Category Archives: Beethoven

Opera High Notes

Program Notes for May 4, 2019 Concert, by Loann Scarpato

Opera is a hybrid art form. It uses vocal and instrumental music, the theatrical arts of acting, scenery, costume, lighting; and, often, dance to tell a story. For most audience members, the high points are undoubtedly the spectacular arias and ensembles sung by the principal characters. But the less-applauded choral and orchestral portions serve important dramatic and logistical purposes. They move the story along by providing a sense of time and place and by setting a mood. The crowd scenes involving the chorus and the orchestral overtures and interludes have practical functions as well. Latecomers get seated during an overture; principal singers sometimes get a rest or a costume change during a choral number; audiences are re-engaged after an intermission by the prelude to the next act. Each of the numbers presented on this concert program fills at least one of these roles and sometimes several.

Richard WAGNER: “Freudig begrüssen” (Arrival of the Guests) from Tannhäuser (1845)

Landgrave (Count) Hermann of Thüringia

The title character is a medieval German minnesinger (“love-singer”), one of the knightly poets and minstrels who composed and performed songs of courtly love. There was an historical Tannhäuser, but little is known about him other than the legends that grew up around him. Wagner used those legends, along with the lore of the minnesingers’ song contests, to create a musical drama about conflict between chaste and erotic love. The opera provides plenty of musical declamation on both sides of that aisle, and both Sigmund Freud and Queen Victoria admired it. In the “Arrival of the Guests” scene, a parade of noble couples enters the singers’ hall of Wartburg Castle to greet their host, Landgrave (Count) Hermann. Castle, hall, and count are all historical, and so also may be the singers’ contest that is about to begin.

Tannhaüser from a 14th-century anthology of minnesinger poetry

Wartburg Castle

Photo by H.U. Schmitt of the Singers’ Hall in Wartburg Castle

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: Overture to King Stephen (1811)

This was not a fully-staged opera, but rather commissioned incidental music for a partly-spoken, partly-sung drama about the first king and sainted national hero of Hungary. The occasion was the opening of an elaborate new theater in Budapest in 1811, and the ulterior motive was flattery of its royal patron, the Habsburg Emperor Franz I. Beethoven seldom engaged in nationalistic writing, but there are two Hungarian-flavored themes here: an andante con moto introduced by a solo flute and a syncopated presto reminiscent of a whirling folk-dance. It is said that on his deathbed the 11th-century King Stephen lifted the Holy Crown of Hungary with his right hand and prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect his subjects. After he was canonized by Pope Gregory VII, his right hand and arm became holy relics. The crown was spirited out of Hungary during World War II for safekeeping and stored at Fort Knox until 1978.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis of the “Holy Right” hand of St. Stephen

King Stephen I of Hungary

The crown of Hungary

Giuseppe VERDI: “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco (1841)

Painting by Gebhard Fugel of the Babylonian Captivity

This, Verdi’s third opera, is the Biblical story of the “Babylonian Captivity,” when the ancient Israelites were captives of the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzer II after his forces invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.E. In a dungeon in Babylon, the enslaved Hebrews sing nostalgically of their homeland.  At some point this chorus gained the status of a patriotic hymn, and periodically it is proposed as Italy’s national anthem. It was sung in the streets of Milan as Verdi’s funeral procession passed, and it’s one of the very few opera choruses that is routinely allowed an encore, with audiences sometimes encouraged to sing along.

Verdi’s funeral procession in 1901

Georges BIZET: “Les voici!” from Carmen (1875)

Painting of a Toreador and admirer

This opera about a fiery Spanish gypsy, her fickle loves and violent death, is set in the streets and taverns of 19th-century Seville. Crowd scenes in operas often serve to depict a social milieu which makes the drama of the main characters credible. The “Entrance of the Toreadors” from Carmen is an example. It’s not only a spectacle, with street urchins capering about and cheering crowds welcoming the parade of alguaciles (public officials), chulos, banderilleros, and picadors (all members of the quadrilla, the team that assists each matador).  It’s also a demonstration of the rock-star popularity of bullfighters in Seville, something Bizet’s French audiences may not have been familiar with. Carmen is nothing if not a show-off, so of course she wants to flaunt very publicly her spot on the arm of the acclaimed espada (swordsman) Escamillo, thereby setting in motion the ensuing tragedy.

