by Robert Simon
At intervals through most of his career, and with reasonable success, Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote music for the stage. Among such works were his single opera, Fidelio, and a ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. Added to this could be found overtures and incidental music to several plays, including Goethe’s Egmont, Collin’s Coriolanus, and Kotzebue’s Ruins of Athens and King Stephen. The final one, called The Consecration of the House, Op. 124, was commissioned in 1822 for the rededication of the Josefstadt Theater in Vienna after extensive renovations. (The theater is still a city landmark.) The incidental numbers of the work were largely “recycled” from his earlier Ruins of Athens. (Beethoven was not immune to the practice.) The Overture, however, was an entirely new composition and received high praise from the audience and critics at its premiere in October 1822 at which time Beethoven, then stone deaf, conducted with the aid of an “assistant.” He was so pleased with his new work that he featured it in his 1824 concert where his Ninth Symphony was premiered and which included some then completed sections of his Missa Solemnis. The musicologist Michael Allsen wrote the following keen, concise commentary on the Overture.
Compared to profound and even avant garde late Beethoven works like the Missa Solemnis, the ninth [symphony], the Diabelli Variations and the last string quartets, Consecration of the House sounds at first startlingly conservative: more Handel than Beethoven. But Beethoven was looking towards the past during his final years, and his fugal writing in particular shows the result of his study of Handel and Bach. The work begins like a Baroque overture, with stately processional music underlaid by solemn trombones. Martial trumpet music with an extravagant bassoon countermelody leads to a blustery transition. And then the violins launch a magnificent double fugue, one of Beethoven’s longest and most accomplished essays in the form, and a stunning conclusion to the overture.
The Tragic Overture, Op. 81 was one of the two overtures Johannes Brahms (1833-97) composed during the summer of 1880. The other, his Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80, based largely on student songs and performed a few times by our Orchestra, is a mostly joyous piece written as a sort of “thank you,” or perhaps quid pro quo, to the University of Breslau for bestowing on him an honorary degree. Both works were premiered within two weeks of one another that winter, the former in Vienna and the latter in Breslau. A friend of Brahms pointed out that one of the pair weeps while the other laughs, reminiscent of the tragic and comic masks in ancient Greek and Roman theater. Never enamored of providing descriptive titles to his works, Brahms wasn’t particularly happy with this juxtaposition. However, after different adjectives were proffered by friends, he reluctantly settled on “Tragic.”
But whatever the title, the overture is certainly one of the composer’s finest orchestral movements, on a par with any of his four symphonies. It opens with a pair of powerful chords, setting up an agitated first subject in the minor mode that ultimately leads to a most beautiful, and touching second theme in the major. The work is constructed along the lines of the standard sonata form, but Brahms typically takes imaginative liberties. The development, for example, starts off with an abrupt change in tempo and rhythm, which calls forth a grotesque march-like tune based on a phrase from the opening music. The recapitulation does not return us to the first subject, but instead brings back an earlier theme. It isn’t until the dramatic second theme returns that the more traditional sonata form is followed, leading to a splendid coda.
Robert Washburn (b. 1928) is Dean and Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow in Music at the Crane School of Music of the State University of New York at Potsdam. Born in Bouckville, NY, he did his undergraduate studies at Potsdam. He was awarded a Danforth Foundation Fellowship to complete a Ph.D. in composition at the Eastman School of Music studying with Howard Hanson, Bernard Rogers and Alan Hovhaness. He also pursued further studies with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Music School and a season in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. A Ford Foundation Grant permitted him to devote a year to composition. Further grants, awards and commissions flowed over subsequent years. Over 150 of his compositions have been published including works for orchestra and concert band, as well as choral and chamber music, many performed by major symphony orchestras and other ensembles around North America, Europe and the Middle East. In short, for many years he has enjoyed a very successful career as composer, conductor and educator. His St. Lawrence Overture, which the Orchestra performs today, was published in 1963.
The Violin Concerto of Robert Schumann (1810-56), the only one he ever wrote, was born under particularly tragic circumstances, at the time when the fabric of his sanity was approaching the final stages of being torn apart. The work was composed in about three weeks starting on September 11, 1853 in Dusseldorf where he was the Municipal Director of Music. He wrote it for his friend, the prominent, very influential violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim, who never performed it in public but did give it a run-through in October with the Hannover Court Orchestra where he was concertmaster. Schumann’s attempted suicide four months later and his subsequent commitment to a sanitarium where he died in 1856 confirmed Joachim’s suspicions that the concerto was a “morbid” product of Schumann’s “madness.” He did admit in a letter, however, that “certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist.” Joachim’s assessment later convinced Schumann’s widow and Brahms that the concerto should not be included in the Complete Edition of Schumann’s works which, in effect, kept it secret throughout the remainder of the 19th century and well into the 20th.
