PROGRAM NOTES: Bamberg Symphony
by Eric Bromberger
Overture to Don Giovanni, K.527
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 7 minutes
Mozart’s Don Giovanni has always been a favorite with audiences. Good triumphs in the end, but all the way through we’re rooting for the bad guy, and his defiance even as he is dragged into the sulphurous pit of hell is what we remember as morality seems to establish itself at the end. Mozart had worked on the opera across most of 1787, and he arrived in Prague early in October to prepare for the première, scheduled for October 19. But too many details of the new opera were not quite ready, so The Marriage of Figaro–a great favorite in Prague–was performed instead on that date, and the première of Don Giovanni was re-scheduled for October 29.
But there remained a problem. As that première approached, the opera still had no overture, at least on paper. Mozart, as was his habit, had composed the overture in his head, but–with other things to do–had not got around to the purely mechanical task of writing it down. Now, on the night before either the première or the dress rehearsal (accounts vary), he finally had to get it on paper. Years later, his widow Constanze recalled what happened that night. She mixed him a pitcher of punch, and he wrote as fast as he could, while she amused him with fairy tales from The Arabian Nights. Soon, she observed, he was laughing so hard that tears ran down his face, but he kept writing. Finally, his exertions (and the punch) got the better of him, and he fell asleep on a couch. The copyist was due at 7 A.M., and Constanze let her husband sleep until 5, then woke him, and he had the manuscript complete when the copyist arrived to take it.
The work of that copyist was pretty impressive on its own. He had all the parts ready that night, and the Prague orchestra–without time to rehearse–simply sightread the overture on that occasion. That orchestra must have been terrific: Mozart later said of the overture, “A few notes did fall under the desks, but it was a fine performance.”
It was customary to compose an opera overture on themes that the audience would later hear in the opera, but Mozart only partially observes that practice in his overture for Don Giovanni. He draws the overture’s dramatic slow introduction from the opera’s climax, when the statue of the Commendatore comes back to life and accepts the Don’s invitation to dinner. The overture opens with ringing chords in D minor, a key Mozart associated with revenge, and the slow introduction also includes the rising-and-falling lines that will be heard at that climactic moment. But for the main body of the overture, which he marks Allegro molto, Mozart moves to D major and composes entirely new music. Curiously, this theme bears a strong resemblance to the Allegro of the first movement of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, written a year earlier when he visited that city for the première of The Marriage of Figaro. Is Mozart making a nod toward a city that had treated him with far more respect than Vienna had? Perhaps, but the important point is that this Allegro molto is exactly right at this point in the overture–its shining D major tonality and its surging strength have reminded some of Don Giovanni himself, even if this music will never reappear in the opera. Mozart constructs this part of the overture in sonata form, complete with secondary material, development, and full recapitulation, and this fiery music races forward with a vitality all its own. In the opera, this energy resolves quietly into Leporello’s “Notte e giorno fatticar,” but for separate performance in the concert hall Mozart wrote a concert ending that brings the overture to a suitably dramatic close.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 26
Born January 6, 1838, Cologne
Died October 2, 1920, Friedenau, Germany
Approximate Duration: 23 minutes
Max Bruch appears fated to remain a one-work composer. His choral compositions are still admired in Germany, and one hears the Scottish Fantasy from time to time, but Bruch’s reputation today rests squarely on the fame of one work, his First Violin Concerto. Ironically, this concerto was a product of his youth–he began work on it at age 19, finished the first version nine years later, and had it in final form in 1868, when he was only 30. Joseph Joachim, the dedicatee, gave the successful première of this version, and the concerto’s instant popularity overwhelmed everything else Bruch wrote thereafter. He is said to have reacted with exasperation when young violinists came to play for him, for they always played this concerto. He was left complaining that he had written some other pieces for violin.
There are several good reasons for this concerto’s continuing popularity. Bruch writes gorgeous melodies for the violin here–this is late German romanticism at its most lyric. He is then able to build these simple melodies into climaxes of tremendous power and excitement. Last, and certainly not least, this concerto is beautifully written for the violin–it sits gracefully under the fingers, and while the Concerto in G Minor is very difficult, it is also very grateful to play. This concerto has an evergreen quality that will keep it fresh forever.
The form is slightly unusual, and the opening movement gave Bruch a great deal of trouble. The first two movements are joined, and Bruch worried that the opening section was not a complete movement. He called it Vorspiel (Prelude), and it is in an unusual form. It begins with a slow orchestral introduction, and the violin enters with a cadenza-like recitative. The music soon rushes ahead on soaring themes and dramatic writing to a great climax, and then Bruch brings back the recitative of the very beginning to lead the way into the middle movement.
The Adagio is one of the great slow movements in all the violin concerto literature, and it shows Bruch’s considerable melodic gift. There are three separate themes, all gentle and yearning, and all of them well-suited to the violin’s lyrical nature. Bruch weaves them into a climax of considerable power before the movement ends quietly. The finale, aptly marked Allegro energico, is a rondo-like movement in G major. The orchestra’s introduction leads to the impressive violin entrance, reminiscent of gypsy fiddling. Once again, Bruch offers some terrific writing for the violin, and his performance markings tell the tale: passages marked appassionato or con fuoco or con forza alternate with material marked dolce or tranquillo e grazioso. The movement races to its close on a Presto coda that sends the solo violin soaring to the very top of its range.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Opus 55 “Eroica”
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 48 minutes
In May 1803, Beethoven moved to the village of Oberdöbling, a few miles north of Vienna. At age 32, he had just come through a devastating experience–the realization that he was going deaf had driven him to the verge of suicide– but now he resumed work, and life. To his friend Wenzel Krumpholz, Beethoven confided: “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.” At Oberdöbling over the next six months, Beethoven sketched a massive new symphony, his third.
