend Johannes Brahms. In any case, by the time he wrote the Rhenish, Schumann was able to combine his characteristically evocative melodies and harmonies with his most subtle and deft orchestration.

The opening movement launches immediately into a triumphant and brave melody in quick 3/4 time. Throughout this lengthy movement Schumann rarely lets up on this exciting and intense impulse. The second movement is marked Scherzo but is far more lilting than the title implies, more like a Mahlerian Ländler without the sinister undercurrents. Reportedly, Schumann considered subtitling this movement either “Rhine Wine Song” or “Morning on the Rhine” (hey, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere!). Near the conclusion, the solo bassoon and violas team up for a final lilting melody, until the horns suddenly demand our attention and the movement comes to a gracious and pleasant close.

The work’s first slow movement (actually marked “not slow” in the score) is genteel and unpretentious, and in both its simple ABA form and its congenial, almost rustic style it is reminiscent of some of Schumann’s many character pieces for piano (with titles like “Wayside Inn” or “A Curious Story”). A second slow movement follows immediately, marked Feierlich (“solemnly”), a narrative depiction of an ecclesial ceremony at Cologne Cathedral. Though the key signature says E-flat major, the music is actually in the ponderous key of E-flat minor, with many grand ascents (marked nach und nach stärker, “stronger bit by bit”). Like the doors on a cathedral organ, the orchestra concludes the movement with dramatic and decisive swells. A lighter and tuneful finale follows. The music throughout this fifth movement, perhaps reflecting Schumann’s state of mind, is sunny and optimistic, with no sign of danger looming.

 

A Conversation with Cellist Hannah Holman

Q. Elgar's concerto comes right after World War I, and just as the health of his devoted wife was declining. Is there anything tragic about this piece?

HH. I feel like the Elgar is a deeply personal piece, but less truly tragic than full of human frailty. The tragedy is subtle, simple, understated. There are a few moments of cathartic cries, but mostly the tragedy comes with his genius handling of harmonies. If anything, I feel like he is looking at his entire life through this piece: the good, bad, happy and sad.

Q. You played the Dvorak concerto with the QCSO a few years ago. How does the Elgar compare?

HH. I dearly love them both! We are so lucky to have both amazing works in our repertoire. Both composers use the cello as their own personal voice; I see both pieces as autobiographical. I would say that while Elgar is more subtle and understated, Dvorak is much more extrovert and heroic! The Dvorak is also more physically demanding, and also deep, loving, and introspective. The Elgar somehow feels like it grew out of the earth: it is very organic, very much in touch with humanity and it's roots.

Q. What does memorizing a concerto add to a performance?

HH. When playing a piece by memory, it similar to an actor embodying a role, you become that person, and when playing by memory, you can become the piece: it flows through you!

Q. Explain how your understanding of Elgar comes from more than just playing his music.

HH. While playing in the English String Orchestra, I lived in Elgar’s hometown of Worcester, England, so can picture quite a lot about his life. I think one can “see” that green rolling countryside in his music. He was a big fan of horse racing, and in Worcester, there is a big race track: I could just picture him strolling around and checking out the horses! One of the things I value so much about British musical culture, which I think Elgar embodies, is an amateur approach. I know that may sound strange, but to me it means that emotion must come first, followed by perfection and technique. Technique is a useful tool, but not the ultimate end of music.


Masterworks IV: Joined by a River


 

Modest Mussorgsky/Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Dawn on the Moscow River

First performance: St. Petersburg, February 21, 1886.
QCSO premiere: 1956
Most recent QCSO performance: 1999
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, percussion, harp, strings.

One mark of musical greatness is the extent to which a composer’s work matters to other musicians. J. S. Bach, whose works were revered and evoked by generations of composers, is perhaps the most obvious example. Closer to our time, George Gershwin, too, provided not just a broad corpus of outstanding works, but also lent inspiration to nearly all later sectors of American music, especially through his songs, versions of which can be found in virtually every American musical style. Picasso famously said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” but perhaps we can say that the best artists inspire other artists.

Such has also been the case in the works of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). Though hampered by chronic alcoholism and rather untutored in his compositional technique, he provided a handful of works that went on to influence and inspire many other composers. His Pictures at an Exhibition, a charming and rustic collection of little piano pieces, is his most widely-revered work, measured by the sheer number of times the work has been rescored for orchestra or other ensembles, most spectacularly by Maurice Ravel in 1922. His opera Boris Godunov, revived by impresario Serge Diaghilev in 1908, virtually ignited Russian Fever in Paris, creating the cultural fascination which Igor Stravinsky fully exploited in his early ballets Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring.

