Beethoven’s Eroica

Natalie Clein, cello
David Danzmayr, conductor


This weekend our program features three emotionally turbulent but ultimately hopeful compositions. In Anna Clyne’s elegaic Within Her Arms, we sense a daughter’s pain and love for her mother. Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto runs the emotional gamut, from poignant musical discourse to biting sarcasm and breathtaking drama. And finally, Beethoven’s “Eroica,” a symphony that is indeed much more than a symphony. This watershed achievement reflects the full range of Beethovenian emotion—from passionate to violent—and caps of an evening of the human spirit.

Anna Clyne (b. 1980): Within Her Arms
Scored for strings. Duration is 15 minutes.

The London-born composer Anna Clyne has experienced what by any definition must be regarded as a meteoric start to her career. Following studies in Edinburgh and later at the Manhattan School of Music, Clyne was named a composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2009. That residency was subsequently extended and followed by others with the National Orchestra of France and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She has been nominated for a Grammy and is the recipient of prestigious prizes and awards, among them the Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. As a consequence of her orchestral associations, her portfolio includes any number of large-scale symphonic works but her long-time association with string players has also led to more intimate compositions, including Within Her Arms, a string orchestra work from 2009.

Commissioned by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, Within Her Arms has been described by New Yorker contributor Alex Ross as “a fragile elegy for fifteen strings.” Right from the start of this fifteen-minute work, which Clyne dedicated to her late mother, “with all my love,” its profound tenor is laid bare. The violin opens with a tight, turning gesture that is quickly echoed and serves as the basis of the entire work. Clyne then takes the idea through various stages, pulling highly unique sounds from the strings, some somber and lamenting, others fleetingly hopeful, all the while drawing on a shifting tapestry of drones and static pitches, lamenting phrases and unexpected cadences of great warmth. Meditative and infused with deep gravitas, the work has been understandably compared to masterpieces of Thomas Tallis and Barber’s Adagio. Clyne prefers not to personally comment on the work, though she has included the accompanying poem as a sort of reflection about her intent:

Earth will keep you tight within her arms dear one
So that tomorrow you will be transformed into flowers
This flower smiling quietly in this morning field
This morning you will weep no more dear one
For we have gone through too deep a night.
This morning, yes, this morning, I kneel down on the green grass

And I notice your presence.
Flowers, that speak to me in silence.
The message of love and understanding has indeed come.

—Thich Nhat Hanh


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra in E flat Major, Op. 107
Scored for solo cello, two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets (each doubling B-flat and A), two bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), one horn, timpani, celesta, and strings. Duration is 28 minutes.

One cannot truly understand the music of Dimitri Shostakovich without considering the circumstances of his life. Born into the severe political climate of Stalinist Russia, Shostakovich walked a fine line between composing as he wanted and bending his approach to suit official policy. For the most part, the composer played his cards smartly, finding means of expressing himself musically while remaining on good terms with Stalin’s regime, though he did face censorship on occasion. Indeed, in 1948, with the first purge, Shostakovich, along with five of his musical colleagues, was accused of “anti-Soviet practices…marked by formalist perversions, dissonance, contempt for melody, and the use of chaotic and neuropathic discords—all of which are alien to the artistic tastes of the Soviet people.” Thus, anything considered too far outside the mainstream of conservative musical taste, or that did not further the “good will” of the people, was deemed inappropriate. Consequently, Shostakovich was forced to resign his professorship and publically apologize for his work. He was also known to keep a packed suitcase under his bed, fearing that the knock on the door could come at any time, day or night. Within a year’s time, however, he was already on “better terms” with Stalin, who telephoned the composer personally and asked him to represent the Soviet Union at a conference in America. Shostakovich, an intensely private man who never felt comfortable in the limelight or in front of large crowds, had no real choice but to accept Stalin’s invitation. Yet he was certain that once he had dispatched his duty in America as a cultural ambassador, he would be murdered upon returning to his homeland. Fortunately for us, he was mistaken.

