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