CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Thursday, November 17, 2011 | 8 PM

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
After hearing this period-instrument ensemble and its dynamic leader perform Beethoven, you’ll never think about the composer the same way again. That was the consensus when they released their thrilling recording of the composer’s symphonies back in 1994, and it’s a sentiment you’re sure to hold after this final concert of the orchestra’s two-night all-Beethoven residency.
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The Program

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

About the Composer


No later than a year after Beethoven’s death in 1827, biographers began to divide his musical life into three periods: an early formative phase indebted to the work of Mozart and Haydn that lasted until around 1802, a middle period that began with his “heroic” works and ended with a bout of unproductivity around 1812, and a final period that lasted until his death and contains his most profound and mystifying music. While such a framework has often been criticized as overly simplistic, it nevertheless sheds light on Beethoven’s major stylistic developments and helps provide a context for individual works. It is indeed particularly useful when discussing tonight’s program: Although only two to three years separate the writing of Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus and the “Eroica” Symphony, the former is indicative of Beethoven’s more derivative early style, and the latter is a triumphant, colossal work that brought the symphony to previously unfathomable heights.

When Beethoven began work on Prometheus in 1800, he was 30 years old and was transitioning from being regionally known as a virtuosic improviser to being internationally admired as a composer. The year also marked the point at which his worsening deafness—contracted from an infection in 1797—finally forced him to seek medical advice. Unable to be cured, the shamed composer retreated into a more solitary life, even relocating to the countryside village of Heiligenstadt for much of 1802. As he prepared to return to Vienna that autumn, he drafted a letter to his brothers (now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament) in which he acknowledged his recent contemplation of suicide and declared himself ready for whatever fate would offer him, including death. Fortunately, he was able to recover from this trough of despair upon returning to Vienna, devoting his energy to composing the opera Fidelio and, more significantly, the “Eroica” Symphony.

Deafness was just one of the several ways in which Beethoven’s emotional life became inextricably tied to his work. His inability to find a life partner, his troubled relationship with his nephew, and his chronic irascibility all contributed to a sense of personal torment in his music that was comparatively absent in the works of his Viennese predecessors. Beethoven further distinguished himself from Haydn and Mozart in the labor he devoted to each composition: Rather than opening his creative spigots and letting the music flow out, he would begin with modest ideas and over time arduously develop them into works of incalculable quality. In the end, Beethoven not only offered historic advances in musical form and harmony, but was also responsible for crafting the present-day stereotype of the isolated composer whose music evolves out of profound personal struggle.


—Jacob Cooper

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
 


 

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Overture to Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op. 43

About the Music


In 1800, while preparing to write his Second Symphony, Beethoven was solicited to compose music for a ballet by choreographer Salvatore Viganò. Likely riding the momentum of a recent interest in Greek antiquity, Viganò had chosen the story of Prometheus as his subject, intending to depict not just how the Titan physically created humans out of clay, but, more importantly, how he imbued his creations with a knowledge of the arts and sciences. Beethoven was deeply interested in the notion that it is such knowledge that ultimately makes us human, and he thus agreed to write Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus), his first and only ballet. The premiere was a success, and the ballet was performed more than 20 times its first year, but the choreography and design have since been lost; the music is perhaps most famous today not for its tuneful and energetic score, but for the fact that Beethoven reused the finale’s theme in three subsequent pieces, including the “Eroica.”


A Closer Listen


The overture begins with the entire orchestra dramatically exclaiming loud detached chords, suggesting Zeus’s anger towards Prometheus in the form of a thunderstorm. The remainder of the slow introduction is restful in comparison, but it soon gives way to the overture’s main allegro section, which, reminiscent of a Haydn symphony, follows a quiet statement of the theme with a forceful, loud repetition of the same. This theme dominates the rest of the movement, and the overture ends as dramatically as it began, with several potent declarations of the home C-major chord.


—Jacob Cooper 

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
 


 

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60

About the Music


Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is a bit of an underdog. Noting how it is flanked by the celebrated Third and Fifth, Robert Schumann called it “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants.” One does get the sense that Beethoven needed to catch his breath in between these two historic pillars; the other works he composed around the time of the Symphony No. 4, including the Piano Concerto No. 4 and the Violin Concerto, are likewise markedly more spacious and relaxed.

An impoverished Beethoven gladly accepted a handsome fee for the symphony from Count Franz von Oppersdorff. It is not clear if the payment was an official commission, but it evidently included a six-month performance exclusivity clause for Oppersdorff’s staff orchestra—a clause that, much to the Count’s chagrin, Beethoven immediately broke by premiering the work at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz. Perhaps attempting to make amends, he dedicated the published version to Oppersdorff.


A Closer Listen


While his previous symphony omitted a slow introduction, Beethoven returns to the established tradition in the Fourth. He in fact employs a tempo so protracted that Carl Maria von Weber complained it moved “at the rate of three or four notes per quarter of an hour.” Also emphasizing the minor mode, the introduction suggests that the listener should prepare for a dark work, but after the rousing Allegro vivace begins firmly in the major key, the symphony rarely returns to its gloomy beginnings.

Beethoven labeled the third movement a minuet, but it is ultimately closer to its more boisterous counterpart the scherzo. The trio is played twice, resulting in a five-part form (A-B-A-B-A) that Beethoven was to use in several later works. The finale then closes the work in dazzling fashion, with perpetual 16th-notes that build toward a jubilant finish.


—Jacob Cooper 

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
 


 

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”

About the Music


The impact of the Symphony No. 3, nicknamed the “Eroica” (Italian for “heroic”), cannot be overstated. Its colossal size, musicality, and range of emotion—not to mention its adoption of an extramusical quality (the work is not simply about a hero, but is heroic in itself)—all contributed to the Romantic idea of the symphony as the ideal form of musical expression. Some historians even go so far as to cite the night of the “Eroica” premiere as the border between the Classical and Romantic periods.

The story of its dedication is well known: Beethoven initially dedicated the work to Napoleon for his valor and democratic leadership, but upon hearing that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, he reportedly ripped up the title page, declaring in disgust that this leader, too, would “now trample on the rights of man.” While most scholars currently maintain that Beethoven’s disillusionment with Napoleon actually developed more gradually, none can deny that by the time of the symphony’s publication in 1806, he was sufficiently angered to provide the substitute dedication, “Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” To Beethoven, the hero had already died.


A Closer Listen


The opening movement was shocking to Beethoven’s contemporaries—not just for its sheer length (it is longer than many complete 18th-century symphonies), but also for an abundance of other musical reasons. The two initial forte chords offer an unprecedentedly blunt starting point. Just seven measures in, Beethoven introduces a C-sharp in the bass (an oddly dissonant note for the key of E-flat major), while one development section is firmly rooted in the remote key of E minor. Perhaps most famously, a horn presents a “pre-echo” of the recapitulation, returning to the theme four measures before the rest of the orchestra.

The ensuing “funeral march” is inspired by memorial music composed in 1790s Paris for heroes of the French Revolution. It is in ternary form, with two mournful C-minor sections that frame a triumphant middle section based in C major. The Scherzo, by far the shortest movement of the four, manages to hold its own with an explosion of force after the scurrying pianissimo lines of its opening. Beethoven crafts a novel structure for the finale, merging sonata form with theme-and-variations, introducing the theme as a harmonic skeleton in the bass voices before the winds officially herald its arrival. Creating an undeniably heroic close to his masterpiece, Beethoven must have delighted in the fact that he was using a theme he had first associated with no less a figure than Prometheus. 


—Jacob Cooper 

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
 

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Debs in support of the 2011-2012 season.