A BIT ABOUT BEETHOVEN

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Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is one of the most well-known figures from the Western classical tradition. He is considered a leading figure in the transition from classical styles (think Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) to romantic ones.

Beethoven’s style, of course, was ever-changing, so his career is divided into three phases:

Early (~1792-1802)

beethoven

A portrait of the 13-year-old Beethoven by an unknown Bonn master (c. 1783)

Middle (~1802-1815)

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Beethoven in 1803,
painted by Christian Horneman

Late (~1815-1827)

beethoven

1820
Joseph Karl Stieler
From life

"IMITATION" PERIOD

In his early phase Beethoven was rooted in the classical style, so this is called his “imitation” period. For example, one can see this in his Symphony No. 1. Beethoven decided to leave his hometown, Bonn, in 1792 to pursue a musical career in Vienna, where he studied with classical composers like Franz Joseph Haydn (aka father of the string quartet and symphony). Beethoven spent much time giving piano performances here to cultivate financial support from local nobility.

"HEROIC" PERIOD

Starting in 1802 Beethoven became more experimental in his output. He also began experiencing hearing loss, which led to depression, antisocialism, and irritability (understandably so) for fear of others’ opinions and losing his career. Despite this, Beethoven was determined to write music; this is part of the reason that 1802-1815 is called his “heroic” period. The “heroicism” of this phase also stems from his interest in pre-tyrannical Napoleon Bonaparte, who was the original inspiration behind Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. During this time Beethoven’s music began to get longer, rougher, and more aggressive (e.g., his Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7) than the more classically-infused output of the previous era. He became bolder and more heroic as a composer

During his last period (1815-1827) Beethoven was almost completely deaf.

He began to adapt to this loss, depending more on writing out his compositions in sketchbooks (still heavily studied by historians today to understand his process) and communicating with friends and family through conversation books (i.e., people wrote down what they wanted to say to him). The revolutionary, heroic attitude and style of the previous era was gone, as Beethoven seemed more comfortable in his own skin musically. His compositions were more radical in terms of their structure and used a greater variety of techniques.

Since his death in 1827, Beethoven has become an icon of the Romantic period.

He has been pegged as a stereotypical “struggling” artist (i.e., creating art to cope with hardship) that influenced many other Romantic composers. He has also been used to represent an ideal genius, a concept that was established in the nineteenth century. However, historians now strive to go beyond these narratives that put Beethoven on a god-like pedestal. For example, Robin Wallace’s Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery (2018)  describes the challenges of going deaf and how Beethoven dealt with it in writing music, conducting orchestras, etc. Beethoven can be seen as  more than a face of the Western classical music canon—he was human and faced challenges to which we can relate.

Beethoven has also influenced popular culture in many ways as well.

For instance, if you go to Beethoven’s IMDb page, one can see how often his music is used in film and television. You can also see examples of where his compositions have been used in other music at whosampled.com. For more on Beethoven’s representation in United States culture, check out Michael Broyles’ Beethoven in America (2011). As can be seen in these resources, you’ve probably heard Beethoven’s music your whole life. Do you recognize any of the films, shows, or other media in which Beethoven’s works have been used? What meanings does his music take on in these contexts? Consider how you engage with his music in media and live concert experiences—you’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn about his compositions.

Prokofiev. Greatest Powerhouse of the 20th Century!

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Our guest artist, Alon Goldstein and his thoughts on Prokofiev.

German culture – it’s strong influence and how composers found new sources of inspiration.  This whole period is very interesting, from the beginning of the 20th century, about 1890 until 1914. There was a very interesting transition where the musical world was so influenced by Strauss and Wagner. It was overwhelming – this German culture. Composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev tried to get away from Germany in order to find their sources of inspiration. It was difficult to get away because Germany influenced them with so much with its culture. But they wanted to see what they could do which would be different.

Suddenly Ravel is writing Rhapsody espagnole. Scheherazade was influenced by the story of Persia. Debussy goes even further off the coast of Indonesia to the island of Java to bring Gamelan music. There was this search for new sounds, new ideas – Prokofiev and Stravinsky brought in African rhythms. That was an aspect in Prokofiev’s music to get away from the culture of Germany. Is there still German influence in Prokofiev’s music? Of course. It’s a three-movement piece, fast, slow, fast – somewhat. You definitely get the whole relationship between piano and orchestra. It’s all coming from the German tradition and culture. Yet, what could be new in his music? One of the things that is new, is Prokofiev’s use of Castanets. I don’t know any German piece that uses Castanets. So that was a new sound.

Paris in the early twentieth century was such an incredible Mecca; the place where everyone settled and everyone listened to music. So where is that inspiration? Then there is the idea of impressionism and how it influences music. In the first and second movements, there is this search for color – which you hear in his music and the use of castanets is definitely a search for color. Orchestra colors which are different. Some coming from Germany and on the other hand coming from Paris.  

