Vadim Gluzman, violin & creative partner
Mark Kosower, cello
Angela Yoffe, piano
David Danzmayr, conductor
Tonight’s program features two composers writing well ahead of their time. We open with the music of Charles Ives, among the most important of all American composers, whose Three Places in New England captures the essence of his unique, personal style. The remainder of the concert is made of up of works by Beethoven, first the heroic Triple Concerto and then we will close with his Second Symphony, a work composed during a period of personal crisis for the composer, but which exudes humor and joy.
Charles Ives (1874-1954): Three Places in New England
Instrumentation: flute, pairs of oboes, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, trombone, timpani, piano and strings
Composed: 1911-1913, revised in 1929
Premiere: 1929, Boston, MA
Duration: about 21 minutes
Charles Ives was born in Danbury, CT in 1874 and died in New York City in 1954. What would become his Three Pieces in New England grew from unrelated music composed and reworked over the course of many years. Although conceived of for full orchestra, Ives transcribed the music for chamber orchestra in 1929. It was this version that he heard during his lifetime and that is performed tonight.
A Connecticut-born, insurance-selling son of a bandmaster, Ives fused inherent talent and pedigree with curiosity and musical pluck. Composing in his off time, he threaded together diverse styles and sounds, including American and church hymns and military marches, and even music in different keys or tonalities, sometimes nearly all at once! Ives amassed a variety of distinctive scores that are regarded among the most unique and inventive ever born of American soil, earning him his well-deserved, if posthumous, reputation as an ‘American original.’
Though not linked by any overriding musical connection, his Three Pieces in New England, among the composer’s best-known compositions, is imbued with a Walt Whitmanesque pride in America and reflects how deeply each ‘location’ resonated with its composer. The first movement, begun in 1911, was inspired by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, a bronze frieze located atop Boston Common that honors the 54th Massachusetts, the first all-black regiment to fight in the Civil War (and made famous in the movie Glory). Ives’ score opens reflectively, with overlapping A-minor and D-sharp minor harmonies that remain separate and unresolved, perhaps with the intent of allowing the listener to contemplate the conflict that is war and the Civil War specifically. Through a mist of sound Ives introduces a battery of tunes, some more recognizable, others less so, including “Old Black Joe,” “Massa’s in da Cold Ground” and later “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Marching through Georgia” and even strains of ragtime. Here Ives’ intent is unmistakable—his borrowed music and its quick rise in intensity captures both the spirit of the black regiment and the heat of battle. Following the climactic suicidal siege on the Confederate battery, the music quickly collapses, as strains of a bluesy, haunting solo cello brings the movement to a close.
Two of the tunes Ives incorporated into ‘Putman’s Camp,’ the “Country Band March” and his “Overture and March: 1776,” actually date back to 1903 and were probably intended as incidental music for a play. In 1912, the same year he set about orchestrating ‘St. Gaudens,’ Ives crafted a piece depicting a child who falls asleep during a Fourth of July picnic and dreams of the Goddess of Liberty—suggested musically by a vague chord frozen in time—and Continental soldiers who cheer General Israel Putnam (the American general who fought with distinction at the Battle of Bunker Hill) coming over the rise. In typical Ivesian fashion, the music is a collage of various tunes, including “The British Grenadiers,” “Hail Columbia” and Sousa’s Semper Fidelis, which collide and move along independent of one another while holding stubbornly to their individual tempos and keys.
