Performance Friday, February 21, 2014 | 8 PM

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
The intrepid Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of its fearless Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, returns to Carnegie Hall with a program of some of the most profoundly emotional meditations found in the orchestral repertoire. The performance includes Beethoven’s deeply felt “Eroica” Symphony, whose funeral march has rhythmic patterns echoed in Strauss’s post-war lament Metamorphosen. Also on the program is Shostakovich’s playfully dark and virtuosic Cello Concerto No. 1 with Johannes Moser.

Please note that cellist Truls Mørk has withdrawn from this performance due to an injury to his shoulder as a result of a skiing accident.
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The Program

Metamorphosen, A Study for 23 Solo Strings

During the closing, losing years of the Second World War in Germany, and then during the time before his death in 1949 at age 85, Richard Strauss produced a remarkable series of valedictory works that seem untimely, yet timeless. He declared them "without an iota of music-historical significance" and was utterly unconcerned with breaking new ground. After decades devoted almost exclusively to writing operas, Strauss returned to songs and instrumental music. He did not give these works opus numbers, viewing his last opera, Capriccio (1941), as his official farewell statement. (His next piece, he quipped, would be "scored for harps.") The Second Horn Concerto, two sonatinas for winds (subtitled "From an Invalid's Workshop" and "The Happy Workshop"), the Duet-Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon with String Orchestra and Harp, the Oboe Concerto, and Metamorphosen are the major instrumental compositions from these amazing final years, which conclude with the ethereal Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra.

A Work Born from Despair

Metamorphosen appears to have been born less from the personal trials of illness, boredom, and daily hardship, and more from sheer existential despair at the destruction of German cultural ideals and monuments. The composer immersed himself in the complete works of Goethe, his favorite writer: "I am reading him as he developed and as he finally became, not tasting here and there." This engagement made the destruction of the poet's home all the more painful: "I am in a mood of despair," Strauss wrote to a friend on March 2, 1945. "The Goethehaus, the world's greatest sanctuary, destroyed! My beautiful Dresden, Weimar, Munich—all gone!" The Munich house in which Strauss was born, the opera theaters in which he first encountered the masterpieces of German art and in which his own operas premiered, were damaged or obliterated. "My life's work is in ruins," he stated. Nostalgia reigns in much of Strauss's late music, and in Metamorphosen the mood is even more elegiac and tragic. He confronts ends: of the war, his own life, and also of an entire era in music.

Paul Sacher, a Swiss conductor and philanthropist responsible for commissioning works from many leading 20th-century composers, asked Strauss to write a work for his Collegium Musicum Zurich and invited him to conduct the premiere. He had been working in the summer of 1944 on a choral piece based on Goethe that he partially adapted for the new string composition. Other projects intervened, and Strauss only took up the commission again in early 1945. A preliminary score was completed by the beginning of March 1945, entitled "Metamorphoses/Andante/Andante (for two violins, two violas, two cellos, and one double bass)." The seven string instruments were ultimately expanded to 23 (10 violins, five violas, five cellos, three double basses) and the number even included in the formal title: "A Study for 23 Solo Strings." He completed Metamorphosen in mid-April, but was only permitted to travel to Switzerland in October. Sacher gave the first performance at the Tonhalle Zurich on January 25, 1946. Strauss asked Sacher if he might conduct the final rehearsal, which he did with great emotion for all present. The piece apparently was too personal for him to lead in performance; indeed, Strauss did not even attend the premiere the following day.

A Closer Listen

Metamorphosen is in one continuous movement with a middle Agitato—più allegro section framed by two adagios. The luminous string writing is a polyphonic marvel; as the title notes, all 23 strings are soloists, although parts are sometimes doubled.

Strauss had written a great amount of program music early in his career, but gave little indication concerning the meaning of his late works. The title of this piece probably relates to Goethe's writings about metamorphosis in nature. As musicologist Timothy Jackson has explored, the choral work that Strauss adapted for it was a setting of one of Goethe's late "sayings" (Sprüche): Niemand wird sich selber kennen ("No person can really know himself").