Liszt.  Can anything be written after Liszt?  Is the piano a string or percussion instrument?
Liszt. The second half of the nineteenth century dominated the whole keyboard scene with his virtuosity and his writing. What can you write for piano after Liszt? Is there something new you can do after Liszt and obviously Chopin as well? It’s very interesting in this concerto as well, how Prokofiev finds some new ideas to the piano. For me, one of the most fascinating things you can think about the 19th century is, is the piano a string instrument or a percussion instrument? What can you say, it’s a hammer hitting string – it’s a percussion instrument. But then you have the whole eighteen and nineteenth century with the music of Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt – anything but percussive. Everything tries to be this singing. You listen to Chopin and think of the piano as a percussion instrument? There was conscious effort to get away from that idea of a piano being percussion. Suddenly you come to the music of Prokofiev and he’s like, “I like it. It is a percussion.” He makes a percussion instrumenting sound beautiful and sometimes ugly and sometimes ugly is okay. In someway he freed the piano in that respect, that’s okay to be a percussion instrument. He’s saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll get over it and make something new out of it.” Still, there are very, very lyrical moments in the middle of the first movement. Obviously, the second movement with its slower variations in there and the third movement has the most heartbreaking middle section. Then there is the outer section in the last movement, or some of the variations in signatures are complete percussion in an unbelievable clever way that just exposes the piano and stretches it to places it hasn’t been before. In that respect, I think is really pretty cool!

Sarcasm, cynicism – can music be ugly and beautiful?
There are the usual attributes and characteristics of Prokofiev that we know – the sarcasm, the wit. The music sometimes is very sardonic, sometimes cynical and if you think about it, he expands the gamut, the vocabulary of expressions in music. One might say, I don’t remember that music is supposed to express anything ugly. It should be beautiful, but it’s okay to be also on that other side. It’s ok to be sarcastic. It’s ok to be cynical. It’s ok to be sardonic. These are some of the different adjectives that he added to musical expression.

By the way, how do you characterize sarcasm in music or cynicism? I invite the audience to ask themselves, can music be cynical? Can it be ugly and beautiful at the same time? Or can ugly serve this storytelling? Can it be percussive and still beautiful to the ear?

Know the Genre.  Know the Composer.
Another aspect is with composers. Each composer has a certain genre that really excels in. Go to that genre, and you will learn a lot about the composer. For example with Bach, go to the cantatas. When you know the cantatas of Bach, you know a lot about Bach. Go to the songs of Schubert and you will know a lot about Schubert. Sure, he wrote incredible symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets but from those songs, you learn a lot. 

The Elegant Side of Prokofiev. The Composer of Ballet.
With Prokofiev its interesting because he touched so many things, but one thing which not many people bring to the table when they play or talk about Prokofiev is that idea of ballet. Again, we think of percussion, but it’s elegant sometimes. This is the same person who wrote Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and wrote this incredibly beautiful, elegant defined gravity kind of music. That’s another aspect of his music. Yet, then I think of places in the second movement or the second theme of the first movement where he has these castanets, and you think of some dance. He even writes inside the music eleganza 
meaning elegance. I don’t remember people listening to Prokofiev coming to me after listening to his symphonies saying, “Oh what an elegant music.” It should be! Maybe it’s just been played a little too loudly.

“I cannot wait to challenge the audience – and challenge myself.”
So these are some thoughts about this extraordinary concerto which is one of the greatest powerhouses of the 20th century. It has an unbelievable proportion in every movement. It’s about nine minutes long, so it has a great symmetry of proportion throughout its search for new sounds, its search for new piano technique, the opening up of the vocabulary and expression to new adjectives that have never been associated with music necessarily. Plus the idea of ballet, all this comes to play in this really magnificent work and the orchestra – what a tour de force! I will never forget the first time I played the piece was with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra after winning a big competition and the first violinist in the orchestra came to me with 40 pages of their part and said, “Look what I have to learn because of you!” It’s not like an orchestra part where you have two or three pages that you need to know. This is a concerto for every member of the orchestra and the piano as well. But they love it! There is no accompaniment here. It is like a concerto for piano and orchestra. Not a concerto for piano with orchestra accompaniment. So I cannot wait to see the audience. I cannot wait to challenge them – and challenge myself.

 

Brahms. Sunny, Pastoral and Hair-Raising!

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SUNNY.  PASTORAL. HAIR-RAISING!

Okay, Johannes Brahms.  Johannes Brahms is one of classical music’s grumpiest composers so he really just had a problem with other people.  There’s a great story of him leaving a party, and he turned to the assembled guests and said if there’s anyone I haven’t offended I apologize and he walked out. 

I mean, obviously he had a great sense of humor too, but he really was famously grumpy.  What I love about Brahms, both as a person and in his music, is that his grumpiness doesn’t ever appear in his music.  I really have to imagine that the social barrier that he put up, that crusty shell was just protecting a much softer and gooier interior. I think he really was an incredibly sensitive, deeply feeling guy and that was just his way of kind of managing it in a public setting.  So certainly that sensitivity and that kind of joy in music is really at the fore in the Second Symphony that were playing with the ACO.

