Even the greatest of composers have left us works that remain undeservedly obscure or rarely heard. With the exception of the well-known Egmont Overture, this evening’s concert reveals some hidden gems of Beethoven. As we enter the fourth and final year of our Beethoven Chamber series, this concert explore some connections and similarities among the vocal and chamber works—Goethe, the voice, and the piano trio—and how these influence their realization on the orchestral stage.
Egmont Overture, op. 84 (1810)
Beethoven and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)—their encounter is one of the most fascinating moments in Beethoven’s biography. It is characterized by interest, but reservation, on the part of Goethe and by an intense attempt to come to terms with Goethe on Beethoven’s part. A close and lasting personal relationship or artistic collaboration was never to develop out of this only encounter in the summer of 1812 at the Bohemian baths. The personal impression which each of them took away was ambivalent: "I have seen no artist who was more composed, more energetic, more fervent. I comprehend very well how strange he must seem to the world," Goethe wrote to his wife, Christiane, after the first encounter. Beethoven’ s judgment, on the other hand, was that "Goethe is much too cozy in the court air, more than is seemly for a poet."
Beethoven composed his Overture to Goethe’s drama, Egmont, for a new production that played in Vienna in 1810. Beethoven had already read and studied Goethe’s works intensively during his youth in Bonn, long before their first personal encounter. His first Goethe settings were produced around 1790. Beethoven announced his music to Egmont in a letter to the poet in the spring of 1811: "I am only able to approach you with the greatest veneration [and] with an inexpressibly deep feeling for your glorious creations." In August 1810, he wrote his Leipzig publisher that he had written the music "purely out of love for the poet." On June 25, 1811 Goethe thanked Beethoven with similar words of appreciation in the only letter he ever wrote to him.
The music portrays the tragic Count Egmont (1522-1568), who, after a political trial, is executed for opposing the Spanish persecution of Protestants in Flanders. Having glimpsed freedom triumphant in a vision, Egmont dies a hero to his people. Drawn to the nobility of the title character, Egmont, therefore, provided two themes that were especially attractive to the composer: the martyrdom of a hero in the cause of liberty and the selfless devotion of a woman who loves him. Beethoven was no stranger to these ideas, having already dealt with them at length in his opera Fidelio in 1805.
This conquest of good over evil is portrayed through the overall structure of the work: major tonalities replace minor; bright orchestral sonorities succeed somber, foreboding ones; fanfares displace circuitous melodies. After the opening blocks of sound, yearning woodwind figures slowly transform in to the quicker, main theme of the work, revealing a link with the Fifth Symphony. The music conveys a similar sense of primordial struggle encountered in the symphony’s first movement, and it even makes use of the famous four-note rhythm that dominates that piece. Later the parallel between the two compositions becomes unmistakable as the overture’s conclusion emerges from a mysterious, dark realm to soar triumphantly on rising scales and the brilliant tones of trumpets.
Beethoven once famously grumbled, "Ich schreibe ungern Lieder." ("I don’t like writing songs.") "When sounds stir within me, I always hear the full orchestra; I know what to expect of instrumentalists, who are capable of almost everything, but with vocal compositions I must always be asking myself: can this be sung?" Song was not his native tongue, as it was for his younger contemporary Schubert. However, roughly half of his 600 works call for the human voice. The vocal music on our program displays roots solidly in the world of the theatre. From singspiel to "student" compositions, to a concert aria, these works provide a glimpse of the operatic music that might have been.
"O Welch ein Leben" from Die schöne Schusterin, WoO 91
The singspiel Die schöne Schusterin ("The Pretty Cobblerette") by Ignaz Umlauf dates from 1779 and was written as part of the new National-Singspiel venture sponsored by the court in Vienna as an alternative to the traditional Italianate operas that dominated Vienna’s musical scene. In the eighteenth century it was not unusual for new numbers to be added to an existing work when revived for a new run of performances. Umlauf commissioned two new arias from Beethoven for his Die schöne Schusterin. In the folk-like tenor aria, O welch ein Leben ("Oh what a life"), the character of the Baron sings of his enjoyment of the world around him.
Ne’ giorni tuoi felici, WoO 93
During the period around 1801–02, Beethoven studied with Antonio Salieri, as he sought to acquire fluency in composing for vocal ensembles in preparation for writing opera, specifically how to set Italian text to music. Beethoven apparently was not pleased with the duet Ne’ giorni tuoi felici. Not only did it remain unpublished throughout his lifetime, but it languished in almost total obscurity until 1939, when it was premiered. Beethoven uses a text by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), the Italian playwright and poet, from his Olimpiade. After an opening adagio boasting a Verdi-like lyricism with Mozartean, colored orchestration, the mood becomes more emotionally fraught and intense. This latter section, infused with a keen understanding of dramatic and vocal pacing, contains much of the mature Beethoven heard in Fidelio.