It should not surprise us, then, that Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina, left unfinished at the composer’s death in 1881, was yet another work that would fascinate and occupy other composers: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Mussorgsky’s friend and onetime roommate) in 1881-82, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky together in 1913, and Dmitri Shostakovich in 1958-59 all attempted to edit and complete the unfinished opera, which (like Boris Godunov) dealt with a key episode in Russian history. This weekend the QCSO plays Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of the opera’s opening music, Dawn on the Moscow River.

As with many musical depictions of dawn, the string technique tremolo (where the bow is moved rapidly, in a non-rhythmic fashion, over the string) plays a large role in this prelude. Various scattered, soft, and murmuring gestures depict the foggy quality of morning by a river; listen for a high, solemn, hymn-like tune to emerge (perhaps related to the religious conflict that lies at the heart of the plot of Khovanshchina). After several fragmented iterations, the hymn motif finally gets some staying power when taken up by the solo oboe, and a sober, serious theme in the horns and lower strings follows. A flute solo brings down the tension, and finally the clarinet sings wistfully a final hymn-like tune, before the prelude concludes in quiet repose.

 

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, Turkish

First performance: Salzburg, W. A. Mozart, violin, 1775.
QCSO premiere.
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, solo violin, strings.

Much mythology surrounds the relationship between Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) and his father Leopold (1719-1787), most of it probably unfair to the elder Mozart, who is frequently painted as a cold and controlling patriarch bent on exploiting his children’s musical talent. What we do know for certain is that Leopold was a superb teacher of violin, and his children Nannerl and Wolfgang benefitted enormously from their father’s pedagogy. In the preface of his widely influential Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, Leopold explains that he has “endeavoured, according to my poor powers, to pave a way for music-loving youth which shall guide them with certainty to good taste in music.”

The son’s emerging creative gift, as well as his father’s influence in “good taste”, are on full display in Mozart’s five violin concertos, all written around 1775 while Mozart was not yet 20 years old and still living in Salzburg. These, and several other single concerto movements dating from around the same time, were probably composed to show off Mozart’s prowess as a composer and violinist, toward his father’s goal of making him “the greatest violinist in Europe.” The last of these, in A major, was the final violin concerto Mozart would write; as his career progressed, and especially after he moved to Vienna, piano concertos would become his preferred vehicle for attaining virtuosic notoriety.

The first movement begins with a typical instrumental introduction, somewhat humorous and even sneaky: you may be wondering, “what is he up to?!” Eventually the solo violin enters on a sweet, adagio tune: any potential mischief is dispelled, and even a few shades of seriousness shadow the close of the slow introduction. The main allegro passage of the movement begins in a bold and eager theme, contrasted by a second theme typified by delicate back-and-forth motion between different kinds of gestures. A modulation to C-sharp minor signals drama ahead and the beginning of the development section. After the requisite harmonic turbulence, we return to the home key of A major and the recapitulation of the opening themes. As is typical with a sonata-allegro movement, the second theme (the back-and-forth one) is transposed to the home key of A major, which in this case has the effect of putting it very high on the violin and allowing the solo to sparkle even more. The movement’s close is preceded by a cadenza in the usual place.

The slow movement is a lovely but unsentimental adagio. Throughout most of the main theme the music exudes extreme calm and composure, except near its end, where a series of accents end up bursting out into a quick downward scale and a pregnant pause. The violin takes up the theme, elaborating it delicately, and it continues through several statements, including a refined fugue-like passage in the orchestra.  

The closing rondo-minuet movement has several surprises. For one, partway through the second statement of the main minuet theme, the orchestra suddenly bursts in with a big unison, modulating abruptly to the key of F-sharp minor. After some harmonic drama, the soloist regains control and ushers back another refined statement of the main theme. Even more surprising, the movement is interrupted partway through with a sudden shift from A major to A minor and from 3/4 time to 2/4. The solo here is feisty and spirited; the orchestra responds with a fiery and stomping theme with swirling chromatic embellishments. As anyone who’s played Rondo alla Turca for solo piano can tell you, A minor is Mozart’s Turkish key, and this exotic departure is the reason this concerto is nicknamed the “Turkish concerto.” After an energetic final tutti (A major returns, reassuring us that all is well), the concerto ends lightly and decorously.

