Serenade in D Major for Flute, Violin and Viola, op. 25 (1801)
Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 to study with Haydn and establish a name for himself as a serious and talented composer. While the bulk of his output focused on works for piano and traditional instrument groupings, he did experiment with unconventional combinations. The Serenade, op. 25, is one of those unique works for flute, violin and viola. Similar to the Septet, op. 20, performed in the first year of our Beethoven series, it gained considerable popular appeal, thus also being profitable for the young Beethoven.
Written as outdoor music to indulge the Viennese, the airy and charming Serenade features the “recreational” Beethoven at his best. As Mozart does in his Serenades, Beethoven introduces this delightful instrumentation with a march-like movement, “Entrata.” The horn-like fanfares of the flute invite the strings to join in the dialogue and the lighthearted fun begins. The gallant features a flute solo with mandolin-like accompaniment from the strings. The set of variations that follows allows each instrument to shine with a solo turn. A rustic dance replete with ‘Scotch Snap’ rhythms completes the playful serenade.
Sechs Gesänge, op. 75 (1810)
The six songs of op. 75, were published in 1810 but composed beginning as early as 1792. They include the setting of a famous poem, Mignon, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a reigning genius of the age and someone with whom Beethoven has often been compared. Beethoven was not prone to adulation of others, but in 1825, he would direct a downright adoring letter to Goethe: “The admiration, love, and esteem which I have cherished since my youth for the one and only immortal Goethe have persisted . . . I feel constantly prompted by a strange desire to say all of this to you, seeing that I live in your writings.”
Mignon, or Kennst du das Land is from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship). Mignon, one of literature’s most haunting figures, is a quasi-androgynous creature (Goethe calls her a “Knabenmädchen”, or “boy-girl”) in her early teens. Kidnapped when very young, she is rescued from her harsh life in an acrobatic troupe by the title character Wilhelm Meister and falls in love with him. She symbolizes humanity’s two natures, earthly and spiritual, male and female. She is the spirit of Romantic poetry, and her life is governed by “Sehnsucht,” or “longing”; a form of desire manifested as affliction. Beethoven imbues her memories of her native Italy with the solemnity and expressivity Goethe wanted and then ends each stanza with the urgent refrain “Dahin, dahin!” and an appeal to her “Beloved, Protector, Father” (Wilhelm) to take her there. The “moderately slow” portion of each verse is set in duple metre, the “faster” refrain in 6/8, Beethoven thus emphasizing the surge of sudden passion that animates each of Mignon’s appeals to Wilhelm.
The words of Neue Liebe, neues Leben were born of Goethe’s brief betrothal for some months in 1775 to Anne Elisabeth Schönemann (1758-1817), the daughter of a patrician family in Frankfurt. Goethe despised the social circle in which “Lili”, as he called her, moved, and the engagement soon came to shipwreck. Beethoven had a long history of engagement with this poem: he sketched it circa 1792, set it to music in 1798/99 (WoO 127), and revised it thoroughly as Op. 75, no. 2. The energy of new passion bubbles throughout this music, in which exultation is at war with the desire to break away from such bonds. (Beethoven too knew the clash between the longing for intimacy and the demands of artistic creativity.) That the persona charges right into the proceedings without any piano introduction is youthful erotic impetuosity incarnate.
Beethoven was neither the first nor the last to be drawn to Mephistopheles’s “Song of the Flea,” (Aus Goethes Faust), from the scene in Auerbach’s tavern in the second part of Faust. According to legend, the alchemist Johann Georg Faust—the distant progenitor in real life of Goethe’s title character—once rode a wine barrel in this establishment from the cellar to the street, a feat he could only have accomplished with the devil’s help. For this satirical song of a king who loved his flea and forbade his court to kill the miniature tormenters, Beethoven intersperses the narrative in the singer’s part with biting, grace-noted pinpricks and figures that plunge downwards in diabolical glee. Those who know the first theme of the first movement of his Symphony no. 1 will hear its twin in the dynamism of this song’s introduction
Gretels Warnung is a strophic song set to a poem by Gustav Adolph von Halem (1752-1819). This little song belongs to a sub-category of 18th- and 19th-century poetry in which a young woman, seduced and abandoned, warns the reader against incurring—or causing—a similar fate. (Goethe’s Die Spinnerin, set to music by Schubert, D. 274, is a particularly poignant example.) Beethoven’s song is in major mode and does not exude lamentation, but the rising chromatic tension in mid-strophe to depict persistence in wooing is an eloquent touch.
The words for An den fernen Geliebten came from the first edition in 1809 of Christian Ludwig Reissig’s anthology, Blümchen der Einsamkeit (Little flower of loneliness). Distant beloveds were a sad obsession of the composer; the repetitions in this tiny strophic song convey something essential about the nature of grief, whose sufferers traverse sad ground over and over. As if to console both the persona of An den fernen Geliebten and us, the same poet-composer pair defines contentment in the last song, Der Zufriedene. Set to a text also taken from Reissig’s Blümchen, in which the pianist alternates between unity with the singer and demonstrations of contentment’s merry vitality, the song is in accord with the Enlightenment concept of friendship as a prime source of happiness.