Mit Mädeln sich vertragen, WoO 90
Mit Mädeln sich vertragen ("Getting along with girls"), WoO 90, with text drawn from Geothe’s singspiel Claudine de Villabella, is firmly grounded in the Italian opera buffa style. The text describes with some not-so-subtle humor how men can fight over women. The aria, not published during Beethoven’s lifetime, is set in the manner of a folk song, complete with an onomatopoetic section based on the sound of swords clashing - kling, klang, dik, dak, etc.
Ah! Perfido...Per pietà, op. 65
In the overwhelming majority of Beethoven’s vocal works, he revealed his devotion to the ideals and perils of love, including this evocative concert aria Ah! Perfido ("Ah! Liar") of 1796, incidentally, the same year Goethe completed Egmont.
Composed in Prague, Ah! Perfido is dedicated to a certain Countess Clari, (Josephine Clary-Aldringen) who happened to be a gifted and lovely young soprano. However, she was upstaged for the premier performance by the reigning operatic diva, Josepha Duschek. The saga gets even better: at the same time, both sopranos were rivals for the affections of a certain Count Christian Clam-Gallas, who resolved his indecision by giving his country estate to Josepha and marrying the Countess!
For the text of Ah! Perfido, Beethoven once again turned to the verse of Pietro Metastasio, who was also the source for Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito. Metastasio’s gripping lyrics are replete with Italian-styled verismo, and Beethoven’s setting dramatically captures the frenzy and delirium of a wounded heart. The concert aria was premiered in 1808, along with excerpts from the Mass in C, and the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasia.
Tremate, empi, tremate, op. 116
Originating from Beethoven’s study with Salieri, Tremate, empi, tremate ("Tremble, wicked ones, tremble") is a setting of a text from an opera by Giuseppe Sarti. What is most striking is how the music—in lyricism, concentrated drama, and tension—foreshadows Verdi. Beethoven must have either thought highly of Tremate or realized its potential for popular appeal, for he included it on programs for several concerts from 1814 until his death in 1827.
Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C Major, op. 56, "Triple Concerto" (1804)
Beethoven composed his "Triple Concerto" op. 56, for his pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, who was a pianist and amateur composer. Rudolph, who eventually became an archbishop, remained a life-long friend and patron of Beethoven, and was the only person to whom Beethoven ever gave regular instruction in composition. In addition to the "Triple Concerto", the Archduke received the dedication of such important works as the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the "Lebewohl" and "Hammerklavier" Sonatas, the op. 96 Violin Sonata, the "Archduke" Trio, the Missa Solemnis and the Grosse Fuge.
Beethoven’s choice of piano, violin and cello appears to be unprecedented in the literature—"really something new," he wrote to his publisher. There was a popular genre in the Classical era known as the sinfonia concertante for two or more soloists with orchestral accompaniment, a revamped model of the Baroque concerto grosso. Mozart and Haydn left lovely examples, but the particular combination of piano, violin, and cello seems never to have been tried before.
He sketched the first movement early in 1803 during his most prolific period. At the same time he was composing the "Eroica" Symphony, the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata" piano sonatas, and the first of the "Razumovsky" quartets. The "Triple Concerto" presented formidable compositional problems for Beethoven: how to give each soloist sufficient exposure while keeping the work within manageable formal bounds. To solve the problem, he had to devise simple and compact themes comprising basic chord and scale patterns, so this concerto is not rich in the dramatic transformation of material he was to employ in other middle-period compositions. The interest is to be found elsewhere—in the work’s contrasting sonorities, its interplay between soloists and orchestra, and its formal cohesion. This format, in turn, means that the concerto as a whole tends more toward lyric elaboration than to dramatic transformation of the material. The "Triple Concerto", therefore, combines the scale of Beethoven’s grand concerto style with instrumental dialogues among the soloists in a manner more typical of chamber music.
The first, expansive movement commences in the murmuring cellos and basses presenting the rhythmic motif that dominates the initial subject, and ensuing movement. The second movement, a sublime melody presented by the solo cello, is, in contrast to the lengthy first movement, surprisingly brief. The peaceful theme is not developed; rather Beethoven links it to the final movement using a set of short variations in dialogue between the soloists. The prancing polonaise, "Rondo alla Polacca", dances headstrong before erupting in the duple meter "Allegro". The swaggering polonaise returns, bringing the Concerto to a stirring conclusion.
Often overshadowed by the composer’s other concertos, the rarely heard and underrated "Triple Concerto" stands as a testament to the composer’s craft and as a window to Beethoven’s future lyricism of the Fourth Piano Concerto, op. 58 and the Violin Concerto, op. 61.
- Ryan Turner (2013)