Commentators have heard allusions to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, to Brahms, and to his own opera Arabella. The musical core of the work is derived from the funeral march of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. At the very end, Strauss quotes it literally in the basses and at that point wrote in the score IN MEMORIAM!

—Christopher H. Gibbs

Program notes © 2014. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107

Shostakovich numbered among his friends the leading musical performers of the Soviet Union: Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, the Oistrakhs, Galina Vishnevskaya, and Mstislav Rostropovich. Many of his major works were created in collaboration with them, and in these compositions he responded directly to the artistry of each performer, imbuing the solo parts with a distinctive character that was, in part, a reflection of various aspects not only of their specific faculties and strengths, but also of his friendship with each. Nevertheless, they were also works that have, in the interim, proven to be durable in the hands of other soloists. Perhaps this is the ultimate test of a "classic"—whether a piece holds up to an infinite variety of interpretations from artists all over the world, over a long period of time.

Composed for Rostropovich

Shostakovich created both of his cello concertos for Rostropovich, the peerless Russian cellist with the big, vibrant tone who continued to champion the cause of the composer's music—and of these concertos—long after his death in 1975. These works have proven to be some of the most fascinating concertos written in the 20th century.

"The major work in my immediate plans is a cello concerto," Shostakovich had said to a correspondent for Sovetskaya Kultura in the spring of 1959, when the First Concerto was still in embryonic form. "Its first movement, an Allegretto in the nature of a scherzo-like march, is ready. I think the concerto will have three movements, but I am at a loss to say anything definite about its content … It often happens that in the process of writing a piece, the form, expressive media, and even the genre of a work undergo a marked change." His early reluctance to predict the form proved justified, for in the end the concerto assumed a unique shape indeed.

Taking as its inspiration the Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra of Prokofiev (another work written for Rostropovich), as well as his own Violin Concerto of a few years before, the Cello Concerto is cast in four movements, the third of which is a long cadenza that creates a gradual but inexorable acceleration toward the final Allegro con moto. "I was greatly attracted by Prokofiev's work," the composer wrote, "and decided to try my hand in the genre." Despite this, the end result was something altogether different from the work's model.

Completed in mid-1959, the First Cello Concerto quickly became well known both in the Soviet Union and in the West. Its unique formal aspects were immediately recognized, as was its relationship to the First Violin Concerto. "The Cello Concerto seems to continue the line of Shostakovich's recent Violin Concerto," wrote conductor Kirill Kondrashin in the Moscow News after the work's premiere in October 1959. "They have much in common: originality of form (particularly in regard to the position and function of the cadenza, which develops and continues the idea of the preceding movements of the concerto), and the colorful music of the finales, which seem to picture the passionate gaiety of folk festivals, and the concentrated lyricism of the slow movements … But while the Violin Concerto gives the impression of being a personal reflection of the artist himself, the Concerto for Cello appears to me to be an active struggle for the ultimate triumph of his idea."

One month after the Cello Concerto's successful premiere in Leningrad in October 1959, Rostropovich performed the United States premiere in the Academy of Music, with Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra. It was one in a long succession of first performances by the orchestra of Shostakovich's major compositions, which has also included US premieres of no fewer than seven of the 15 symphonies and that of the First Piano Concerto as well.

The first US performance of the Cello Concerto, on November 6, 1959, was one of the most significant and most heavily publicized American musical events of the Cold-War period. In attendance was an impressive array of Russian and American composers: Shostakovich, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Tikhon Khrennikov, Henry Cowell, Roger Sessions, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Paul Creston. Rostropovich and the orchestra recorded the work at that time—the first time in history that a Soviet composer had supervised a commercial taping of one of his own works in the US.

A Closer Listen

Shostakovich's music can now be seen, in retrospect, as standing squarely in the center of Western tradition. His use of symmetrical musical "mottos" takes its inspiration partly from the Baroque period and partly from later composers such as Schumann. The best known of these mottos in Shostakovich's music is the famous D-Es-C-H motif (D. SCHostakovich, derived from the German spelling of the pitches D, E-flat, C, B) found in a number of his works-a sort of musical anagram of his own name.

