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Beethoven, Puts, Saint-Saëns

Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

First performed on February 6, 1931; Eugene Goossens, conductor. Last performed on November 17, 2007; Christopher Seaman, conductor.
“Of all my children, this is the one that caused me the worst birth pangs, the one that brought me the most sorrow, and for that reason, it is the one most dear to me.” So wrote Beethoven about his only opera, Fidelio, originally entitled Leonore. The plot might be based on actual events from the “Reign of Terror” that followed the French Revolution (although the setting was changed to Spain). The faithful wife Leonore disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio, and frees her husband, Florestan, who has been imprisoned unjustly.

The opera’s difficult evolution resulted in Beethoven’s composing no fewer than four overtures to introduce it. The piece known as Leonore No. 2 was performed at the unsuccessful premiere in 1805. For the launch of a revised edition the following year, Beethoven replaced it with Leonore No. 3. It is based on the same themes as No. 2, but it treats them in more concise and compelling fashion. In fact, it is so compelling that it nearly makes the opera itself redundant. Its most appropriate home is the concert hall, where it is free to assume its true nature as a symphonic poem in tribute to the emotional concerns of the opera: love, freedom, and the unquenchable strength of the human spirit.

Inspiring Beethoven
Kevin Puts
b. January 3, 1972 / St. Louis, Missouri

First performance by the RPO.

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night, Kevin Puts has been hailed as one of the most important composers of his generation. His works have been commissioned and performed by leading orchestras in the United States and abroad, including the New York Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchestër (Zurich), and the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, and St. Louis, and by leading chamber ensembles such as the Mirò Quartet, the Eroica Trio, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He has served as composer-in-residence of the Fort Worth Symphony and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He received his training as a composer and pianist at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University. Since 2006, he has been a member of the composition department at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Inspiring Beethoven was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony. Michael Hermann conducted the premiere in 2002. The composer writes: “Inspiring Beethoven is a musical tale, completely imagined, of Ludwig van Beethoven finding the inspiration to compose the first movement Vivace of his Symphony No. 7. The materials of this joyous movement – the shape of the melody, the sprightly dotted rhythm – are all there, but I have cast them in the darkest of colors, reflecting the grim, inescapable realities of the great composer’s life. Out of the darkness intensified by the despair of his ever-worsening deafness, hope and inspiration come like a beacon of light, without warning, as they always seem to. Who or what causes this sudden transformation, I leave to the imagination of the listener.”

Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33
Camille Saint-Saëns
b. Paris, France / October 9, 1835
d. Algiers, Algeria / December 16, 1921

First performed by the RPO on April 9, 1924; Albert Coates, conductor; Joseph Press, soloist. Last performed on April 10, 1999; Daniel Hege, conductor; Stefan Reuss, soloist.

Music was only the foremost of Saint-Saëns’ many interests. This nineteenth-century Renaissance man also developed a working knowledge of several sciences, published volumes of poetry, saw his plays produced on the stage, and wrote reams of newspaper articles on many different topics, while somehow finding time to travel extensively. He led a full musical life, as well. It included conducting orchestras, giving recitals on both the piano and the organ, preparing new editions of music by earlier composers, and composing nearly 300 works of his own.

Cellists are grateful for his superb contributions to their limited repertoire: two concertos, two sonatas with piano, a suite, and a number of shorter works. He composed Concerto No. 1 in 1872. He dedicated it to the soloist who played the premiere: Auguste Tolbecque, principal cellist in the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire.

Its attractions are not confined to appealing themes and an effortless response to the problem of ensuring that the low-voiced cello is never obscured by the orchestra. Another plus is an ingenious structure. Borrowing procedures originated by his friend and contemporary, Franz Liszt, Saint-Saëns telescoped the traditional three movements of a concerto into a continuous whole. He also based the first and last of them on the same thematic material. The urgent, dramatic bookends are separated by a minuet like section that displays a refined, very French elegance and a playful sense of fantasy.

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral,” Op. 68
Ludwig van Beethoven

First performed by the RPO on March 28, 1923; Arthur Alexander, conductor. Last performed on July 7, 2010; Arild Remmereit, conductor.

Beethoven’s friends and biographers left ample evidence of his deep love of nature. When residing in Vienna, hardly a day passed that he didn’t take a long walk through the woods and fields surrounding the city, drinking in the sights and sounds of the countryside. He found that setting ideal for thinking through whatever piece he was composing.

The main musical manifestation of this love is his Sixth Symphony. He began sketching it as early as 1802, but he only buckled down to concentrated effort between 1807 and 1808. The premiere took place, along with that of Symphony No. 5, at a marathon all-Beethoven concert in Vienna at the close of the latter year. He thought of it this way: “Pastoral Symphony, in which is expressed not tone-painting, but feelings that are awakened by one’s enjoyment of the country; in this work some impressions of country life are portrayed.”

His sketchbook for the final period of the symphony’s composition contain such further musings on this subject as “leave the listeners to work out the situations for themselves,” and “all tone-painting will lose its effect in instrumental music if pushed too far.” The suggestive movement titles, and most importantly the music itself, are all that listeners need to summon up whatever impressions of country life they may see fit.

The first movement, Awakening of Cheerful Thoughts Upon Arriving in the Country, proceeds at a leisurely pace; even its climaxes are restrained. The following Scene by the Brook unfolds with aptly flowing grace. At the very end, Beethoven has woodwinds imitate specific birds: flute, nightingale; oboe, quail; clarinet, cuckoo. 

The remaining three movements are played without pauses between them. For his scherzo, Merry Gathering of Country Folk, Beethoven summoned a band of rustics for a cheerful group of dances. A vivid thunderstorm intrudes violently, but the symphony’s opening mood of serenity is restored by the final, uplifting Shepherds’ Song of Thanksgiving.

“The entire finale seems an ecstatic hymn of thanks to some pantheistic god, to nature with a capital ‘N,’ to whatever beneficent power one can perceive in a universe that seemed as dark and terrifyingly irrational in Beethoven’s days as it can in ours,” wrote musicologist Edward Downes. “That a man of sorrow and self-inflicted injuries like Beethoven could glimpse such glory and, by the incomprehensible alchemy of his art, lift us to share his vision – even if only for a few moments – is a miracle that remains as fresh as tomorrow’s sunrise.”

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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