Beethoven and Saint-Saëns
Saturday, October 8, 2016 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
VIOLIN CONCERTO in D, Op.61
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1806
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Rondo - Allegro
At the first performance of this now deeply-loved work, the soloist, Franz Clement, tore out three of the strings of his violin and turned it upside down, then played a piece of his own on the remaining string before reassembling the instrument and embarking on the Beethoven finale. It was almost certainly his best performance all evening, as he was sight-reading the concerto after Beethoven delivered it to him the day before, a mere three months late. Clement was booed off, a remarkable achievement considering that the concert was a benefit for him. He was said to have thrown the music in the trash as he came off the platform; it remained there, metaphorically at least, until 1844, when it was resurrected in triumph by the 12-year-old Joseph Joachim under the guidance of Felix Mendelssohn. The four opening timpani strokes turn out to be the backbone of the entire first movement, which is otherwise in conventional sonata form; it is no coincidence at all that the concerto was composed on the same desk, at the same time, as the Fifth Symphony, whose opening motto pervades the entire work.
The slow movement innovates in its own quiet way. A theme with variations, the movement absolutely avoids the usual pattern for variations (not least in Beethoven’s works), in which the successive variations become steadily more ornamented and complex, a tradition stretching back at least to the Renaissance. Instead of sprouting ever more notes, the theme acquires more and different colors at it is handed about between the soloist and the various hues of the orchestra. A fierce orchestra kick shoos the dreaming soloist into the finale.
In the unmistakably bucolic atmosphere of the finale, we catch a glimpse of another work sharing the desk with the concerto during its composition – the Pastoral Symphony, including a short passage that is so similar that one might briefly suspect deliberate quotation – but who knows? The solo part mounts a steep upward curve in difficulty towards the end of the work, ending in a blaze of sheer technical horror that has ensured the work’s place at the pinnacle of the violin Parnassus.
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
SYMPHONY No.3 in C minor, “ORGAN”
Premiered: London, England, 1886
- Adagio – Allegro moderato – Poco adagio
- Allegro moderato – Presto – Maestoso – Allegro
Why the organ? Dedicated to the recently-deceased Franz Liszt, the piece is not an organ concerto by any means, and the presence of the conspicuous organ part would severely limit the possibilities for the piece’s performance. However, the London Philharmonic Society, who commissioned the work, owned a particularly fine organ but were between harpists, so the Symphony has an organ but no harp. If this were not weird enough for the Victorian audience, the piece would also be in two movements. Saint-Saëns himself explained:
“This symphony is divided into two parts. Nevertheless it embraces in principle the four traditional movements, but the first is altered in its development to serve as the introduction to the Adagio, and the scherzo is connected by the same process to the finale. The composer has sought to avoid to some extent the interminable reprises and repetitions which more and more are tending to disappear from instrumental music under the influence of increasingly developed musical culture.”
The last sentence reads more like a veiled swipe at other composers (not least Liszt, ironically) than helpful analysis, but it gives some idea of the composer’s thinking. Interestingly, the composer also more or less apologized to the London Philharmonic for giving them something dangerously close in places to a piano concerto.
After a short, vaguely grim introduction, the first movement launches into a theme which will generate much of the material for the whole work. The first four notes are from the Dies Irae, that ancient musical avatar of Death that has haunted Western music since the early Middle Ages. This ancient monster does its work in considerable depth and detail before the organ creeps almost unnoticed onto the scene in an Adagio that seems uncertain whether to haunt the cloister or the boudoir (Liszt must have loved it). The second movement begins with what would otherwise be the Scherzo, and involves the first serious attempt to be a piano concerto. However, this subsides into something very like a fugue that eventually fades way when the violins attempt to play the subject in canon, leading to a general collapse into quietness and mystery.
The mystery is demolished by a gigantic organ chord of C major. An exchange of much grandeur between the organ and the orchestra is itself supplanted by a mighty chorale theme wafted along on the swirling arpeggios of two pianists, soon taken up by the organ and brass between cymbal crashes. A ruthlessly-placed Surging String Melody that sounds like an out-take from Samson et Dalila ensured that the first audience would have something to whistle on the way home; the work ends in an unforgettable orgy of C major.
ADAM SCHOENBERG (born 1980)
Premiered: Atlanta, Georgia, 2010
To answer the obvious question: Adam Schoenberg is no relation to Arnold Schoenberg, but he is, intriguingly, a distant relative of George Gershwin. Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, he now teaches at UCLA in a building named after his non-relative. Up! is a fanfare, very much in the Common Man mold, and, like Copland’s fanfare, became the cornerstone of a symphony – Schoenberg’s American Symphony of 2011. It was written for the tenth anniversary of Robert Spano’s appointment as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony. Schoenberg described the piece for its first performance:
“The fanfare is built on major and minor 3rds that travel in parallel motion throughout the entire piece while constantly modulating. The title comes from the upward motion of the work and my desire to create a succinct, swift, and hopefully inspiring and uplifting piece.”
About the Concert
Young American composer Adam Schoenberg offers a 3-minute thrill ride to kick off our 39th season opener!. Just when you thought Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony couldn't get any more exciting, he adds the wonderful sound of an organ into the mix. National Symphony violin virtuoso Joel Fuller makes his Columbia Orchestra debut in Beethoven's marvelous concerto.