 

Michael Abels, Liquify

World premiere commission.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

Composer Michael Abels writes:

It's hard to explain this piece beyond saying it's very watery.  In practical terms, that may just mean lots of sixteenth notes!  But to me there's more to it than that.

I was inspired by a very vivid mental image of a waterfall, of a river cascading over a dramatic drop.  The camera pans over this natural wonder, and we see the individual strands of water hitting intermediate ledges and splashing as they continue down.  As we look beyond the roaring base of the waterfall, we see an immense river, a vast rushing current with massive ships gracefully moving through it.  You would expect that river would lead to an ocean — but somehow this one leads to a giant waterspout, or maybe an elaborate fountain covering the width of the horizon.  Not a very realistic vision!  But a vision I kept having, enough to realize I should let it inspire me.

While I was writing Liquify, I was also writing other music for which very specific constraints were necessary.  I found writing Liquify to be quite liberating by comparison.  So the title of this piece is not just a reference to water in the natural world, but also a reference to the relaxing of limitations and boundaries, to the joy of letting it flow.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, Prague

First performance: Prague, January 19, 1787.
First (and most recent) QCSO performance: 1996
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Adagio — Allegro
Andante
Finale (Presto)

If the violin concerto featured earlier on this program showed the height of Mozart’s creative powers as a young man of about 20 in Salzburg, his Prague Symphony represents the mature craftsmanship of his most successful years following his migration to Vienna in 1781. The thirty-eighth of 41 total symphonies, it was premiered in Prague (of course), during those mystical 18 months between the success of Le Nozze di Figaro in May 1786 and the premiere of Don Giovanni in October 1787. That Mozart was able to create so brilliant a symphony amid the tempest of writing and premiering two of the most extraordinary operas in the repertory is nothing less than a miracle.

The opening of the first movement begins grandly and decisively in the key of D major. Immediately, however, Mozart seems to be wandering a bit, with short fragments of would-be motives in search of some kind of continuity. Once a steady rhythmic flow is gained, however, Mozart modulates to the parallel key of D minor. Having found itself, the music is unexpectedly solemn, even gloomy.

As if to start again, Mozart begins the Allegro section back in D major, on quiet, breathless offbeats in the strings. It’s almost like he learned his lesson from overstating himself in the movement’s ponderous first gesture: from this point through the rest of the symphony, nearly every theme begins quietly. The movement’s development section is a beautiful example of combining first and second themes; it begins with a noble fugue-like section on the second theme’s rhythmic motives. The development ends with a silky return to the opening theme.

The second, slow movement is in amiable 6/8 time, with the chromatic scale regularly overtaking the theme, giving it an occasional ambling, byzantine quality: the listener can compare these beguiling chromatic melodies to the more raucous examples in the Turkish section of this program’s violin concerto. Listen throughout the movement to whether the underlying subdivision is eighth notes (you will be able to count a steady 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) or the more pressing, poignant sixteenth notes (a faster undercurrent). The symphony’s third and final movement is the most comically operatic; it could almost have been borrowed directly from Le Nozze di Figaro, the opera that had given Mozart such a resounding public success in Prague mere months before this symphony’s premiere.

 

Johann Strauss, An der schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube), Op. 314

First performance: Vienna, Wiener Männergesangsverein, February 1867.
Most recent QCSO performance: 1917
Instrumentation: 2004

Most Americans probably agree that the marches of John Philip Sousa—Stars and Stripes Forever, The Washington Post March, and dozens more—are our quintessential civic music. The tunes are ubiquitous if easily parodied, their aesthetic sound unmistakable, and their overall feel synonymous with traditional understandings of “the American Way.”

The waltzes of Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) hold a nearly-identical place in the Austrian imagination. Writing a generation before Sousa, Strauss virtually composed an entire Viennese civic identity into his many waltzes, numbering in the hundreds. Like Sousa marches, Strauss waltzes follow simple formal patterns, progressing predictably through a variety of related keys, and gain their identity from familiar rhythmic patterns. Like Mussorgsky, Strauss’s musical language proved fertile ground for later homages and derivatives from other composers, including twentieth century masters Maurice Ravel (in the spectacular and shocking La Valse) and Richard Strauss (no relation) in his opera Der Rosenkavalier. Johannes Brahms, a friend of Johann Strauss II’s, once signed an autograph for Strauss’s stepdaughter by writing the main theme of The Beautiful Blue Danube, followed by the inscription: “Not, alas, by Johannes Brahms!”

