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Program Notes - Beethoven's Seventh

Toccata concertante
Irving Fine

b. Boston, Mass. / December 3, 1914
d. Boston / August 23, 1962

Debut performance by the RPO

Fine’s career as a distinguished academic permitted him little time for composition. After receiving his Master’s degree from Harvard in 1938, he continued his studies with Nadia Boulanger (composition) and Serge Koussevitzky (conducting). After teaching at Harvard from 1939 to 1950, he moved to Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where he taught until his death. He received commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation, Ford Foundation, Library of Congress, the Juilliard School and the American League of Composers. His music earned him two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Research Fellowship and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

The majority of his works are either for chorus, solo instruments or chamber ensembles. The powerful, energetic Toccata concertante (1947) was the first of his few works for orchestra. The others include a Lament for strings (1955) and a Symphony (1962). Koussevitzky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the premiere performance of the Toccata on October 22, 1948.

It displays the strong interest in the Neo-classical style of Stravinsky that Fine maintained throughout much of his career. The composer stated, “In writing this piece, I was aware of a certain affinity with the energetic music of the Baroque concertos, hence the qualifying adjective concertante. Moreover, this adjective seemed particularly appropriate because of the solistic nature of much of the orchestration, especially in the second theme group and the closing sections of the exposition and recapitulation.”

 

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major
Franz Liszt
b. Raiding, Hungary / October 22, 1811
d. Bayreuth, Germany / July 31, 1886

First performed by the RPO on January 22, 1925; Albert Coates, conductor

Liszt was not only the foremost virtuoso pianist of his era, he was also a prime mover behind many important innovations in the field of composition. One of his most striking and influential creative achievements was the development of the symphonic poem, a form of orchestral music inspired by such extra musical concepts as literature, artwork and natural phenomena. To bind the various and continuous sections of such works together, he developed a compositional method through which the entire piece is based on the evolution and transformation of a few short, simple themes.

Liszt’s piano concertos also make use of his “transformation of themes” technique. They are, in effect, symphonic poems with the piano soloist as the central character. Concertos 1 and 2 evolved over lengthy periods, perhaps as much as 30 years (the recently re discovered Concerto No. 3 probably dates from the same time frame as the earliest drafts of its companions). At the premiere of the final version of Concerto No. 1 (Weimar, 1855), Liszt himself played the solo part, with his friend and musical soul mate Hector Berlioz conducting. What a performance that must have been!

Much fuss was made over Liszt’s use of a triangle in the scherzo of the concerto. Critics thought its silvery frivolity out of place in a serious composition. Actually, it sounds right at home in this brilliant music. In addition to humor, the concerto contains ample amounts of drama, tenderness and commanding energy. The heroic demands of the solo part reflect the composer’s own sovereign gifts.

 

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Ludwig van Beethoven

b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

First performed by the RPO on January 30, 1924; Albert Coate, conductor

Three years had passed since the completion of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the relaxed, rustic “Pastoral,” before the urge to create another piece of this kind came upon him. He composed the principal sketches for the Seventh Symphony during the autumn of 1811, while taking a rest cure in Teplitz, a small resort town near Prague. He returned to his home in Vienna later that year, taking up the new symphony once again early in 1812. He finished it in May.

The Seventh and Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony,” Wellington’s Victory, made their public debuts at the same concert. A fund-raiser in support of troops wounded in the Napoleonic wars, it was held in the Grand Hall of the University of Vienna on December 8, 1813. The event had been organized by his friend Johann Mälzel, inventor of the metronome. The worthy cause had enabled him to persuade many of Vienna’s most famous musical figures to take part. The orchestra included such luminaries as Louis Spohr and Domenico Dragonetti (playing in the violin and double bass sections, respectively); Johann Hummel and Giacomo Meyerbeer (timpani); Ignaz Moscheles (cymbals); and even Beethoven’s former teacher, Court Composer Antonio Salieri. A glittering audience was in attendance, too, dotted with important political figures.

Spohr left a vivid reminiscence of the event, especially regarding Beethoven’s conducting style. “Beethoven had accustomed himself to indicate expression to the orchestra by all manner of singular body movements. So often as a sforzando (sharp accent) occurred, he tore asunder his arms, which he had previously crossed upon his breast, with great vehemence. At piano (quiet), he crouched down lower and lower as he desired the degree of softness. If a crescendo then entered he gradually rose again and at the entrance of the forte (loud) he jumped in the air. Sometimes, too he unconsciously shouted to strengthen the forte. It was obvious that the poor man could no longer hear the piano passages of his music. Despite Beethoven’s uncertain and sometimes ludicrous conducting, the execution of the symphony was quite masterly.”

The range of moods that the Seventh Symphony covers is striking, even by Beethoven’s standards. Three of its four movements overflow with energy and high spirits, a fact that led composer Richard Wagner, writing in 1849, to write, “this symphony is the apotheosis of the dance herself: it is dance in her highest aspect, as it were the loftiest deed of bodily motion incorporated in an ideal mould of tone.”

The first movement begins with an introduction in slow tempo, one much longer than any to be found in the previously-composed symphonies of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven himself. It is bold and teasing in its forecast of what is to follow: an exhilarating romp. British author Sir George Grove wrote, “It is full of swift, unexpected changes and contrasts, exciting the imagination in the highest degree, and whirling it suddenly into new and strange regions.”

In terms of form, the third movement scherzo duplicates the corresponding movement in the Fourth Symphony. The restrained Trio section appears repeatedly in alteration with the bustling opening panel. The finale is a headlong perpetual motion engine. It hurtles along joyously with scarcely a pause to catch its breath between first bar and last.

On the other hand, the second movement communicates the most profound expression of grief and despair that had been heard in symphonic music up to that time. It became so popular that during the balance of the nineteenth century it was regularly inserted in performances of other Beethoven symphonies (No. 2 in particular), to replace slow movements that audiences found less to their liking. Moving forward upon an implacable rhythm, it bears the air of a melancholy, even funereal procession. Two brief episodes in a major key provide the only consolation.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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