1875 French illustration of Carmen

Alexander BORODIN: “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor (1887)

Painting of Igor’s defeated army

Borodin’s only opera is an historical drama about a medieval Russian prince who was defeated and captured by the Polovtsian Khan Konchak. Konchak is trying to persuade Igor to become his ally, so he treats his captive as an honored guest and stages a grand entertainment in his honor, the ballet scene from which the “Polovtsian Dances” are drawn. Two different groups of people are represented by the chorus in this scene. The group singing “Glory, honor to our Khan!” are Konchak’s own people. The group singing the “Stranger in Paradise” theme are slaves who have been abducted by Konchak’s raiders and are forced to dance for his guests. They sing of their homeland far to the south.

In the camp of Konchak

Video of a staging by the Kirov Opera and Ballet

Giacomo PUCCINI: Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut (1893)

Set design for Act 2: Geronte’s house in Paris

This tragic opera was Puccini’s first great success. The title character, a naive country girl, has fallen in love with an impoverished student, Des Grieux, but she is enticed away from him to become the pampered mistress of a wealthy old Parisian, Geronte. Des Grieux finds Manon in Paris and she agrees to run away with him. But Geronte discovers their plan and has Manon arrested for “stealing” the lavish jewels he has given her. The penalty is deportation to the French colony of Louisiana, which, for some reason, Puccini imagined to be a desert. The intermezzo is played between acts two and three, where there is a major scene change from Geronte’s elegant house to a squalid waterfront prison.  

Set design for Act 3: Waterfront

Manon’s death in Louisiana (which Puccini imagined as a desert)

Giuseppe VERDI: “Triumphal Scene” from Aida (1871)

Poster for Aida

One of the elements of grand opera is spectacle, the visual grandeur provided by towering sets, ornate costumes, lavish props, and the movement of many people, both singers and supernumeraries, on and off and around the stage. Sometimes there are even animals involved, and ballets are a common part of such scenes. One of the grandest spectacles in opera is the “Triumphal March” in Aida. It includes ranks of soldiers, captives in chains, dancers, chariots, horses, even elephants — whatever the stage can hold, the production budget can provide for, and the building inspector permits. It also displays, musically and choreographically, the power of a kind of corporate character, the Chorus of Priests, whose implacable, stepwise treading theme recurs at the end of the opera when the priests condemn the hero and, unwittingly, the heroine to death. The most over-the-top staging of this scene on record was mounted in an open-air stadium in Shanghai in 2000. It employed a cast of 2200 humans, an elephant, camels, lions, tigers, and horse-drawn racing chariots. The audience of 50,000 watched through binoculars.

Photo by FSJKler of a 1999 German production

Trumpets custom-made for the opera

Video of the scene from a production in Verona

Classical Grandeur

Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

“Grandeur: splendor and magnificence, especially of appearance or style.”

The compositions on this program are magnificent-sounding works by three of the very greatest composers in the Western classical canon. Their stories show that they are grand in other ways as well, some of which may not be immediately apparent. We’ll begin with an overture, a good way to embark on a musical journey!

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Overture to Goethe’s “Egmont,” Opus 84


On June 15, 1810, an audience at the splendid Burgtheater in Vienna heard the words of Europe’s greatest living playwright (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) along with musical interludes by Europe’s greatest living composer (Beethoven). What a grand conjunction of cultural giants!