The final movement, inspired by a romantic Sunday morning stroll along the Housatonic River at Stockbridge, builds gradually to an enormous climax but its essence lies in the simplicity of its opening strains (the composer thought highly enough of this melody to later arrange it for voice and piano). Ives himself wrote, “This is to picture the colors one sees, sounds one hears, feelings one has, of a summer day near a wide river—the leaves, waters, mists, etc., all interweaving in the picture, and a hymn singing in church across the water.” Ives orchestrated the music in 1913, set ‘Putman’s Camp’ for full orchestra a year later and then lay the entire project aside. Some fifteen years hence, he reworked the entire composition, which now necessitated including a piano part to absorb a great deal of the brass writing. This chamber version of the Three Pieces in New England was premiered by 24 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1929 and remains a core component of the chamber orchestra repertoire.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Concerto in C major for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 56
Instrumentation: flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons horns and trumpets, timpani and strings
Premiere: February 1808, Leipzig
Duration: about 36 minutes
The year 1804 was one of great upheaval for Ludwig van Beethoven, whose life seemed always filled with tremendous ups and downs — mostly downs. In April of that year his contract with the Theater an der Wien was terminated and along with it the plans to perform his new opera Leonora (read more about his experience at the theater below). He also moved—or was forced—out of his rooms at the theater, where he had been living since the previous year. A month later Napoleon declared himself Emperor and when news of the event reached Vienna, Beethoven flew into a rage and tore up the title page of Eroica Symphony, which he had composed the previous year and dedicated to Napoleon. Matters went from bad to worse in early July when Beethoven had a falling out with one of his closest friends, Stephan Breuning, with whom the composer was then staying. Beethoven again moved out. Though their friendship was soon mended, and the Leonora project was eventually also revived, 1804 was indeed a turbulent year for the composer. In fact, in December he was to encounter Josephine Brunsvik, but that is, as they say, another story…
Somehow between the moving, the temper tantrums, the cancelled musical plans and the disrupted friendships, Beethoven managed to find the presence of mind to compose, which speaks volumes about his level of concentration. Besides opening sketches for the Fifth Symphony and what would emerge as his Fourth Piano Concerto, Beethoven dispatched another concerto, this one for violin, cello and piano, the so-called “Triple” Concerto. This work is a curious outlier in Beethoven’s oeuvre, for we don’t know precisely why or for whom it was written. The instrumentation too is also curious—any number of concertos had been written by other composers for two or more soloists but never before had a piano trio been staged at the center of such a work. What we do know is that one of his wealthiest patrons, Prince Lobkowitz, not only opened his palace for rehearsals but put his personal orchestra at Beethoven’s disposal. For his efforts, Lobkowitz received the work’s dedication; he was also the dedicatee for the Eroica, also rehearsed at the palace, as well as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Op. 18 String Quartets). The court orchestra counted some of Europe’s most gifted musicians at its head, including its concertmaster Anton Wranitzky and the first cellist, Anton Kraft, both of whom probably took the solo parts in rehearsals of the Triple Concerto; it is nearly certain that Beethoven himself took the piano part and directed rehearsals from the keyboard.
The work is crafted in the expected three movements (fast-slow-fast) but it takes some unusual turns. Most obvious is the heightened role of the cello, and at the other extreme, the almost subdued role given to the piano, which is especially curious given Beethoven’s virtuosic piano playing. Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s reliably unreliable biographer, suggested the role was intended for Beethoven’s young student, Joseph Rainer Rudolph, who would mature to become one of the composer’s staunchest supporters, but there is no evidence that Rudolph ever performed the work. On the other hand, Beethoven placed one of Europe’s greatest cellists, Anton Kraft, at the helm, and honored him with the introduction of most of the concerto’s melodic material. This is already evident at the outset, with the cellist’s presentation of the opening theme, which gains a certain nobility on account of its dotted rhythms. The C major first movement Allegro is a broad and largely lyrical affair, and although the development features a turbulent exchange among the soloists, Beethoven seems intent on taking advantage of the singing qualities of his string players. The slow movement, set in A-flat and again ushered in by the cellist, is one of the composer’s most heart rending conceptions. A mere 53 bars, however, the Largo proves to be merely an introduction to the finale and we might lament the fact that Beethoven failed to see this beautiful material through to a full-fledged movement. Following the soloists’ exchange of arpeggios, the cellist segues directly into the C major Rondo alla Polacca, featuring, as its title implies, the Polonaise, a triple-time dance very much in fashion during the Napoleonic era and reflecting Beethoven’s playing to popular taste, something he was rarely prone to do. Beethoven serves up several different dance themes, as befits a rondo movement. These include the playful theme introduced by the cello at the start, another lyrical melody ushered in by the soloist’s quickstep rush of upward sixteenth notes, and deep into the movement, a stately, aristocratic idea given first to the violin and punctuated by Polonaise rhythm of the winds and horns, lending it a martial air. The movement also features brilliant virtuosic triplet passagework throughout and is capped by a brief but brilliant coda with which Beethoven drives his unique and unusual score to its thrilling final bars.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Instrumentation: pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings
Premiere: April 1803, Vienna, led by the composer
Duration: about 34 minutes
When we imagine composers of the Classical era putting together a symphony, we might envision Haydn or Mozart, who often dispatched their next opus rather quickly, perhaps facing a deadline or providing their next work for an orchestra while abroad. For Beethoven, the act of composing was, more often, a protracted event, typically begun out of personal desire and going on for months or even years. The Second Symphony is a case in point. It was probably begun at the end of 1800, but the bulk of the work took place during the summer of 1802, among the most significant periods of the composer’s life. Beethoven had come to the quiet town of Heiligenstadt to escape the buzz of Vienna, upon the advice of his physician, for the thirty-two-year-old composer was experiencing pronounced hearing loss and facing the possibility of total deafness. It was the summer of the famed Heiligenstadt Testament, in effect Beethoven’s last will and testament, a heart-rending suicide note from a composer who saw no way to continue his work without the ability to hear. The summer, however, did not end in suicide. Instead, through sheer force of will, Beethoven refused to succumb to fate and went on to live for another twenty-five years, in the process becoming one of the greatest of all classical composers (the Heiligenstadt Testament, by the way, was discovered in the months following his death).
