Performance Wednesday, November 16, 2011 | 8 PM

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
This is the first of two all-Beethoven nights with a group that’s known for its vibrant, historically informed performances. In addition to the overture written for a play by Goethe, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his orchestra perform two of Beethoven’s best-known symphonies, the uplifting Seventh and the dramatic Fifth.
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The Program

Overture to Egmont, Op. 84

About the Music

Beethoven’s overtures frequently sound more like concise tone poems than preludes to larger theater works. The overture to Egmont, premiered in 1810 with incidental music that Beethoven composed for Goethe’s play of the same name, is no exception. Along with the Leonore Overture No. 3, it is Beethoven’s most stirring short work for orchestra.

The bold, thrusting motif in the lower strings after an opening unison announces a world far removed from classical niceties, though technically Beethoven adheres to sonata form. What Beethoven depicts in this brief but programmatically detailed music is the imprisonment, execution, and victorious vision of Count Egmont (1522–1568), who was instrumental in liberating the Low Countries from Spanish rule. The stormy middle section, with its crisscrossing lines and rhythms, suggests the anguish of war, culminating in a famous pause that indicates the death of the martyred Count Egmont. At the exhilarating end, the music that serves as the “Triumph Symphony” in the complete work concludes the overture with a series of resounding fanfares.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation



Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

Personal or Political?

So much has been written about Beethoven’s Fifth, at once the most popular and revolutionary of symphonies, that it is safe to say the work has changed the way we think about music. No matter how much contemporary critics disparage Beethoven’s alleged “Fate knocking at the door” statement as inauthentic—or belittle the popular “program” of Beethoven’s defiant struggle against deafness, despair, and thoughts of suicide—thousands of people continue to hear the work this way. Whether authentic or not, the idea of Beethoven facing down Fate has proved irresistible: If Fate wasn’t knocking at the door, it certainly should have been.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner believes the work has less to do with Beethoven’s personal struggles than with the incendiary political ideals of the French Revolution: The fiery four-note motif jolting through the symphony is “an alarm call, an incitement, a call to arms.” No composer before Beethoven, says Maestro Gardiner, would have invested a symphony with such formidable political resonance.

However we regard the piece, the Fifth represents a sea of change—not only in structure, rhythm, and musical emotion, but in what we believe possible in symphonic music. To be sure, many earlier symphonies (Mozart’s G-Minor, Haydn’s “The Clock,” Beethoven’s own “Eroica”) also have extra-musical associations, but no symphony before the Fifth carries so much portentous symbolic weight.

A Sense of Inevitability

The sense of rightness and inevitability in the Fifth has been noted by every writer from Berlioz to Bernstein. “Not a note,” wrote Neville Cardos, “is uncharged with power of expression.” This rightness was not easily achieved. Beethoven conceived basic ideas in the Fifth as early as 1800 but couldn’t get them to jell until 1807. “The fundamental idea never leaves me,” he once wrote of the composition process. “It mounts; it grows.” In this case, the growing pains were long and intense, and with the exception of the serene Andante, this intensity is reflected in the amazing tension of the music itself. The terrible sense of struggle that the Fifth embodies was part of its very conception.

Something Fundamental

Given its overexposure, it is remarkable how much excitement and sense of occasion the symphony still evokes. Daring and freshness are precisely what this symphony is about. E. T. A. Hoffmann called it a “rhapsody of genius,” and it still sounds that way. Like a Bach fugue or a Schubert song, the Beethoven Fifth communicates something basic and fundamental, a sense that Western music would not have been the same without it.