The theater commissioned the score, and so intense was Beethoven’s reverence for the great old man of German letters that he reportedly took no payment for the work. This was an astonishing concession for someone who was as punctilious about money as Beethoven.He later made a gift of the manuscript to Goethe, a grand gesture of respect.

19th-century image of the Burgtheater, Vienna

The complete incidental music for Egmont consists of the overture plus nine other numbers, including two songs for solo soprano. The complete music is only occasionally performed nowadays, but the overture is a concert staple. While it is completely effective when heard as a piece of “absolute music” (music that represents nothing outside itself), commentators agree that it has a “program” that foreshadows the events of the drama to come. Some go so far as to call it a “tone poem” that tells the story in music.

Johann Goethe in 1811
Johann Goethe in 1811

The plot of Goethe’s drama: Goethe based his play on the history of a 16th-century Flemish revolt against Spanish rule. Lamoral, Count of Egmont, was a Flemish national hero who led the resistance against Spain and was beheaded in the Brussels marketplace in 1568. His antagonist in Goethe’s play is the Duke of Alva, also based on an historical figure. Although the real Count Egmont had a wife and at least eight children, Goethe supplied his hero with a fictional love interest named Clara.

The play has been described as an example of the early Romantic “Sturm und Drang” (literally, “storm and drive”) movement in German literature because of its emphasis on the idealistic, unflinching character of its martyred hero and on extremes of emotion. (Clara, for example, poisons herself in despair when she fails to free her beloved from prison.) At the end, although Egmont himself is dead, his spirit lives on in triumph as his countrymen overthrow the Spaniards.

Lamoral, Count of Egmon
Lamoral, Count of Egmont

Aside from Goethe’s authorship, the theme of the play was compelling to Beethoven for other reasons. For one, his own ancestors were Flemish. And, although the drama had been written a number of years earlier, its plot contained strong reminders of the political and military situation in Beethoven’s Vienna, which had been occupied by the French since May of 1809. Many of the city’s elite, including the court, had fled, but Beethoven chose to remain behind. He must have seen obvious parallels between Goethe’s villainous Duke of Alva and the invading Emperor Napoleon.

Beethoven’s opera Leonore (AKA Fidelio) contained similar themes: a woman desperately trying to free her imprisoned lover, and the victory of freedom over tyranny.

Napoleon occupying Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, May 1809
Napoleon occupying Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, May 1809

The “program” of Beethoven’s overture: Ever since its first performance, critics have identified narrative passages in the overture, but they haven’t always agreed on what they represented. The most detailed program I have found is by Jeff Counts, annotator for the Utah Symphony:

“You hear, in the deep strings, the Spanish judges prosecuting [Egmont]. You hear, in the plaintive wind, his [mistress] pleading for mercy for him. You hear, in the fortissimo staccato notes of the brass, the verdict of guilty being given. A final piano pleading in the first violins. The whole orchestra in unison on a single note is the sentence of death. A forte fall of a fourth in first and second violins is the executioner’s sword coming down. [A long pause occurs at this point. “Death could be expressed by a silence,” Beethoven noted in his sketches for the work.]  Triple piano, building to a massive fortissimo, an exhilarating passage in the major key…tells us that Count Egmont’s spirit, and all he fought for, lives on; that the people of the Netherlands ultimately threw out the rapacious invader…. Darkness has given way to light, freedom has triumphed over oppression.”  These last were the grand conceptions pervading all of Beethoven’s most significant works.

The Egmont Overture has been used as theme music on many occasions of high seriousness, notably at a memorial service for the eleven Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Variations on a Theme of Haydn for Orchestra, Opus 56a

Brahms in 1888
Brahms in 1888

Once, when encountering Brahms after he had grown a beard, a critic quipped that his original face was as hard to recognize as was the theme in many of his variations. Hearing a theme as it is transformed in numerous ways through a series of variations always requires some concentration of musical memory, but in these the challenge is that the eight variations are based more on the general shape of the theme and on the harmony than on the specific notes of the original melody.