Given the circumstances under which the bulk of the Second Symphony was composed, then, it is a miraculous work, for one senses none of the despair Beethoven was experiencing. Furthermore, at times of intense stress Beethoven was also wracked with physical pain—in this case, probably abdominal—yet the symphony is a work of good nature and humor. Still, it was so unlike anything that came before that his critics were caught off guard. With his Second, Beethoven capped off his own “Classical” era. Yet, while the work was built around the expected classical four-movement architecture of his Viennese predecessors, there was much that was new and challenging. It was premiered at the Theater an der Wien in April of 1803, on a massive program that also featured his recently composed Third Piano Concerto, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, and the First Symphony of several years earlier.
If more subtle, the Second Symphony already forecast paths Beethoven would take with his mighty Eroica, which he was composing just as the Second appeared in print. A grand introduction was all but expected, given Haydn’s late symphonies, but Beethoven’s dramatic gestures and wide-ranging harmonic palette unnerved his critics from the start. The score slides effortlessly into the Allegro con brio, but here again Beethoven confounds—instead of a genuine melody, Beethoven divides up his material which he presents first in the lower strings, not the far more common violins! We might also take note of the motivic quality of the gesture—Beethoven’s clipped energetic sixteenth-notes and the more evenly paced eighths that follow provided rich contrast and invite development. To appreciate much of the drama Beethoven brought to the symphony for the first time, we need only follow the course he charts with this opening material. The A major Larghetto reveals the composer experimenting with new colors and effects, ideas that were to become part of the romantic vocabulary with the composers who followed. Constructed in large-scale sonata form, the movement has been accurately described as both childlike and innocent, characteristics totally at odds with the circumstances under which the music was composed. In fact, Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries would say the Larghetto was “so purely and happily conceived, and the voice-leading so natural, that one can hardly imagine anything in it was ever changed,” though he admitted that parts of the autograph score were so heavily covered with corrections as to be almost unintelligible. Ries was right on both counts—Beethoven’s autographs typically bear witness to tremendous musical struggle but in the end, the results were, in the words of Beethoven himself, “better that way.”
The Symphony’s second half opens with a rambunctious Scherzo (Allegro), Beethoven’s first true reliance on this jaunty, ¾-time dance within a symphonic setting. The movement is rife with explosive dynamic changes, designed for shock value, and is offset at its center by lovely folk-inspired wind writing. Traditionally, symphonic finales tended to be somewhat lighthearted, allowing the audience to depart in high spirits, and Beethoven doesn’t disappoint. In later symphonies, the last movements would also become dramatic tours de force but this Allegro molto is a joyous Haydn-esque romp, full of good humor and unexpected starts and stops. Still, the movement breathes a certain insolence, as if Beethoven is thumbing his nose at his listeners.
Beethoven’s critics described the Second as “untamed,” “tumultuous,” and “a writhing dragon that will not die,” providing a certain perspective about early nineteenth-century taste. We also know what they did not—that the heir to the Viennese symphonic tradition had not only faced down personal tragedy but breathed not a hint of it into his latest offering. Of course, Beethoven remained Beethoven and over the course of some thirty minutes brashly defied his critics’ expectations through his powerful vision of what the symphony had become. It was a scenario that was to play out seven more times over the course of Beethoven’s lifetime. Sometimes his audiences would rally around him, at other times he would leave his listeners bewildered, but in no case was Beethoven ever to be swayed from his course. The musical world would be enriched nine times over as a result.
(C) Marc Moskovitz