Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), pictured here at age 33, was a crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music; he remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers. He evaluated his position as a creator like this: "Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life ... the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend." This concert presents four of his magical works.
This symphony was composed during a prolific creative period for Beethoven; he created and revised it over a period of four years, finally completing it in 1808. With this masterpiece and his third symphony, completed in 1804, he launched music and art into the world of Romanticism. The opening gesture is the most famous beginning in all of classical music, and the symphony goes on to send a message of victory through struggle, which so deeply touches both the heart and the mind. It conveyed a passionate sentiment that won international renown for Beethoven.
It is a carefully devised whole in which each movement carries the work inexorably toward its end. The progression from minor to major, from dark to light, from conflict to resolution is at the very heart of this symphony. The triumphant, victorious nature of the final movement as the outcome of all that preceded it established a model for the symphonies of the Romantic era.
“Goethe’s poems exert a great power over me not only because of their contents but also because of their rhythms; I am stimulated to compose by this language, which builds itself up to higher orders as if through spiritual agencies, and bears in itself the secret of harmonies.” Thus did Beethoven explain his feelings about the poems that inspired many of his songs.
In 1815, Beethoven wrote a choral work on Goethe’s paired poems titled Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage). It is a masterful tone painting, which treats one of Beethoven’s favorite subjects — tranquility penetrated by agitation, dissolving into joyful triumph. It first captures apprehension about a ship becalmed at sea, which not only disrupted trade but could mean starvation for the crew, with quiet, almost motionless music, except for two startling exclamations of terror from the chorus. The tension is then dispelled by rolling gusts of triplets and joyous choral shouts that blow the sailors safely to port.
What is most remarkable about the exquisite Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac Song) is its near-invisibility. It is rarely performed, perhaps because it is so short and the list of famous pieces by this iconic composer is so long. Beethoven wrote it as a gift to one of his patrons, the Baron Pasqualati, whose wife had died in childbirth in 1811. The first performance (by a vocal quartet and string quartet) took place in the Pasqualati home in 1814. Although the author of the text is unknown, it may have been the widower-Baron himself: “Softly as you lived you have reached your end, too holy for pain! No eye should weep over the return home of a heavenly spirit.”
Beethoven composed this overture for the first revision of his opera Fidelio in 1806. It was one of four different overtures he wrote for Fidelio. Three of these bear the name of the opera's heroine, Leonore. Leonore No. 3 is, in the end, too perfect to be simply an opera overture. It is so comprehensive and self-sufficient that it seems to constitute a complete drama in its own right. As a symphonic poem, which is the term that best describes it, this work does not attempt to encapsulate the various episodes of the drama, or even to represent all the key characters. Rather, through mood, atmosphere and spirit, this music sums up splendidly the dramatic sequence of the opera, conveying oppression, resolve, hope, and joyous deliverance.