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PROGRAM NOTES: New York Philharmonic

by Eric Bromberger

Egmont Overture, Opus 84 (1809-10)

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

In 1809 Beethoven was invited to contribute incidental music to a revival of Goethe’s tragedy Egmont at the Vienna Burgtheater. The motives of the theater’s managers were clear: the French occupation of Vienna had just ended, and they wanted to celebrate their own freedom with a production of a play that told of resistance to political oppression. Beethoven had found the French occupation very difficult (he had hidden in the basement of his brother’s house with a pillow wrapped around his head during the French bombardment), and he was delighted to write the incidental music, which consists of an overture and nine other movements, including songs, entr’actes, a melodrama, and a concluding victory symphony.

But Egmont appealed to Beethoven for reasons deeper than its relevance to the French occupation of his adopted city. Goethe’s tragedy tells of the heroic resistance to the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands by Count Egmont, who is imprisoned by the evil Duke Alva. When a rescue attempt by Egmont’s lover Clärchen fails, she poisons herself, but Egmont goes to the gallows confident of the ultimate triumph of his cause. The themes of an imprisoned hero, a faithful woman willing to make sacrifices for love and political ideals, and the resistance to tyranny are of course those of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, and while the endings of Egmont and Fidelio are quite different, Beethoven must have found Goethe’s play close to his own heart.

The complete incidental music is seldom heard today, but the overture has become one of Beethoven’s most famous. It does not, however, attempt to tell the story of the play, and listeners should not search for a musical depiction of events. A powerful slow introduction gives way to a tentative, falling string figure–gradually the strength coiled up in this simple theme-shape is unleashed, and the dramatic overture rushes ahead at the Allegro. This music is full of energy, and at moments Beethoven subtly shifts the pulse of his 3/4 meter to make it feel like 6/8. The ominous chords of the opening return to usher in the brilliant close, where music that will reappear in the Symphony of Victory (the tenth and final movement of the incidental music) symbolizes the ultimate victory of Egmont’s cause.

Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92 (1811–12)


Beethoven turned 40 in December 1810. Forty can be a difficult age for anyone, but for Beethoven things were going very well. True, his hearing had deteriorated to the point where he was virtually deaf, but he was still riding that white-hot explosion of creativity that has become known, for better or worse, as his “Heroic Style.” Over the decade-long span of that style (1803-1813) Beethoven essentially re-imagined music and its possibilities. The works that crystalized the Heroic Style–the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony–unleashed a level of violence and darkness previously unknown in music, forces that Beethoven’s biographer Maynard Solomon has described as “hostile energy,” and then triumphed over them. In these violent symphonies, music became not a matter of polite discourse but of conflict, struggle, and resolution.

In the fall of 1811, Beethoven began a new symphony–it would be his Seventh–and it would differ sharply from those two famous predecessors. Gone is the sense of cataclysmic struggle and hard-won victory that had driven those earlier symphonies. There are no battles fought and won in the Seventh Symphony–instead, this music is infused from its first instant with a mood of pure celebration. Such a spirit has inevitably produced a number of interpretations as to what this symphony is “about”: Berlioz heard a peasants’ dance in it, Wagner called it “the apotheosis of the dance,” and more recently Maynard Solomon has suggested that the Seventh is the musical representation of a festival, a brief moment of pure spiritual liberation.

But it may be safest to leave the issue of “meaning” aside and instead listen to the Seventh simply as music. There had never been music like this before, nor has there been since–Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony contains more energy than any other piece of music ever written. Much has been made (correctly) of Beethoven’s ability to transform small bits of theme into massive symphonic structures, but in the Seventh he begins not so much with theme as with rhythm: he builds the entire symphony from what are almost scraps of rhythm, tiny figures that seem unpromising, even uninteresting, in themselves. Gradually he unleashes the energy locked up in these small figures and from them builds one of the mightiest symphonies ever written.

