Category Archives: Beethoven

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