Emanuel Ax Saturday Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven
Overture to Goethe’s Egmont, Op. 84

Ludwig van Beethoven

The German poet and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the historical drama Egmont between 1775 and 1787. Based on historical events – although with considerable poetic license – the play conveys Goethe’s idealism and passion for political and individual freedom. Historically, Lamoral, Count of Egmont, was a Dutch patriot and a Catholic who unsuccessfully attempted to attenuate the power of the Inquisition in the Netherlands, which was under Spanish rule during the mid sixteenth century. Caught between the Dutch resistance and his loyalty to King Philip II, Egmont was imprisoned and hanged for treason.

Goethe’s Egmont bears only scant resemblance to the historical Count of Egmont. In the play, Egmont organizes a resistance movement against the Spanish forces who invade and occupy the Netherlands, led by the ruthless Duke of Alva. Egmont is cast as a martyr for freedom of thought, managing to rouse the populace to revolt as he is about to be executed.

In 1809 the director of the Imperial Theater in Vienna commissioned Beethoven to compose music to accompany Goethe’s tragedy. Sharing the ideals of the Enlightenment with the playwright, Beethoven went to work enthusiastically. In addition to the overture he wrote nine pieces of incidental music, including two soprano arias. He also added a narrator to bridge the gaps in the story and thus, according to Goethe, “…it can be performed as an oratorio.” Goethe was pleased with Beethoven’s efforts, commenting, “Beethoven has followed my intentions with admirable genius.”

The Overture, which quickly acquired a life of its own, captures the essence of the drama. It opens with snarling minor chords symbolizing the Spanish brutality, answered pleadingly by the oboe and upper woodwinds, representing the Dutch suffering. The central allegro theme in 3/4 time has no specific narrative significance but rather, reflects the general dramatic tension, especially the sighing appoggiaturas in the violins. The Overture ends with the “Victory Symphony,” the final section of the incidental music, signifying Egmont’s call for the Dutch uprising that eventually drove the Spanish out of the Low Countries.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

When listening to any popular and well-known piece of music, it is difficult to keep from being lulled into inattention by its sheer familiarity. And while we can never hear a 200-year-old work from the point of view of its original audience, it is useful to pretend, at least, to be hearing it for the first time.

Despite the fact that most modern listeners tend to regard the key of a work as irrelevant, musicians of the Baroque and Classical periods regarded certain keys as possessing specific emotive qualities, or “affects.” Minor keys in particular were fraught with emotional significance, and few symphonies in this period were written in minor keys. For Mozart, the key of G minor was the key of extreme pathos. He used it sparingly for some of his most heart-wrenching music: the String Quintet K. 516; the Piano Quartet K. 478; Pamina’s aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute; and, of course, the stormy so-called “Little G minor” Symphony (No. 25) K. 183 written when he was only 17.

Mozart’s final three symphonies, nos. 39, 40 and 41, were written over a two-month period in 1788, probably as part of a portfolio of new works destined for a series of summer concerts in Vienna. Unfortunately, we lack any information as to whether the concerts actually took place, much less about their reception. At this point his career was already in decline despite the success of his two great operas Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, written in collaboration with his brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. That is not to say that Mozart’s music was somehow denigrated or considered no longer pleasing; his published scores were selling briskly and his music was being performed all over Europe. It was almost as if there was a surfeit of Mozart – that he was too well known. And although he was in desperate need of funds to support his lifestyle, his legendary productivity faltered as well.

The three symphonies reflect very different moods, the darkest being that of No. 40. It is almost as if the tragedy of this symphony saw its resolution only in the triumph of No. 41 (nicknamed “The Jupiter,” but not by Mozart). Ironically, we know less about the circumstances surrounding this most famous of Mozart’s over 600 creations, nor can we extrapolate any specific, solid evidence of how it might have reflected the circumstances of his life or his emotions.

