Welcome to the third year of Emmanuel Music’s survey of the chamber and vocal works of Beethoven. Joining us on our journey this season is Emmanuel Music’s Principal Guest Conductor and Season Composer, my colleague and mentor and friend, John Harbison. What a stimulating endeavor it promises to be examining the works of Beethoven’s "middle" period alongside the Boston premiers of Harbison’s chamber and vocal music. Our celebration of Harbison culminates in the Boston premiere of his monumental masterwork, the opera The Great Gatsby.
Beethoven’s middle period, lasting roughly from 1802 to 1812, began during a traumatic period in his life. While on a six-month stay under doctor’s orders in the village of Heiligenstadt, outside Vienna, Beethoven confronted his emerging deafness. The outcome of this was not a cure, but rather the composer’s resolution of the crisis as laid out in the famous Heiligenstadt Testament. This letter, addressed to his two brothers, and discovered only after the composer’s death, admits the severity of his hearing loss, and discloses that he had seriously considered suicide. The music written during these years gradually moved away from Classical models in terms of their length and intensity, while never actually abandoning the Classical harmonic language. In addition, his compositions became increasingly demanding for even the most skilled players. Not surprisingly, the works of the middle period are notable for their expression of heroism and struggle, as well as their monumental scale.
Piano Trio No. 5 in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1 "Ghost"
In 1842 the composer Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s most notable piano student, remarked that the second movement of the Piano Trio in D, the Largo assai, reminded him of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Further research from pages of Beethoven’s notebook suggests that the composer was discussing an opera of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the playwright Heinrich von Collin at the time. The words "Macbett" and "Ende" appear near sketches for the Largo. The "Ghost" movement was possibly meant for a scene involving three witches. Czerny’s nickname stuck; today the work is known as the "Ghost" Trio.
Serving as bookends to the middle "Ghost" movement, the outer movements are more straightforward in style. The Allegro Vivace erupts with a motive of scalar motion played in unison, broken by wide rising leaps, presenting the main thematic material in the first several bars. The remainder of the movement is more lyrical in character. The Largo assai is introduced with an eerie, sustained three notes in the strings, followed by a melancholy response from the piano. After cautiously wandering through multiple tonal centers, unexpected pauses, sudden stops and outbursts, the haunting use of tremolando concludes the “Ghost” movement. The sonata-form Presto finale returns to the bright spirits of the opening, offering a flowing, joyful relief.
John Harbison Vocalism, Grand Aria for Soprano and Piano
"Vocalism is my only setting of Walt Whitman. This 'grand aria' (so says the title page) celebrates singing. It is about the power of the voice, as pure sound, to move and change hearers." - John Harbison
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 8 in G Major, Op. 30, No. 3
The three sonatas of Op. 30 were composed in 1801-02, after Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt. During this same time, he completed his Second Symphony, the Bagatelles Op. 33 and the Op. 31 Piano Sonata. By this time Beethoven treated the violin and piano as equals, enabling an organic sense of dialogue and spontaneity.
The Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 8 in G major, Op. 30, no. 3 seems to bubble over with a blithe sense of charm and humor. Melodic ideas and arpeggios flit around between the instruments and the move to dominant minor for the second theme come as a surprise. The cantabile second movement, although marked Tempo di Minuetto, is not a minuet in form. Cast in the warm, mellow key of E-flat major with shifts to G minor, it is full of elegance and lyrical grace. With the cheerful, ebullient finale, Beethoven’s sense of humor returns to the forefront.
String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29
While Beethoven’s string quintet output includes four works, the String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 is the only originally conceived, full-length string quintet. Op. 4 and 104 are arrangements of Beethoven works and Op. 137 is a brief (under two minutes in length) fugue. This quintet is intriguing in that it serves as the stylistic bridge from his early to middle period, yet contains some foreshadowing of his final years. Also of significance is the apparent, and perhaps unavoidable, bifurcated character and tone of the work. The first two movements are relatively affable and gracious in expression, whereas the final two movements are markedly more nervously, dark and intense. These final two movements, are a window to his more mature style.
The work opens with an almost Mozartean Allegro that remains mild-mannered throughout. The Adagio molto espressione that follows spins a beautiful, nearly vocal main theme. As the movement develops, clever and elegant counterpoint ensues. The short (one measure), impatient and insistent theme of the Scherzo is repeated throughout the movement. However, at the mid-point of the movement, Beethoven’s elegance makes a pithy return with a lilting motive, only to be overwhelmed by the obsessive main theme. The fitful, disjointed character of the Presto is truly forward-looking and innovative in its imaginative and nuanced use of counterpoint. The structure is unique – three themes followed by a development that explodes into a fourth theme, concluding with a thrilling coda.
The String Quintet, Op. 29 – the work of a remarkably brilliant 32 year old composer – portends the extraordinary and salient work that is to come in his symphonic output and the late string quartets.
- Ryan Turner (2012)