The first movement opens with a slow introduction so long that it almost becomes a separate movement of its own. Tremendous chords punctuate the slow beginning, which gives way to a poised duet for oboes. The real effect of this long Poco sostenuto, however, is to coil the energy that will be unleashed in the true first movement, and Beethoven conveys this rhythmically: the meter of the introduction is a rock-solid (even square) 4/4, but the main body of the movement, marked Vivace, transforms this into a light-footed 6/8. This Vivace begins in what seems a most unpromising manner, however, as woodwinds toot out a simple dotted 6/8 rhythm and the solo flute announces the first theme, a graceful melody on this same rhythm. Beethoven builds the entire first movement from this simple dotted rhythm, which saturates virtually every measure. As theme, as accompaniment, as motor rhythm, it is always present, hammering into our consciousness. At the climax, horns sail majestically to the close as the orchestra thunders out that rhythm one final time.

The second movement, in A minor, is one of Beethoven’s most famous slow movements, but the debate continues as to whether it really is a slow movement. Beethoven could not decide whether to mark it Andante (a walking tempo) or Allegretto (a moderately fast pace). He finally decided on Allegretto, though the actual pulse is somewhere between those two. This movement, too, is built on a short rhythmic pattern, in this case the first five notes: long-short-short-long-long–and this pattern repeats here almost as obsessively as the pattern of the first movement. The opening sounds like a series of static chords–the theme itself occurs quietly inside those chords–and Beethoven simply repeats this theme, varying it as it proceeds. The central episode in A major moves gracefully along smoothly-flowing triplets before a little fugato on the opening rhythms builds to a great climax. Beethoven winds the movement down on the woodwinds’ almost skeletal reprise of the fundamental rhythm.

The Scherzo explodes to life on a theme full of grace notes, powerful accents, flying staccatos, and timpani explosions. This alternates with a trio section for winds reportedly based on an old pilgrims’ hymn, though no one, it seems, has been able to identify that exact hymn. Beethoven offers a second repeat of the trio, then seems about to offer a third before five abrupt chords drive the movement to its close.

These chords set the stage for the Allegro con brio, again built on the near-obsessive treatment of a short rhythmic pattern, in this case the movement’s opening four-note fanfare. This four-note pattern punctuates the entire movement: it shapes the beginning of the main theme, and its stinging accents thrust the music forward continuously as this movement almost boils over with energy. The ending is remarkable: above growling cellos and basses (which rock along on a two-note ostinato for 28 measures), the opening theme drives to a climax that Beethoven marks fff, a dynamic marking he almost never used. This conclusion is virtually Bacchanalian in its wild power–no matter how many times one has heard it, the ending of the Seventh Symphony remains one of the most exciting moments in all of music.

The first performance of the Seventh Symphony took place in the Great Hall of the University in Vienna on December 8, 1813. Though nearly deaf at this point, Beethoven led the performance, and the orchestra was able to compensate for his failings, so that the première was a huge success. On that occasion–and at three subsequent performances over the next few months–the audience demanded that the second movement be repeated.

Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Opus 105 (1924)

Born December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland
Died September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

In 1915, while at work on his Fifth Symphony, Jean Sibelius looked ahead and described how he envisioned his next two symphonies. He described his Seventh-to-be as: “Joy of life and vitality, with appassionato passages. In three movements–the last an ‘Hellenic rondo.’” And then he offered a caveat: “All this with due reservation.” It was a good thing he did, because when the Seventh Symphony appeared nine years later, it bore almost no resemblance to his earlier description. Instead of being in three movements with a “Hellenic rondo” as its finale, the Seventh is in only one movement, lasting just over twenty minutes. It is an entirely original form, yet that one-movement structure manages to preserve much of the emotional effect of the four-movement classical symphony: we come away from Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony feeling that we have embarked on–and made–a satisfying symphonic journey.

Many have commented on the originality of Sibelius’ design, but in fact others had done the same thing before him. Arnold Schoenberg, in his Chamber Symphony No. 1 of 1906, and Franz Schreker, in his Chamber Symphony of 1916, had made the same effort to compress the massive four-movement symphonic structure of the late nineteenth-century symphony into a concise one-movement form: both those composers pared the symphony down mercilessly, recasting it for a chamber ensemble and limiting it to a twenty-minute span. Sibelius, who probably did not know the Schoenberg and Schreker chamber symphonies, set out to achieve the same structural compression in his Seventh Symphony, but he did it with a full symphony orchestra. For all its compression, however, for all its paring-down and its economy, Sibelius’ Seventh is expressive and heartfelt music.