Brahms treats the theme-and-variations form as a vehicle for display of compositional technique. In fact, the grandeur of this work lies in the way Brahms spins a catchy but by no means profound melody into something monumental. One scholar called it “a compendium in microcosm…of Brahms’s compositional craft and musical aesthetics…, as well as a phenomenal artistic amalgam of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic formal and stylistic components.” That’s a lot of musicological and historical baggage to pack into seventeen minutes, but Brahms managed it splendidly.

The Haydn variations marked a transition point for Brahms as he ended a phase of intense output of choral and vocal works and moved on to the composition of his four symphonies.The Haydn Variations, which were first performed in Vienna in 1873, were both a critical and a popular success, and even the perfectionistic Brahms himself was satisfied with them. They encouraged him finally to complete and perform his first symphony, more than twenty years after he had begun working on it.

The origins of the theme are a bit obscure. Supposedly a friend, who was working on a biography of Haydn in 1870, showed Brahms a divertimento for wind instruments, the so-called “St. Anthony Chorale,” that was attributed to Haydn.

An arrangement of the St. Anthony Chorale for brass quintet:

Scholars now dispute Haydn’s authorship, but the actual composer has never been established. The melody may be a folk tune used in popular celebrations honoring St. Anthony of Padua. In his first statement of the theme, Brahms honored the original orchestration by using a choir of wind instruments over a bass for low strings.

Haydn was one of the composers Brahms most revered. An early biographer has suggested that the “St. Anthony” title in itself also would have appealed to Brahms. His close friend Anselm Feuerbach had made a painting called The Temptation of St. Anthony in 1855, a canvas that Brahms particularly admired.

Anselm Feuerbach’s painting “The Temptation of St. Anthony”
Anselm Feuerbach’s painting “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

Various legends of the saint have been mined to produce elaborate allegorical and metaphysical “meanings” for Brahms’s work. One of the most florid of these schemes describes the diversity of the variations in images like the following: “Like a religious procession with fluttering banners…dazzling shafts of light…the depths of a ghastly abyss…a host of airy skirmishers…the advance post of the devil…fog brewing over chasmal depths…a pale, piercing light on the whitish-gray fermenting substance…dainty flower garlands…a swarm of roguish, insect-like sprites…fiery serpents…a Leda who awaits her swan…the quintessence of the bliss of all living creatures…the hostile tumult of the assaulting sons of hell.” It’s unlikely that any such grandly picturesque conceits ever crossed the composer’s mind, since Brahms was no lover of program music.

What did occupy his mind to magnificent effect were the technical means of producing a musical tour de force, a display of voluntarily chosen and triumphantly conquered difficulty. For instance, variation four (a skittery-sounding section in a minor key) contains an example of “double counterpoint at the ninth,” a feat of musical gymnastics which is supposed to be technically impossible. (For an understanding of this, you will need to consult an intelligence finer than mine. I refer you to Donald N. Ferguson’s Masterworks of the Orchestral Repertoire: A Guide for Listeners and wish you luck.) Another example appears near the end of the piece: Variation eight (if you’ve lost count, it begins in a minor key, in triple meter, with the strings muted) has an incredible finale. You’ll know it has arrived when the strings remove their mutes and the music returns to a major key and a march rhythm. The finale is built upon a five-measure basso ostinato (literally, “obstinate bass”) repeated over and over by the low strings (like the recurring bass figure in Pachelbel’s Canon in D). Above this, Brahms spins yet another set of sixteen five-measure continuously unfolding variations before concluding with a brilliant coda. To make a very flippant analogy, this is somewhat like sixteen clowns jumping one after the other out of a very small car as it careens around a circus ring. Fortunately, in neither case is it necessary to know how it’s done in order to enjoy it!