About the Music

Paradoxically, this monumental work is famous for its revolutionary conciseness, achieved by Beethoven’s technique of having the opening four notes (so frequently compared to a germinating cell) generate both the first movement and significant chunks of the succeeding ones. Equally stark and unadorned is the work’s single-minded emphasis on rhythm. Indeed, the relentless, driving pulse of the Fifth launched a revolution in rhythm, one carried forward in the Seventh and later taken up again (after stalling in the late 19th century) in 20th-century pieces, such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

The first movement is close to pure rhythm, as are huge stretches of the exhilarating finale. The most subtle rhythmic stroke occurs in the transition between the last two movements, where a muffled drum tap (compared by writer after writer to a throbbing heartbeat) brings back the rhythm of the first movement, while the orchestra—floating in a shadowy void—drifts ever further from tonality before struggling inexorably toward the C-major blast that opens the finale.

Berlioz once compared the spectral diablerie of the third-movement scherzo to “the gaze of a mesmerizer.” We might well extend this metaphor to the entire symphony, so completely does it continue to hypnotize us.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation



Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

A Revolution in Rhythm

Although Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies are conventionally considered his most epic and “serious,” the Seventh is in a special category; epic it certainly is, but it projects little of the colossal sense of struggle so fundamental to the Third, Fifth, and Ninth. In his classic book on Beethoven, J. W. N. Sullivan goes so far as to say that the Seventh is “the first work on a grand scale in which the conflict is taken for granted and ignored, and the fruits of victory enjoyed … The exultant note rises higher until, in the last movement, we are in the region of pure ecstasy.”

Wagner’s famous description of the Seventh as “the apotheosis of the dance” is itself the apotheosis of a long-standing tendency to view the work as a great experiment in rhythm. (The piece has, in fact, been choreographed numerous times and danced by such artists as Isadora Duncan.) The rhythmic propulsion of the Seventh exceeds even the energy of the Fifth. Berlioz heard in the first-movement Vivace a rowdy peasant dance; Wagner called the finale a “Dionysian orgy”; George Bernard Shaw claimed that the finale was wilder than any jazz.

So notorious was the Dionysian aspect of the work that some of Beethoven’s contemporaries wondered if he were drunk when he wrote it, leading Romain Rolland to later respond: “The work of an inebriated man indeed it was, but one intoxicated with poetry.” Even the austere slow movement has a dance-like, ritualistic quality—one that 19th-century writers likened to a procession in the catacombs.

A Calmer View

Yet others view the symphony in calmer, more lyrical terms, indeed as another pastoral symphony. To Philip Hale, Wagner’s effusions were “hysterical”; to Sir George Grove, Berlioz’s peasant-dance analogy was “outrageous.” Vincent d’Indy summed up this point of view with the claim that “the rhythm of the piece has truly nothing of the dance about it; it would seem, rather, to come from the song of a bird.” Even Sullivan, who clearly appreciated the work’s dynamism, wrote that “the great introduction to the first movement seems to convey the awakening and murmuring of the multitudinous life of an immense forest. Much more than the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony do we feel here in the presence of Nature itself.”

A Dionysian Maestro

The Seventh is certainly rich enough to support both views. Commentators of the time imply that Beethoven himself tended toward the Dionysian version when conducting the work. According to these accounts, Beethoven gyrated about on the podium, bending down deeply for diminuendos and leaping up for crescendos, his podium manner made all the more bizarre by his deafness. Commenting on the 1813 premiere in Vienna, Louis Spohr wrote that the performance gave “extraordinary pleasure … in spite of the often ridiculous conducting of Beethoven.”

Perhaps the best way to view the symphony is as a dance, but a dance for the elements. “My kingdom is the air,” Beethoven once said; in the Seventh, the most airborne of the symphonies, he showed us exactly what he meant.

A Political Perspective

Maestro Gardiner finds an important political motivation in Beethoven’s composition of the Seventh. Beethoven was committed to the liberating ideals advanced by the French Revolution. The influence is evident not only in the sweep and energy of the Seventh, but in specific references to French propaganda songs from the 1780s and ’90s. Gossec’s “Hymn to the Republic,” for example, propels the finale’s dotted rhythms. We think of Beethoven as inextricably German, but the French had a strong say as well.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

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