- Susan Youens
Merkenstein, op. 100 (1815)
Merkenstein, a ruined castle in Gainfarn, Lower Austria, is thought to have been constructed in the 12th century; in 1683 it was occupied by Ottoman troops and destroyed. There was a grove of trees nearby planted from a single graft (the Schwesterbäumen) and it was picturesquely overgrown. In 1829, a building was constructed on the site, but the old ruins are still visible. One of two Beethoven settings of the text by Johann Baptist Rupprecht, Merkenstein was dedicated to Count Joseph Karl von Dietrichstein. The charming duet is a light and colorful ode to the picturesque ruin Merkenstein.
Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, no. 2 (1802)
The Opus 30 sonatas illustrate Beethoven’s predilection for composing works in sets of three, each one in a different key and one in minor. The key of C minor also is, notably, a key shared with some of Beethoven’s most dramatic music - the Fifth Symphony, the “Pathètique” Sonata, the Third Piano Concerto and the Coriolan Overture.
The work opens with an expectant main theme wrought with tension that seems to be bracing itself for an outburst. The Adagio cantabile offers sweet repose with its hymn-like melody presented first by the piano and reiterated by the violin. In the central section of the movement, a slightly agitated character prevails via harmonically unsettled arpeggios in the piano while the violin floats above.
The flirtatious Scherzo that follows, as Raymond Erickson writes, is somewhat puzzling. “Seemingly out of place in this work, however, is the miniature Scherzo and Trio movement, both sections in a bright C Major but characterized by a kind of clumsy, oafish humor with accents on the “wrong” beats and even harmonic and rhythmic disjunctions between right and left hands of the piano which, out of context, might appear the work of an unskilled composer—indications, of course, that these effects are quite clearly Beethoven’s intent.” The finale renews the monumental key of C minor and the halting motive of the first movement. This nervous energy erupts in a furious Presto that brings the movement to fiery conclusion.
Harbison Chaconne for piano, flute, clarinet & bass clarinet, violin, and cello (2001)
Chaconne for piano and four instruments was composed in summer of 2000 and is dedicated to Andrew and Barbara Imbrie. I have written a number of pieces that follow some sort of ground bass principal. Andrew Imbrie’s music, lucidly constructed but full of free invention, suggested a return to this strict against free format. This time I wanted to choose a pattern as familiar to our times as the desending chromatic used in Bach’s cantatas 12 and 78 (and more loosely in his D Minor violin chaconne) was in the 1700s. The pattern is shorter than its native habitat. Through a similar process of re-harmonization the piece gradually widens its focus.~ John Harbison
Harbison “Prelude” from Four Psalms (1998)
Four Psalms celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. Composing such a piece at such a moment in Israel’s history was an honor and a heavy responsibility.
Four Psalms opens with a prelude for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, (heard today in the composer’s arrangement for mezzo and piano) a prayer composed by Amemar in 454 A.D., which states the major themes of the piece, both musical and philosophical. A rabbi and mystic in Babylon, Amemar studied the theological meaning of dreams. His prayer asks God for dreams of Israel that are true and enduring visions: “If they are good, strengthen them... but if they require healing, heal them.”
~ John Harbison
Piano Trio in Eb Major, Op. 70, No. 6 (1808)
In contrast to the first trio of op. 70 (heard on our first Beethoven concert of the season), the second trio of Op. 70 is amenable, balanced and sumptuous, as if in a nod to Mozart and Haydn. However, this trio offers an entirely fresh and hitherto unheard sound world. Beethoven seems to be determined to embark on a new path.
The gentle, searching opening emerges with the sound of a solo cello, joined by violin and, finally, the piano. Throughout much of the movement, the two strings initiate thematic material and dominate the texture – an inversion of the approach adopted. by Haydn. Almost imperceivable is the subtle shift from 4/4 to a lilting 6/8, infusing the main theme with flowing energy. Note the numerous returns of the questioning opening.
The rustic and whimsical second movement, replete with playful dialogue between instruments, reveals distinct Mozartean and Haydnesque influences. In contrast, the third movement, allegretto, truly looks forward in style with a singing lyricism that some have likened to that of Mendelssohn. Set as a minuet, the middle section contains a call-and-response between the piano and violin knit together by deep, sustained pedal points in the cello.
The triumphant finale quintessentially embodies Beethoven in character - abrupt shifting between fast, motoric passages and reflective, lyrical moments. Where the strings have dominated much of the trio to this point, the wide-ranging sound palate and majesty of the piano is on full display in the finale.
The German Romantic author, composer, and cultural commentator E. T. A. Hoffmann offered his rapturous praise to the composer upon discovering the work, writing:
How deeply, O! exalted Master! have your noble piano compositions penetrated into my soul; how hollow and meaningless in comparison all music seems which does not emanate from you, or from the contemplative Mozart, or that powerful genius, Sebastian Bach...[I]t has been such a pleasure to me this evening that now, like one who wanders through the sinuous mazes of a fantastic park, among all kinds of rare trees, plants, and wonderful flowers, always tempted to wander further, I am unable to tear myself away from the marvelous variety and interweaving figures of your trios. The pure siren voices of your gaily varied and beautiful themes always tempt me on further and further. You carry the romantic spirit of music deep into my soul and with what high geniality, with what deep sense of self-possession you enliven each work.
- Ryan Turner