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Excerpts from Messiah, with orchestration by Mozart

Everyone knows about the grandeur of Messiah:

  • Its theme is the most momentous imaginable: the redemption of humankind.
  • Its texts are taken from some of the most revered Old and New Testament scriptures.
  • It’s the most frequently heard choral masterwork in the repertoire.
  • It has brought even royalty to their feet for the “Hallelujah” chorus.
  • It has inspired performances by gargantuan forces.

See more about these superlatives, as well as some workaday and even comic facets of its history, in “FAQs about Handel’s Messiah.

The Master’s Stepchildren

APRIL 25, 2015 CONCERT — The Master’s Stepchildren: Neglected works of Beethoven / Loann Scarpato

Little-known…, scarcely discussed… (even in the central Beethoven literature), rarely programmed…, one of his least-known instrumental works…, unjustly neglected… – it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the compositions on this all-Beethoven program have been largely overlooked. It is not that they are unworthy of attention, but that they have been eclipsed by the glamour and clangor of the symphonies and larger choral works. Let us introduce these more modest relatives of the Ninth Symphony, the Eroica, and the Missa Solemnis, for they are well worth knowing.

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt), Op. 112. Text: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In Beethoven: the Music and the Life, a 600-page book, scholar Lewis Lockwood devotes only a single sentence to this short masterpiece. Yet its superbly-crafted music and text are dramatic and colorful, and so is its back-story.

The poet Goethe was becalmed at sea on a voyage from Sicily to Naples in 1787. As his ship was passing the Isle of Capri, the wind died, leaving the vessel unable to make way against a treacherous current carrying it toward the cliffs of the island’s southern shore. The captain sent out a longboat with rowers to tow the ship out of danger, but the attempt failed because the current was so strong. The panic-stricken passengers knelt on the deck, wailing and praying for deliverance, while the crew seized oars and poles in a desperate effort to hold the ship off the rocks as long as they possibly could. Practically at the last second, a breeze sprang up and shipwreck was averted. Goethe published his short poem Meeresstille (“Becalmed at Sea” is a better translation than the more literal “Calm Sea”) in 1795. He paired it with the contrasting poem Glückliche Fahrt, expressing profound relief as the wind rises, the crew springs into action, and the ship gets under way once more.

A view of the cliffs of Capri where Goethe nearly lost his life

Beethoven knew and loved Goethe’s poetry, as did Mendelssohn, Schubert, and numerous lesser composers who were also inspired by this pair of poems. He wrote a short cantata (a vocal composition with instrumental accompaniment) setting these texts in 1814-1815 and dedicated it to the poet. How a composer who had never sailed could depict so vividly Goethe’s dead air and glassy sea, followed by unleashed winds and dancing waves, is marvelous. Commentators often point out that the transformation of deathlike stasis (or imprisonment, or isolation) into action and triumph is a characteristic progression in Beethoven’s music, as he felt it to be in his life, with its struggles against deafness and depression.

Beethoven’s vocal music sometimes makes almost superhuman physical demands on its performers, so it has become commonplace to imagine that he must have harbored some sort of grudge against singers. There is a conspicuous example of this singer-unfriendliness in Meeresstille when the sopranos are required to make an upward leap of an octave plus a fourth to a high A and sustain it over twelve excruciatingly slow beats, all the while decreasing the volume to piano. Then, six measures later, they must do it again! (The other voice parts have the same slow, sustained decrescendo, but their leaps are not as wide.) However, it may be that Beethoven placed such extreme challenges before his singers not because he wished to torment them but because he admired and had confidence in their abilities. On the back of the title page to Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Beethoven copied the following lines from Homer: “Among all the peoples upon the earth, singers are entitled to be cherished and to their share of respect, since the Muse has taught them her own way, and since she loves the company of singers.”