Good symphonists present their material immediately, and Sibelius gives us his three fundamental themes in the first minutes. The Seventh Symphony opens with a soft timpani salvo, and lower strings climb a C-major scale that somehow ends up in the unexpected key of A-flat minor. Here (and throughout) the syncopated statement of themes contributes to the subtlety of Sibelius’ presentation. Almost instantly we hear pairs of woodwinds weaving about, followed by an intense string chorale that makes its way on a nine-part division of the strings. These will be the basic themes of the symphony, but now Sibelius introduces one further element: a solo trombone cuts through these textures with a ringing, heroic solo that will return twice at climactic moments in the symphony.

Over the next twenty minutes, these themes will re-appear, evolve, and interweave. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Seventh Symphony lies in its subtle changes of tempo, which are achieved with a mastery so assured that we cannot tell where one tempo ends and another begins: a moderate tempo is established, and before we aware of it the pulse of that tempo has become fast, and just as suddenly it has relaxed again. Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony may mirror the general approach of the Schoenberg and Schreker chamber symphonies, but Sibelius integrates tempos, sections, and moods with a subtlety and assurance that those earlier composers never dreamed of. Eventually the Seventh Symphony builds to an icy rip in C major that Sibelius marks Largamente, then falls away and gradually re-groups to build to the powerful close, where–at virtually the final second–the symphony claws its way back into C major.

As was his habit, Sibelius worked on this symphony almost to the last minute. He completed it on March 2, 1924, barely in time to get the parts copied and the music rehearsed before the première three weeks later, when Sibelius led the first performance on March 24, 1924, with the Stockholm Philharmonic. At that concert, the program book listed this piece as a Fantasia Sinfonica–Sibelius was so concerned about his radical structure that he was reluctant to call this music a symphony. But after hearing it, he was convinced that it was a true symphony and that it should be numbered among his works in that form.

After the Seventh Symphony, Sibelius wrote only one more large-scale work, the tone poem Tapiola in 1926. And then he stopped composing–the final 31 years of his life were spent in silence. Apparently he tried to write an Eighth Symphony, and evidence suggests that he made some sketches for it, but he abandoned that effort, and his sketches have disappeared. With the Seventh, an entire symphonic journey compressed into a concise one-movement arc, Sibelius had gone as far as he could with the symphony.

Finlandia, Opus 26 (1899–1900)


Finlandia has become a virtual symbol of Finland and its aspirations, but this music achieved that status almost by accident. Sibelius originally composed it in 1899 for what seems like an innocuous occasion–a celebration to help raise money for newspaper pension funds–but this fiery music quickly caught the heart of the Finnish people and became a symbol of their national pride.

Finland had been under Russian control throughout the nineteenth century, and the movement for Finnish independence had always been strong. When Czar Nicholas II cracked down in 1899 and began an intense russification campaign, the country nearly exploded with opposition, and it was at that precise moment that Sibelius wrote this music, which was first titled Finland Awake! So obvious was that meaning that Russian authorities banned its performance, and Sibelius retitled the piece Finlandia when he revised it the following year. The Finns would finally gain their independence from Russia after World War I, but Finlandia has remained a sort of unofficial national hymn ever since.

Yet this music tells no story, nor does it incorporate any Finnish folk material. Many assumed that music that sounds so “Finnish” must be based on native tunes, but Sibelius was adamant that all of it was original: “There is a mistaken impression among the press abroad that my themes are often folk melodies. So far, I have never used a theme that was not of my own invention. The thematic material of Finlandia . . . is entirely my own.”

Finlandia is extremely dramatic music, well-suited to the striving and heroic mood of the times. Its ominous introduction opens with snarling two-note figures in the brass, and they are answered by quiet chorale-like material from woodwinds and strings. At the Allegro moderato the music rips ahead on stuttering brass figures and drives to a climax. Sibelius relaxes tensions with a poised hymn for woodwind choir that is repeated by the strings (surely this was the spot most observers identified as “authentic” Finnish material). The music takes on some of its earlier power, the stuttering brass attacks return, and Sibelius drives matters to a knock-out close.

Small wonder that music so dramatic–and composed at so important a moment in Finnish history–should have come to symbolize that nation’s pride and desire for independence.