The opening theme of Symphony No. 40, with its hushed, nervous introductory upbeat in the violas, sets the tone of urgency and anxiety that pervades the entire work.  The second movement Andante is the only movement in a major key. But while it begins serenely enough, it, too, turns dark and intense in the course of its development.

Even the Minuet, usually the most lightweight movement in a Classical symphony, retains the original key and is characterized by a series of phrases ending on successively higher and higher notes, ratcheting up the emotional tension. Restatements of the theme in imitative counterpoint pile on top of each other in their agitation. The Trio, at least, provides an emotional break, however slight.

The theme of the finale is a musical portrayal of hysteria, a shrill arpeggio ending in a sighing appoggiatura, followed by a pounding motive in the orchestra that closes with an echo of the sigh in the lower register. Despite a lyrical second theme, the movement is in constant nervous motion. Finally, Mozart subverts the custom of ending symphonies in minor keys in the major, and stays in g minor to the end.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19

When Ludwig van Beethoven left Bonn to move permanently to Vienna in November 1792, he brought with him a large quantity of his music, some finished, mostly not. But his initial and rapid success in Vienna was as a pianist, especially as an improviser, rather than as a composer. His performances took place in large private homes, since regular year-round concerts in public venues, such as those popular in London and Paris, were unknown in Vienna at the time. Only the occasional charity concert or subscription concert (Akademie) by a virtuoso or composer were open to the general public.

Among the manuscripts Beethoven brought with him was a draft of a piano concerto in B flat major, the early version of what he ultimately published in 1801 as the Concerto No. 2, Op. 19. He had probably started work on the Concerto in 1790, later discarding the original finale for the one we know today. He continued agonizing over the final version until the last minute, delaying publication because in the days before copyright laws he wanted to retain it for his personal use as a performer for numerous concerts in Vienna and Prague. As a result, despite its listing as Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, it was certainly composed, although not published, before the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15. In the years 1794 to 1809, the piano underwent a rapid development, not in small part as a result of Beethoven’s demands and specifications. While the Concerto was written for a piano of five octaves, like Mozart’s, by the time Beethoven wrote a cadenza in 1809 for his pupil and friend, the Archduke Rudolph, it was for a piano of 5 1/2 octaves with commensurate increase in power and sound. Consequently, a piano corresponding to Beethoven’s instrument for which the Concerto was written, would not be able to play the 1809 cadenzas he later added to it.

The Concerto itself still reflects the styles of Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven was still a young man learning his trade. Despite his youth and inexperience with the form and following a practice started in some of Mozart’s piano concerti, he departed from the standard “double exposition” convention in which the orchestra introduces the principal themes, followed by the soloist going through the same material pretty much unaltered. In the first movement, the orchestra begins with a conventional exposition of the two main themes, & but then the piano enters with a new theme of its own and immediately proceeds to vary and develop the first orchestral theme until the orchestra returns in a duet with piano on the second theme. The development begins with the piano’s theme but veers off into an exploration of all of the preceding musical material. The long cadenza is unusual as well, beginning with a fugal treatment of the main theme in inversion – in line with Beethoven’s habit at the time he composed it.

The second movement, which also owes a great deal to Mozart, is based on a single gentle theme consisting of two distinct motives in its two parts , the extension of which is only played by the soloist . Both soloist and orchestra spin out the melodies with embellishments in a style that foreshadows many of the composer’s masterful slow movements still to come. Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil, compared it to a dramatic vocal scene. Czerny’s point is well taken since this movement particularly involves a musical dialogue between soloist and orchestra.

The high-spirited Rondo finale, a late addition to the Concerto, contains an unusual rhythmic relationship between the first and second themes: the first theme is based on a trochaic poetic foot (or short-long) while the second is based on an iamb (long-short) . Beethoven has a bit of fun with the two meters by lengthening the “wrong foot” in the troche (it should the first beat). This humorous juxtaposition creates a bouncy uncertain rhythm, full of surprises, reflecting Beethoven’s fondness for offbeat accents.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016