The Second Symphony was written in 1877 over the course of the summer  – which was super fast for Brahms. Especially when it came to symphonies because his first symphony took 21 years to write.  He really just put it off and put it off. Then struggled and struggled and struggled with that first symphony because he felt the burden of Beethoven’s legacy on his shoulders.  It really just basically gave him writer’s block and he couldn’t get past it. But once that first symphony barrier was passed after twenty-one years, the rest of the symphonies came a little bit more easily.

So the second symphony has the traditional four movements.  It’s a very sunny piece. It’s not at all like the grumpy Brahms who stormed out of the party. The first movement is lovely pastoral music featuring the horns –  a lot of great horn writing.

In the second movement, we are met with a more expected kind of Brahmsian autumnal melancholy and very vocal writing. It’s absolutely gorgeous music! The third moment is the usual spot for a scherzo and a trio, but Brahms turns things on its head in this movement by writing instead of a scherzo and a trio – he writes a trio and then a scherzo.  So it’s an Oreo with the cream on the outside and the cookie in the middle.

He starts with gentler more intimate music and then after that’s done, he flips to a scherzo which is kind of livelier, more sprightly and is filled with rhythmic puns. The last movement is a kind of amalgam of a baroque Handelian clarity with romantic fever, and it is a piece that I think has one of the most spectacular and hair-raising endings of any symphony.

Come hear it live April 4th, 5th and 6th Palm Beach Gardens, Vero Beach and Stuart.  I’m David Amado, Music Director of the Atlantic Classical Orchestra. Thanks for watching.

Mozart No. 40 …. High-Voltage Drama!

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Mozart High-Voltage Drama!

Mozart was a fast worker.  In the summer of 1788, he wrote his final three symphonies—each one a monument of classical style.  His 40th symphony, the middle of those three, is one of only two symphonies in his entire output of 41 that is in a minor key—that is under 5% minor.  Amazing.

The minor key gives the Symphony an unusual sense of humanity, drama, and emotional scope. 

In the requisite four movements, the piece begins, unlike the 39th, without an introduction—but instead with an anxious string accompaniment which soon backs up a restless theme filled with unresolved tension.  The second movement, a respite from the minor key drama, shows Mozart at his operatic best—beautiful tunes, and a sense of refined drama.  The third movement is a minuet and trio—but it’s an un-danceable minuet—with tense overlaid rhythms.  The finale starts with a classical trope called a ‘Mannheim Rocket’—quickly rising pitches outlining the main key—and serves as the main idea in the finale. 

The drive and high-voltage drama of the 40th symphony are unrelenting—from the restive opening to the headlong Mannheim Rocket.  Mozart seems, in this symphony, to have exchanged the empirical balance of classicism for the emotionalism and drama that would define the Romantic era.  Though Mozart would not live to see the Romantic era start, let alone bloom, it is pieces like this 40th Symphony that set the stage for it. Its overt emotionalism and its stormy drama make it stand out amongst Mozart’s, and his contemporaries, symphonic output.

Last month we played Schumann—a Romantic embracing classical values.  This time, we play a Classicist embracing—and helping define—Romantic ones.

Come Hear Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 Live!
March 14 in Palm Beach Gardens, March 15 in Vero Beach and March 16 in Stuart.
 

Mozart’s Only Concerto for Harp

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So Rare. So Incredibly Beautiful. So Mozart.

In 1778, Mozart visited Paris for the second time. He found himself employed, partly, by a flutist— aristocrat to teach composition to his harp-playing daughter. She was, by Mozart’s account, a wonderful harpist and an awful composer. Her dad commissioned Mozart to write a concerto for the two of them—a combination now common, but then rare if known at all. In Mozart’s time, the harp was in its infancy—and was not today’s big, lush, projecting instrument but a quieter, more delicate, and fragile one.

Mozart never ended up getting paid for the piece (those French aristocrats!), and never wrote for the harp again. Too bad, because he to wrote some lovely music for it in this concerto.

In three movements, the piece features both the long-line capability of the flute, and the notey virtuosity of the harp. Of particular interest to me is the second movement where Mozart displays his opera chops so beautifully—-with gorgeous tunes, and a classical sense of drama and suspense. The last movement is, like the 6th Serenade last movement—a rondo.

For our performance of this concerto, we’ll feature the ACO’s very own principal flutist and harpist—Tina Apelgren and Kay Kemper. What a pleasure to put our own out in front and showcase the remarkable level of talent we have on our stage every time we play.

Of Mozart’s 40 something concertos—this is the only one for this rare and lovely combination—and this is a rare opportunity to hear this special masterpiece!

Come hear it live March 14 in Palm Beach Gardens, March 15 in Vero Beach and March 16 in Stuart.