Everyone knows the story of how Beethoven had intended to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon, whose reforms in France had seemed to signal a new age of egalitarian justice. But when the news reached Beethoven in May 1804 that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor, the composer ripped the title page off the score of the symphony and blotted out Napoleon’s name, angrily crying: “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!” (This sounds like one of those stories too good to be true, but it is quite true: that title page–with Napoleon’s name obliterated–has survived.) Countless historians have used this episode to demonstrate Beethoven’s democratic sympathies, though there is evidence that just a few months later Beethoven intended to restore the symphony’s dedication to Napoleon, and late in life he spoke of Napoleon with grudging admiration. When the symphony was published in 1806, though, the title page bore only the cryptic inscription “Sinfonia eroica–dedicated to the memory of a great man.”
The new symphony was given several private performances before the public première on April 7, 1805. Early audiences were dumbfounded. Wrote one reviewer: “This long composition, extremely difficult of performance, is in reality a tremendously expanded, daring and wild fantasia. It lacks nothing in the way of startling and beautiful passages, in which the energetic and talented composer must be recognized; but often it loses itself in lawlessness . . . The reviewer belongs to Herr Beethoven’s sincerest admirers, but in this composition he must confess that he finds too much that is glaring and bizarre, which hinders greatly one’s grasp of the whole, and a sense of unity is almost completely lost.” Legend has it that at the end of the first movement, one outraged member of the audience screamed out: “I’ll give another kreutzer [a small coin] if the thing will but stop!” It is easy now to smile at such reactions, but those honest sentiments reflect the confusion of listeners in the presence of a genuinely revolutionary work of art.
There had never been a symphony like this, and Beethoven’s “new directions” are evident from the first instant. The music explodes to life with two whipcracks in E-flat major, followed immediately by the main ideas in the cellos. This slightly swung theme is simply built on the notes of an E-flat major chord, but the theme settles on a “wrong” note–C-sharp–and the resulting harmonic complications will be resolved only after much violence. Another striking feature of this movement is Beethoven’s choice of 3/4 instead of the duple meter customary in symphonic first movements; 3/4, the minuet meter, had been thought essentially lightweight, unworthy of serious music. Beethoven destroys that notion instantly–this is not simply serious music, it is music of the greatest violence and uncertainty. In it, what Beethoven’s biographer Maynard Solomon has called “hostile energy” is admitted for the first time into what had been the polite world of the classical symphony. This huge movement (longer by itself than some complete Haydn and Mozart symphonies) introduces a variety of themes and develops them with a furious energy. It is no accident that the development is the longest section of this movement. The energy pent up in those themes is unleashed here, and the development–much of it fugal in structure–is full of grand gestures, stinging dissonances, and tremendous forward thrust. The lengthy recapitulation (in which the music continues to develop) drives to a powerful coda: the main theme repeats four times, growing more powerful on each appearance, and finally it is shouted out in triumph. This truly is a “heroic” movement–it raises serious issues, and in music of unparalleled drama and scope it resolves them.
The second movement brings another surprise–it is a funeral march, something else entirely new in symphonic music. Beethoven moves to dark C minor as violins announce the grieving main idea over growling basses, and the movement makes its somber way on the tread of this dark theme. The C-major central interlude sounds almost bright by comparison–the hero’s memory is ennobled here–but when the opening material and tonality return Beethoven ratchets up tensions by treating his material fugally. At the end, the march theme disintegrates in front of us, and the movement ends on muttering fragments of that theme.
Out of this silence, the propulsive scherzo springs to life, then explodes. For all its revolutionary features, the Eroica employs what was essentially the Mozart-Haydn orchestra: pairs of winds, plus timpani and strings. Beethoven makes only one change–he adds a third horn, which is now featured prominently in the trio section’s hunting-horn calls. But that one change, seemingly small by itself, is yet another signal of the originality of this symphony: the virtuosity of the writing for horns, the sweep of their brassy sonority–all these are new in music.
The finale is a theme-and-variation movement, a form originally intended to show off the imagination of the composer and the skill of the performer. Here Beethoven transforms this old form into a grand conclusion worthy of heroic symphony. After an opening flourish, he presents no the theme but the bass line of that theme, played by pizzicato strings, and offers several variations on this line before the melodic theme itself is heard in the woodwinds, now accompanied by the same pizzicato line. This tune had special appeal for Beethoven, and he had already used it in three other works, including his ballet Prometheus. Was Beethoven thinking of Prometheus–stealer of fire and champion of mankind–when he used this theme for the climactic movement of this utterly original symphony? He puts the theme through a series of dazzling variations, including complex fugal treatment, before reaching a moment of poise on a stately slow variation for woodwinds. The music pauses expectantly, and then a powerful Presto coda hurls the Eroica to its close.
The Eroica may have stunned its first audiences, but audiences today run the greater risk of forgetting how revolutionary this music is. What seemed “lawlessness” to early audiences must now be seen as an extraordinary leap to an entirely new conception of what music might be. Freed from the restraint of courtly good manners, Beethoven found in the symphony the means to express the most serious and important of human emotions. It is no surprise the composers over the next century would make full use of this freedom. Nor is it a surprise to learn that late in life–at a time when he had written eight symphonies–Beethoven named the Eroica as his own favorite among his symphonies.