Approximately one decade later Shostakovich crafted his first Cello Concerto, a work that would ultimately become regarded as among the foremost cello concertos of the 20th century. As a consequence of its emotional punch and bravura drive, it has also become an audience favorite. As with his second Cello Concerto (1966), Shostakovich’s first was composed for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the composer’s friend and colleague, who evidently committed the concerto to memory in the four days leading up to its October 1959 premiere. Rostropovich was also honored with the work’s American premiere, which took place in Philadelphia shortly thereafter. For the occasion, Shostakovich also returned to the United States. By now the Stalinist era was fortunately a thing of the past. The new premier, Nikita Krushchev, saw the “formalist” label officially lifted during the ensuing “thaw,” freeing Shostakovich and his colleagues from the confining and threatening atmosphere in which they had lived and worked for years.

 The Cello Concerto is constructed of four movements, the first of which (marked Allegretto) opens with four notes played by the solo cellist alone. These pitches—G-Fb-Cb-Bb—which tie the movement together and return in several of those that follow, represent one of the composer’s favorite set of intervals, four pitches that when transposed, spell out his name—D-S-C-H, Dmitri S(C)ostakovicH. (This “code” was typical of how Shostakovich embedded ideas in his music in order to outsmart the authorities). The first movement pits this opening idea against a tight repetitive idea more lyrical in nature (and later taken up by the horns), but the march quality of the opening remains unrelenting and serves as a brilliant example of the driving and almost “mechanistic” quality typical of much of Shostakovich’s serious work. The second, third and fourth movements segue directly one into the next. The Moderato opens with an elegiac string melody that Shostakovich actually never assigns the cello. Rather, the soloist is given an equally moving theme that is accompanied by a delicate winding figure, again played by the strings. Later the soloist offers up another theme entirely, this one more lilting and extroverted and even folksy in nature. The score now becomes louder and increasingly agitated, demanding all the physical and emotional power the soloist can bring to bear. The final reiteration of the cello melody, now played as haunting “artificial harmonics” and answered by the celeste, leads directly into an unaccompanied cello cadenza. A movement unto itself and the centerpiece of the concerto, it exploits the instrument’s extended range and draws on themes from the second movement, which are developed and interspersed by a series of pizzicato chords. Gradually the movement picks up speed, wherein references to the opening D-S-C-H motive are discernable. Blistering passagework leads directly into the finale, which opens with an ominous descending oboe theme that is quickly taken up by the entire orchestra. Note the timpani exclamations—they will return to great effect throughout. A series of ferocious and driving themes follow, as the focus banks consistently between soloist and orchestra. Among the stunning discernable effects are the harsh injections by the clarinet, the nightmarish string writing and the blaring horns, recalling again the opening D-S-C-H motive. Dazzling cellistic fireworks, including intense string crossings and relentless octave passagework, fuel this impressive work’s final bars.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”
Scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. Duration is 47 minutes.

Until the summer of 1802, when Beethoven first jotted down ideas for a composition in E-flat, symphonic composition, even from his own pen, was not so unlike any work of chamber music or even a sonata, save for the forces involved. Each symphony typically adhered to a four-movement scheme (generally three in a sonata), for example, and traditional architecture (first movement in sonata form and third movement is a ¾-time minuet, etc.). There was neither a sense of overall direction spanning from one movement to the next, nor any musical or dramatic content that unified the work as a whole. Indeed, as was the case with Beethoven’s first two symphonies, such works, and even individual movements, existed solely on their own terms. Beethoven’s “Eroica,” or Heroic Symphony, changed all that and ushered in the Romantic era.

The year 1802 proved a profound one for Beethoven. For several years, his hearing had become steadily worse, to the extent that he now considered taking his life. His intent is reflected in a document known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, a suicide note of sorts, penned in the nearby town that bears its name. Beethoven ultimately found the means to overcome what he initially regarded as the worst possible malady for a composer, and the symphony that followed this struggle proved that even deafness was no match for such a force of nature. A second ordeal surfaced in 1804, when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor. From the outset, Beethoven had designs of dedicating his newly composed symphony in E-flat to Napoleon, whom Beethoven, like so many others, admired as much for his heroics as for his also having surmounted his modest beginnings. Yet with the news of Napoleon’s coronation, Beethoven supposedly flew into a rage, denouncing the little Corsican, whose march to power betrayed everything Beethoven believed Napoleon had stood for, and striking his name from the title page. The cover of the symphony’s autograph, which reads, “Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” bears this out. Thereafter, what Beethoven regarded as the greatest work he had yet written became the stuff of legend.