The First Cello Concerto employs a similar four-note motto-G, F-flat, C-flat, B-flat; although it seems to function completely outside the key of E-flat, it nevertheless forms the primary building-block of the first movement's relentless motivic development. The opening Allegretto is one of Shostakovich's most inspired creations, exploiting not only the penetrating instrumental color of the accompanying woodwinds (with no brass), but also the "collaborative" solo parts for clarinet and horn—which is perhaps a reflection of the work's debt to Prokofiev. The soloist then presents the tough, lean first theme; thereafter, the cellist is hardly allowed a moment's rest throughout the movement.

The second, third, and fourth movements are played without pause. The initial Moderato slows the pace to allow the soloist and the solo horn to sing a lyrical melody to a light accompaniment of strings and winds. The Cadenza movement (also Moderato) gradually works its way into the spirit of the fourth movement (Allegro con moto), thus forming a sort of bridge between widely divergent moods. It is followed directly by a dynamic perpetuum mobile of great energy and drive, in which the first movement's main theme recurs.

—Paul J. Horsley

Program notes © 2014. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, "Eroica"

The "Eroica" Symphony represents a turning point not only in Beethoven's career, but also in the history of music—a stature shared by few other compositions. The work raises fascinating biographical issues: the personal circumstances of its genesis at a crucial juncture in Beethoven's life; its relationship to the political events of the day, specifically to Napoleon; and the ways in which audiences at the time first received what many found to be a "horribly long" and "most difficult" piece of music.

It is striking that early critics, those writing during the initial 10 years or so of the work's existence, did not talk about the issues most often discussed today: the symphony's relation to Beethoven's life or to Napoleon. They viewed the "Eroica" as a bizarre but original composition, more sublime than beautiful. Its unprecedented length, technical challenges, and uncompromising aesthetic stance seemed to aim beyond entertainment, forcing Beethoven's contemporaries to rethink what a symphony should be and do.

A Personal Turning Point

During the summer of 1802, Beethoven's doctor suggested that he move to the suburb of Heiligenstadt so as to escape the heat and hassles of Vienna. It was there, in the early fall, that Beethoven poured out his heart in an unsent letter to his brothers:

O you men who think or say that I am hostile, peevish, or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause that makes me seem so to you. From childhood on, my heart and soul were full of tender feeling of goodwill, and I was always inclined to accomplish great deeds. But just think, for six years now I have had an incurable condition, made worse by incompetent doctors, from year to year deceived with hopes of getting better, finally forced to face the prospect of a lasting infirmity (whose cure will perhaps take years or even be impossible). 

This so-called Heiligenstadt Testament has exerted a tremendous influence on posterity's view of Beethoven. The anguished words also had a powerful effect on the understanding of his music, especially a work like the "Eroica," which seems to express in music the struggles that the composer—never a fluent writer—had tried to put in prose.

A New Path

The "Eroica"  helped launch the middle period of Beethoven's career, which lasted for roughly a dozen years. These were years of astounding—one could say heroic—productivity: "I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the other is already started; the way I write now, I often find myself working on three, four things at the same time." His problems were initially hidden, denied, and fought, but by 1806, Beethoven wrote in a sketch, "Let your deafness no longer be a secret—even in art."

Beethoven began the symphony around the time he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, and did the most concentrated work starting in May 1803, some seven months later. It was the first of his symphonies for which he gave public indications of an extra-musical program. Originally, he planned to dedicate it to Napoleon and call it Bonaparte. Disillusioned when the French military leader crowned himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven so vigorously scratched out the title that his pen tore the manuscript paper. In the end, the work was published as "Sinfonia Eroica … composed to celebrate the memory of a great man." It was initially heard in private and semi-private performances, the first of which took place in August 1804 at the Viennese palace of his patron, Prince Lobkowitz, to whom the work is dedicated. The public premiere was on April 7, 1805, at the Theater an der Wien.

