Category Archives: Handel

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

Beethoven

Beethoven

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.

Burgtheatre

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.