After a slow, swirling and ephemeral introduction featuring the horn and solo cello, the work contains five actual waltzes and an extended coda, played without interruption. Each waltz is itself in a very simple form, usually ABAB, though the second is instead ABA, with a quirky modulation from G major to the remote key of B-flat major in the B section. Only the first waltz will be familiar to everyone (perhaps even as familiar as Stars and Stripes Forever), but the remaining sections are each unique and characteristic in their own right. The coda brings back Waltz No. 1 in reverse order, first with the B section melody and finally with a triumphant return of the first strain, that ultimate Viennese dancing tune.

 

A Conversation with Violinist Naha Greenholtz

Q. Mozart's music often sounds so effortless, but getting it to sound that way is anything but easy. What special challenges does Mozart's music pose to a performer?

NG: Part of Mozart's genius is the simplicity of the music. It's a bit paradoxical, but that can make the music more intimidating to approach. The melodies and phrases have a certain inevitability to them that's easily understood and resonates immediately. For that reason, to me there's always a desire for things to be "just right", and that can be stifling. The challenge is finding a way to give in to the spirit of the music without feeling like you are walking a tightrope.

Q. Describe the process of preparing to perform a concerto. Do you study the score? Listen to recordings? Rehearse with a pianist?

NG: It really depends on the concerto, but the Mozart is a piece I've known my whole life. It was one of the first concertos I performed with orchestra as a teenager, and it's been in my repertoire for almost 20 years. That said, I'll certainly crack open an orchestra score during my preparation. I think any piece comes into sharper focus when you can see and understand how, to name just one example, a composer groups instruments for a certain sound or dynamic, or passes phrases between sections of the orchestra. During rehearsals we musicians will often say "listen to the eighth notes in basses" or some such thing in order to orient ourselves and achieve good ensemble. But just listening isn't enough, you have to know what you're listening for. That's where scores can be helpful.

Q. How is performing a concerto different in the Adler Theatre than it is in Centennial Hall?

Playing in these two halls is a double-edged sword. The acoustics on the stage are quite different. It's slightly easier for me to hear across the orchestra in Centennial, but Adler is where we rehearse, so things are more familiar there by the time of the performances. I also associate Adler with the rush and excitement of a first performance, and Centennial with the warm atmosphere of a Sunday afternoon show.

 

 

A Conversation with Masterworks I Tuba soloist, Steven Campbell

Q:  Daugherty wrote this concerto in memory of his very musical father, and I understand your parents were also musicians. How did growing up in a musical family shape you as an artist?
 
A:  I'm lucky to have grown up with music always around me, whether it be my mom and dad teaching lessons at home or my two older brothers practicing trumpet and trombone. When I started playing the tuba, it felt fairly natural, having watched and listened to my dad for all those years. I studied mostly with him through high school, which, as anyone who's ever tried to help their kids with something that's in your field knows, can be like trying to teach a cat to juggle!  He's retired now, but still plays and teaches privately. My dad is my bench mark for integrity and always looking for ways to improve.

Q:  Obviously it's relatively rare for us to hear the tuba as soloist. What are the "standard" tuba concertos, and how is Daugherty different?

Ralph Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto is noted as the first concerto for the instrument, and is only 60 or so years old. Since then, there has been a lot of music written for the tuba. John Williams wrote a concerto for tuba that was written for my teacher, retired Boston Symphony tubist Chester Schmitz. British composer Edward Gregson also wrote one of the more popular concertos for the instrument which has in it quotes and references to the R.V. Williams concerto. Reflections on the Mississippi is different in that it's programatic. The title of the piece, along with the titled movements, evokes a picture from the start. All music evokes images or memories and is very different for every individual, but I've enjoyed having a piece of the puzzle, so to speak, as I draw inspiration from these images.

Q:  As a member of the Minnesota Orchestra, you play a lot of pieces by living composers. Are there any exciting or promising trends in new orchestral music today?

A:  I've seen, more recently, a move back to more linear ideas and phrases, along with the programatic ideas or stories which I enjoy. Daugherty's piece has some breathtaking phrases in the first and third movements. Personally, I've noticed more composers realizing what the tuba can do and how to write for it, not just a fourth trombone part, but a solo instrument that can stand on it's own.

 

Masterworks I: Heroic Mississippi

Steve Campbell, Tuba

 

Richard Strauss, Don Juan, Op. 20

First performance: Weimar Opera Orchestra/Richard Strauss, cond., November 11, 1889, Weimar

First QCSO performance: 1946

Most recent QCSO performance: February 2007

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp, and strings.