First Hearings

The early reviews show that most critics wanted to praise the composer and work, but were often confused by what he was trying to do. A critic commented that general opinion was sharply divided:

One group, Beethoven's very special friends, maintains that precisely this symphony is a masterpiece, that it is in exactly the true style for more elevated music, and that if it does not please at present, it is because the public is not sufficiently educated in art to be able to grasp all of these elevated beauties. After a few thousand years, however, they will not fail to have their effect. The other group utterly denies this work any artistic value and feels that it manifests a completely unbounded striving for distinction and oddity, which, however, has produced neither beauty nor true sublimity and power.

The critic goes on to discuss a "middle" group of commentators, who admire its many excellent qualities, but are dismayed at the disjointed surroundings and at the "endless duration of this longest and perhaps most difficult of all symphonies, which exhausts even connoisseurs and becomes unbearable for the mere amateur."

Within a couple of years, however, the tone began to change. It often takes time before musicians and the public feel comfortable with the demands of difficult new music. In the case of the "Eroica," as a Leipzig critic remarked, "One must not always wish only to be entertained," a sentiment echoed by another: "But the connoisseur will only enjoy it as a complete work (and a repeated hearing doubles his spiritual enjoyment) the deeper he penetrates into the technical and aesthetic content of the original work." Musicians in particular seem to have gone out of their way to embrace "this most difficult of all symphonies." Regarding a Leipzig performance in 1807, we are informed that "the orchestra had voluntarily gathered for extra rehearsals without recompense, except for the honor and special enjoyment of the work itself." A few years later, a critic commented that the symphony "was performed by the orchestra with unmistakable enjoyment and love."

A Closer Listen

The innovations of the "Eroica" begin with the two striking tonic chords of the first movement (Allegro con brio), ushering in a sweet cello melody that is soon derailed by an unexpected note—C-sharp—which does not belong to the home key. The motivic, metric, and harmonic surprises continue throughout this lengthy movement. A new theme (in fact related to the opening) appears during the development that has elicited comment for two centuries now. There are other unexpected details: The French horn seems to enter prematurely in the recapitulation, an effect that Beethoven's contemporaries initially thought to be a mistake.

The second movement (Adagio assai) is a funeral march and one of the most influential pieces of music Beethoven ever composed. Schubert alluded to it in two late works (his song "Auf dem Strom" and in the second movement of his Piano Trio in E-flat Major) to honor Beethoven's death, just 20 months before his own. Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and others would also write marches, often funereal in character, within their symphonies that can in many ways be traced back to Beethoven. The C-minor opening presents the somber theme in the violins, over a drum-like bass, that is taken up by the oboe. The tone brightens at moments in the movement, notably in sections in major keys, but also becomes more austere with a fugal passage of extraordinary intensity. The opening theme returns at the end, deconstructed so that only fragments remain.

An energetic scherzo  (Allegro vivace) changes the tone (confusing some commentators-why the mirth after a funeral?), but not the intensity. Beethoven plays with metric ambiguities—is the movement in duple or triple time?—and also gives the French horns a chance to shine in the middle Trio section.

Beethoven employs another formal innovation for the finale (Allegro molto), which he casts as an unusual set of variations. The theme takes some time to emerge, with initially only its harmonic skeleton given in the bass. For the theme proper, Beethoven returned to a melody he had already used in three previous pieces: in one of his contredanses, in his ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus, and as the theme for the Piano Variations in E-flat Major, Op. 35. Beethoven referred to these as the "Prometheus" Variations, and the work is closely related to the last movement of the symphony. Indeed, as Lewis Lockwood has observed, the finale was conceived of first, and became the springboard for the entire work. It seems natural that Beethoven was attracted to—dare we say identified with—Prometheus, the rebellious Greek Titan who incurred the wrath of the gods of Mount Olympus by stealing their sacred fire. Prometheus resisted, took risks, and suffered in order to help humanity. That mythic hero's music provides a fitting conclusion for this heroic symphony.

—Christopher H. Gibbs

Program notes © 2014. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Fried in support of the 2013-2014 season.
Funding for the Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This performance is part of The Philadelphia Orchestra.

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