Now here’s the eerie part. The manuscript of the Concerto remained with Joachim who ultimately deposited it with the Prussian State Library in Berlin. He stated in his will (he died in 1907) that the work should neither be played nor published until 100 years after Schumann’s death, i.e., 1956. Fast-forwarding to London in 1933, there was a spiritual séance attended by Joachim’s two grand-nieces, the sister violinists Jelly d’Arányi and Adila Fachiri, at which a spiritual voice identifying itself as Schumann requested Miss d’Arányi to recover an unpublished work of his—of which she claimed to have no knowledge—and to perform it. In a second message, this time from the spirit of Joachim, they were directed to the Prussian State Library. Things were quiet until 1937 when the prominent German music publisher Schott sent a copy of the score to the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin asking for an opinion. Menuhin played it through with his pianist sister Hephzibah and reported that it was the historically missing link of the violin literature. Menuhin made plans to perform the world premiere in San Francisco in October. Unfortunately, he was foiled by Miss d’Arányi who claimed the right for herself on the basis of those spiritual messages. But she was also foiled, since the world copyright to the concerto was held in Germany whose then Nazi government insisted that the world premiere be given by a German, and an “Aryan” one at that. D’Arányi definitely flunked that test and a “suitable” violinist, Georg Kulenkampff, who had worked on the score in some detail to make it playable, gave the first performance with the Berlin Philharmonic in November 1937. Menuhin and d’Arányi each later had their respective shot at it in December at Carnegie Hall in New York and Queens Hall in London.
Partly due to Joachim’s assessment and a frequently voiced opinion that the first movement was too heavily scored, the concerto was slow to make its way into the concert repertoire. (It’s worth noting, however, that during his lifetime as well as after his death, many of Schumann’s important orchestral works were criticized for heavy scoring by both critics and conductors. In fact, the great symphonist and orchestrator Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) made published revisions to Schumann’s four symphonies with his own ideas for improved scoring.) Despite all this, the Violin Concerto is now recognized as an important work of the composer.
The concerto is in the traditional three-movement form, fast-slow-fast, and is in the more objective, classical manner characteristic of Schumann’s later music. Its first movement in D-minor, played today by Matthew Woodard, the winner of our Orchestra’s Student Concerto Competition, is more in the symphonic than the usual concertante mold. Its powerful opening subject is dominating, and the solo violin’s role, as a whole, has been considered by some performers to be technically quite taxing.
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) was among the most successful and influential opera composers of the first third of the 19th century. A musical prodigy, he was writing works of exceptional—some say extraordinary—competence by the time he was about fourteen. Although the basic facts of his life have been well known, his personality and character were complex, defying easy summation. The music scholar David Greene has posited three clearly defined periods of his maturity: “(1) the productive era—not quite twenty years—for which the outstanding data are a catalog of the operas; (2) a time of illness, both physical and mental, about which such information as we have (much of it clinical) asks as many questions as it answers; (3) resurgent old age, the time when Rossini was the musical Buddha of Paris, the period when the real man is largely obscured by the anecdotes.”
William Tell, Rossini’s final opera in his string of thirty-nine, was very successfully premiered in 1829 in Paris and marked what was his furthest stylistic progress, uniting elements of Italian lyricism with French declamation and spectacle. It was very carefully written, harmonically daring, melodically purged of excessive ornamentation, and orchestrally opulent, providing a link that would lead to grand opera exemplified by Verdi and others. The work’s overture incorporates music from the opera. It is written in a form quite distinct from almost all his others, being in four distinct parts normally played without interruption. The last of these, The Finale, by far the most familiar, is being performed today. It’s an ultra-dynamic “cavalry charge” galop heralded by trumpets and played by the full orchestra. Besides the galloping horses, it is often used in the popular media to denote a hero riding to a maiden’s rescue or the like, besides having been the Lone Ranger theme music for decades. As expected, the quieter segments of the overture have often been hilariously lampooned in movies, cartoons and on TV.
The common perception that Rossini’s career with opera ended abruptly following William Tell is not accurate. True, he had been gradually slowing down over the years, and William Tell had absorbed his energies more than any previous work. But there were plans for more operas, and he had signed a contract with the government of Charles X with a juicy lifetime annuity along with relatively modest opera composing obligations. The Revolution of 1830 completely upset those apple carts and Rossini found himself without immediate prospects. However, he was by then independently wealthy, and besides, he was having worsening health problems with chronic urinary tract infections—possibly from having contracted gonorrhea. He may also have been discouraged by the huge successes of recent operas by Meyerbeer, works for which he had little or no admiration and even less inclination to compete with. Having no real need to hustle, he lapsed into prolonged inactivity punctuated by only very occasional creative work, the most important of which was his Stabat Mater. Finally, after some twenty years, he left Italy for Paris, where, from conceivably better medical care and improved mental outlook, his health began to improve and he gradually became pretty much his old self again. He wrote no more opera but there was, among other things, a deluge of many delightful songs along with charming short piano works with humorous titles which he called Sins of my Old Age.