Should composers aim to express moods, stories, and eternal truths in their works? This was one of the great aesthetic questions of mid-nineteenth century German music. For musical progressives and their disciples, the answer was affirmative: in Liszt’s symphonic poems and Wagner’s operas, musical elements (chords, motives, melodies) are explicitly associated with characters, emotions, ideas and objects. The opposing party, most prominently represented by Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), saw “absolute music” – works written in abstract forms such as sonata and symphony and containing no specific extra-musical references – as aesthetically superior.

Though most composers failed to see the poles of absolute and descriptive (or “programmatic”) music quite so starkly, disputes on the matter continued well into the twentieth century. After his early success in writing highly evocative ballets, Stravinsky took the side of absolute music, loudly declaring that music was “essentially powerless to express anything at all.” Conversely, among those who boldly carried the Wagnerian mantle was Richard Strauss (1864-1949), whose many symphonic poems depicted a wide range of extra-musical themes, including comedy (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), home life (Symphonia Domestica), natural landscapes (Alpine Symphony), and even philosophy (Also Sprach Zarathustra, after Nietzsche).

Strauss’s first important work demonstrating his narrative and descriptive genius is the symphonic poem Don Juan of 1888 (incidentally, we will hear his most important late work, the Four Last Songs of 1948, on Masterworks V). Don Juan tells the story of the same infamous ladies’ man that Mozart depicted so masterfully in the opera Don Giovanni, but Strauss’s very different approach reflects the century that separated the two composers. Basing his work on the play by Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), Strauss seems to empathize more with the philanderer than the women he leaves behind, and concludes not with a stern moral warning, but rather a quiet shudder of existential despair.

“I want to traverse in a storm of pleasure, and die of a kiss upon the lips of the last woman,” wrote Lenau. As the work opens explosively, note Strauss’s many wild and reckless motives; these return many times throughout the work. Listen especially to how the character of the opening motives and themes change kaleidoscopically as the piece progresses, from carefree and arrogant at first to increasingly desperate and bleak.

The first of many interruptions in Strauss’s “storm of pleasure” is an amorous and misty violin solo, followed by a yearning and lyrical melody in the strings, beginning with a soupy leap of a major sixth. Heavy, fateful triplets in the brass bring back the opening adventure music, another dalliance which is soon subsumed into an even more extended lyrical solo, this time in the oboe, which is eventually consoled by the clarinet. Listen for the horn’s heroic leap of an octave to bring back the opening flourishes (Lenau: “Yes! Passion must be new each time; it cannot be transferred from one woman to the next, it can only die in one place and arise once more in another.”).

From this moment, things begin to unravel for our “hero”; the violin solo from earlier returns, this time nervous and agitated, and it’s again followed by a melody beginning with the leap of a sixth, but in the darker minor mode. The final recollection of the opening is interspersed with the heroic horn octave melody, but then something truly shocking happens: just at the music’s peak, silence interrupts, followed by a soft, A minor chord and a painful stab in the horns. This is death, but not of a valiant hero; instead, Strauss composes a desolate fade to black. As Lenau wrote at his play’s conclusion, “suddenly my world became deserted and benighted… the fuel is consumed and the hearth has become cold and dark.”

Michael Daugherty, Reflections on the Mississippi

First performance: Carol Jantsch, tuba/Temple University Symphony Orchestra/Luis Biava, cond., March 24, 2013, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia.

This is the QCSO premiere.

Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, solo tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, and strings.

Mist
Fury
Prayer
Steamboat

From mornings spent delivering The Des Moines Register to evenings spent watching The Ed Sullivan Show, the particulars of Michael Daugherty’s (b. 1954) early life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa would be familiar to anyone who grew up a midwesterner in the 1950s and 60s. But in 1976, the talented young composer moved to New York City, where his network grew to include a virtual Who’s Who of contemporary American music, from populists like Leonard Bernstein to modernists like Charles Wuorinen.

Daugherty’s generation of composers famously challenged the prevailing serialist orthodoxy which reigned in concert music during the postwar years. Their means ranged from hyper-repetitive minimalism to unapologetic returns to tonality, but Daugherty’s distinct contribution to the cause was his use of pop culture icons as musical subjects; his most famous work is a symphony, premiered in 1988, inspired by Superman (of DC Comics, not Nietzsche). “When I wrote Metropolis, most orchestral music was non-melodic and atonal so it was shocking at the time.” Resonating strongly with audiences and scandalizing the academic establishment, Daugherty has become one of the most frequently-performed living American composers.