The Creatures of Prometheus (Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus). Ballet, Op. 43
This is Beethoven’s only extended ballet score and the only 19th-century music written for an independent (i.e., non-operatic) ballet by a major composer until Tchaikovsky. Yet aside from its overture, it is seldom programmed.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was best known for stealing fire from Mt. Olympus, for which he was punished by being chained to a rock while a vulture perpetually gnawed at his liver. A less grisly and less familiar part of the Prometheus legend is his role as creator of the human race, and that was the subject of a ballet by the celebrated choreographer and dancer Salvatore Viganò, for which he commissioned music from Beethoven in 1800.

Ballet evolved from the courtly dances of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, becoming a part of the spectacle of plays and operas, with professional dancers replacing courtiers. By Beethoven’s time, ballet was becoming an independent performance art that told a story, generally drawn from Classical mythology, using pantomime and tableaux (“living pictures” composed of silent, motionless performers). The libretto for Viganò’s ballet has been lost, but contemporary accounts suggest the following scenarios for the excerpts heard on this program.

Following the overture there is an introduction, in which Prometheus, carrying the fire he has stolen from Mt. Olympus, flees the fury of Zeus. He had fashioned a man and a woman from clay; he touches these inert figures with his torch and brings them to life.

  • No. 2: Disappointed because his creations possess neither grace, intelligence, morality, nor feeling, Prometheus wants to destroy them.
  • No. 3: Instead, he decides to take them to Parnassus, so that Apollo and the Muses can instruct them in the arts of civilization.
  • No. 8: A dance, one of several set-pieces for various mythical characters, for Bacchus and his followers.
  • No. 10, Pastorale: A suite of rustic dances featuring the god Pan.
  • No. 14: A solo dance for the female “creature.”
  • No. 16, Finale: Festive dances honoring Prometheus.

The last movement is the most significant in Beethoven’s musical development. He used its theme two years later as the basis for a massive set of piano variations and again in the finale of the Third Symphony, the Eroica. The Prometheus ballet combines two of the philosophical themes that preoccupied Beethoven throughout his life, the ideal of the revolutionary Hero and the progress of humanity from ignorance and bondage to enlightenment and joy. The Creatures of Prometheus may be largely absent from the concert hall, but choreographers continue to set ballets on Beethoven’s score: you can see a montage of scenes, complete with pyrotechnics:


Mass in C Major, Op. 86
This elegantly beautiful work suffered at the outset by comparison with Haydn’s late masses, which were very different in spirit. For later audiences, it has been overshadowed by the immense Missa Solemnis and the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven was aiming to fill very large shoes when in 1807 he accepted a commission from Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy to compose a mass for the name-day of his wife, Princess Marie. The memory of the magisterial late masses of Haydn, produced annually for the same occasion, was still fresh at the court. (We performed the last of these, the Harmoniemesse, in May, 2013.) Beethoven was by this time quite deaf, and rehearsal sessions were contentious. The court musicians, in particular the singers, were uncooperative, even going so far as to boycott rehearsals. The music failed to please the Prince, and Beethoven, feeling ill-used, departed the court abruptly and in high dudgeon.

Although Beethoven followed many of the formal conventions, such as using fugue for certain texts, which were standard in the mass settings of the day, his treatment must have been different enough to confound the expectations of his patron and the rest of the court. For instance, there was no instrumental introduction followed by a declamatory opening choral statement. Instead, the basses softly begin the Kyrie unaccompanied and are joined gently by the rest of the choir and a reduced orchestra. There were no lengthy solo or quartet passages. Instead, the solo voices arise out of and blend back into the choral texture. There was no jaunty, assured ending. Instead, Beethoven uses the same prayerful, questing theme for the final Dona Nobis Pacem that he used for the Kyrie at the beginning. Producing mass settings compliant with the tastes of their aristocratic patrons had pushed composers in the direction of quasi-operatic display. Although there are plenty of bravura passages in Beethoven’s setting, in his hands the mass begins to sound more like the expression of personal religious feeling, colored by an intense and original sensibility.

Beethoven in his study, ca. 1811