Still, given the composer’s recent personal struggles and triumph, one can just as easily associate the symphony’s emotional turbulence and breadth with Beethoven’s own experiences as with any Napoleonic leanings. Indeed, having entered what historians subsequently deemed his second, “heroic” period, Beethoven had begun looking inward, investing his music with intense personal meaning and profound content. The result was a score of heroic dimensions. The sheer magnitude of its length alone—compare its 700 measure-long first movement with the 300 that open his First Symphony (with which we closed last season), or its total playing time, which clocks in at some three quarters of an hour, half again as long as Haydn’s final, 104th symphony—casts a long shadow over everything that came before, while its trajectory represents, for the first time in the history of the symphony, a deeply personal journey. To boil the essence of the work down to a few words is nigh impossible—entire chapters have been given over to its analysis and innovations. Still, a few thoughts might aid the listening experience and provide a better understanding of some of Beethoven’s most personal musical expressions.

As compared with the slow preambles that opened his previous two symphonies, as well as the fourth that would follow, Beethoven instead grabs our attention at the start of his Allegro con brio with two powerful E-flat chords, then spins a gentle melody (in the cellos) from this source. Only the unexpected descent to C-sharp several bars in provides a clue that all is not well. The struggle explodes to the surface with the tremendously dissonant, hammering chords later in the movement, which Beethoven places on weak beats and sets off with silence, forcefully and unmistakably articulating the conflict. The movement’s unprecedented length may make its sonata-form design difficult to follow, but its journey from light, to darkness and finally to triumph—evident in the glorious horn call and surging string writing—are unmistakable. The despair found in the Marcia funebre is evident from in its opening notes, though the true meaning of the movement eludes us still—was Beethoven burying the image of his fallen hero, Napoleon, or opening up to us his own personal abyss? This movement alone, with its incorporation of a funeral march, unpredictable architecture (it incorporates a double fugue, signaled by the four rising pitches in the second violins countered by long, accented notes in the violas and bassoon) and shattering climax, was enough to fuel the Romantic age and inspire an entire generation of composers.

Even a man of Beethoven’s unfathomable creativity must have struggled with how to follow a movement of such profound pathos. In the words of Richard Wagner, “when the conscious strong man had tasted very death, there came this turbulent, irrepressible, deathless creative energy surging up from depths he had not suspected.” Beethoven’s answer was a Scherzo of unceasing energy, one that begins almost imperceptibly and only springs fully to life in its ninety-third bar! The vitality of the movement is further underscored by the horn writing that opens the Trio, or middle section; only Haydn, in his Horn Call Symphony, ever asked for more than two horns for such passagework. For his finale, Beethoven borrowed from his Op. 35 “Prometheus” piano variations (material that very well may have served as the springboard for the entire symphony). The movement unfolds in stages, first with the presentation of a “Basso del Tema,” a bass theme that, in the words of biographer Lewis Lockwood, “creates an expectation that must be fulfilled.” This is afforded a handsome, upper-line melody, as if Beethoven himself were improvising the various parts. Having set the table, Beethoven now delivers the full course, a set of variations that includes two fugatos, a G-minor Alla marcia and a full-scale Andante, with unprecedented excursions into distant harmonic regions. The theme returns with pomp and flourish, a triumphant and unapologetic celebration of life.

Dedicated to one of his most generous patrons, Prince von Lobkowitz, Beethoven conducted the premiere of his Third Symphony himself. Given the work’s unprecedented breadth, perhaps it should come as no surprise that his audience failed to embrace his latest offering—after all, the symmetry and proportion as practiced by Mozart and Haydn still reverberated in the Viennese mind. The Viennese critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, among Europe’s most prestigious journals, had the following to say: “Truly this new work of Beethoven’s contains some grand and daring ideas, as one might expect from the powerful genius of the composer, and shows great expressive strength as well. But the sinfonie would be all the better—it lasts a whole hour—if Beethoven could reconcile himself to make some cuts in it and bring into the score more light, clarity, and unity…Even after several hearings it eludes the most sustained attention, so that the unprepared connoisseur is really shocked. As a result this sinfonie was anything but enjoyed by the greater part of the audience.” As so often the case, time has had the final say, with Beethoven’s “Eroica” taking its rightful place among Western music’s most magisterial and remarkable achievements.

© Marc Moskovitz