After his father’s death in 2011, Daugherty found himself back home in Iowa, traveling between McGregor (north of Dubuque) and Hannibal, Missouri. “Along the ‘Great River Road,’ I explored small river towns and snapped photographs of scenic river vistas. Local boat owners also guided me to the secluded wildlife havens and murky backwaters of the Mississippi River. All the while, I was collecting sounds, musical ideas and an emotional framework for my tuba concerto.”

The result was Reflections on the Mississippi, premiered in 2013 by the phenomenal, then-under-30 tubist Carol Jantsch of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Each of the four picturesque movements depict scenes familiar to all QCSO listeners: Mist, where the tuba’s “mystical melody” depicts “sunrise as seen and heard through a misty haze over the Mississippi River”; Fury, which recalls the 1927 flood as described by William Faulkner; Prayer, depicting meditative river vistas (complete with small town church bells); and Steamboat, a nod to Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (Eroica), Op. 55

First performance: April 7, 1805, Vienna

First QCSO performance: 1947

Most recent QCSO performance: November 2009

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Allegro con brio
Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
Scherzo: Allegro vivace
Finale: Allegro molto

In contemporary America we are not entirely unfamiliar with duels between musicians and politicians, especially in campaign years. Musicians often take umbrage with politicians using their music on the campaign trail: this year the controversy was between the Rolling Stones and Donald Trump, just as in 1984 it was The Boss (Bruce Springsteen) vs. The Gipper (Ronald Reagan). Sometimes the unpleasantries run in the other direction, as when Copland sat before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, or Shostakovich faced official censure in Pravda. Music exists in society, so wherever we have music, politics is not far behind.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), The Boss of his day, had no shortage of political opinions, one of them being his enthusiastic support for the forward-thinking French consul Napoleon Bonaparte. He even went so far as to dedicate his third symphony, subtitled Eroica (“heroic”), to Napoleon’s honor. But between the work’s completion in early 1804 and its premiere in 1805, Napoleon named himself French Emperor, which moved Beethoven to withdraw the dedication. It remains unclear, however, whether he did so out of umbrage at Napoleon’s hubris, or out of a more practical concern that dedicating the symphony to a foreign emperor would offend the work’s patron, Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz.

Politics and business aside, the third symphony marks a significant turning point in Beethoven’s musical output. His earlier works, strongly influenced by Mozart and Haydn, are certainly imaginative and lively, but from the Eroica symphony onward (in what musicologists call his “heroic period”), he demonstrates a phenomenal technical confidence and creative independence. Well known works like his fifth and sixth symphonies, the opera Fidelio, and the Emperor concerto all date from this period. Entirely deaf by 1802, Beethoven heard all of these works only in his inner imagination.

Like Don Juan, the symphony begins with a shock: in this case, two powerful E-flat major chords. Immediately the cellos play the very famous first theme, a major chord arpeggiation that sounds like a hunting horn call. The second theme is stepwise, subdued and pulsing by contrast. Though the entire movement is in 3/4 time, listen for when Beethoven uses forceful accents in syncopation to the regular time signature, temporarily shocking our ears into hearing the music in two rather than three.

In contrast to the optimistic tone of the first movement, the second is a solemn and inexorable funeral march. It opens in gloomy C minor, and as one would expect in a funeral march, Beethoven makes liberal use of dotted rhythms above a steady beat, but listen also for the haunting cello diversion near the movement’s beginning, repeated a bit later in the clarinet and bassoon. Beethoven leads this funeral procession down many avenues, including the parallel key of C major. Just as we drift off into a reverie on a high, quiet A-flat in the violins, the trumpets resound a mournful fanfare, which leads us back to the main thoroughfare of C minor. After a lovely, warm passage in A-flat major, the procession ends decisively.

The third movement is a much happier scherzo and trio. Throughout most of the main scherzo, Beethoven whispers through staccato strings and woodwinds, making his fortissimo shouts stand out in stark contrast. The heroic opening theme is echoed in the movement’s trio, which features the three horns.

In the symphony’s finale Beethoven makes use of the venerable variation form, using a simple theme he had employed in several earlier works. Like so many themes throughout the symphony it is identifiable by its horn-like, triadic skips. At the movement’s outset, Beethoven frequently brings the music to a halt with the use of fermatas mid-