Beethoven at 250 – All Beethoven Program
Overture Leonore no. 3
Concerto for violin, cello and piano
Piano Concerto no. 5 (“Emperor”)
This year, orchestras all over the world are celebrating Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary and performing his best-loved works. On this occasion, our Artist-in-Residence, Sir András Schiff, returns to us to play and conduct an all-Beethoven program, in a series of concerts featuring violinist Renaud Capuçon, cellist Edgar Moreau and pianist Jérémie Moreau.
Beethoven: Concerto for violin, cello and piano
A composer’s life is hard! Let’s assume that the struggle with the muses is settled, and that their health (at least at this stage) is good, and perhaps there is even attendance and acceptance of their inspirational output, but still… making a living… Even the great Beethoven had to teach in addition to composing. He had one student. Young, rich, but… rather annoying. The great composer wrote about him: “I have only one pupil and I cannot get rid of him, much as I would like to. I must now give His Imperial Highness the Archduke Rudolph a two-hour lesson every day. This takes so much out of me that it makes me almost unfit for any other work.”
The Triple Concerto (composed in 1803-1804) was written with the thought that the young Duke would be able to be one of the soloists (this is perhaps why the piano part is easier than the violin and cello parts). Beethoven was faced with a great challenge. Stylistically, he no longer could write a Baroque Concerto grosso, but, on the other hand, the idea that each of the soloists must get a “thematic lead” and that such an ensemble of soloists must create a statement that is differentiated from the orchestra posed true structural complications for the composer. This is perhaps why Beethoven hesitated with the title of the piece and at a certain stage thought of calling it “Concertante for violin, cello, piano and orchestra”. Another problem was one of balance between the three soloists and between the soloists and the orchestra. This is one of the may be one of the reasons why the cello part makes so much use of the instrument’s high register, and that some of the work’s themes are introduced first by the cello.
During Beethoven’s lifetime, this Concerto was performed only once (we have no idea whether the pianist was royalty or not) and it did not receive much success. Even among Beethoven scholars there are differences of opinion as to the work’s value. Paul Becker, who wrote a biography of Beethoven, claimed that it took time until the work made its way to the concert stages and became an integral part of the repertoire.
The extent of the complex compositional challenge that Beethoven took upon himself can be learned from the fact that nobody before him had written a triple concerto, and lovers of the genre had to wait until composers such as Bohuslav Martinů, Gian Francesco Malipiero and Ellen Taafe Zwilich would add to it a contemporary touch.
Leonore Overture no. 3
Leonard Bernstein once wrote in a wonderful article on film music (following the score he wrote to Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront) about the danger that “functional music” could overshadow the drama that it is supposed to serve (Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music). This was also almost the case in Beethoven’s Leonore no. 3 Overture to his opera Fidelio. Researchers, critics and performers sensed that this overture was so dramatic, sweeping and intriguing that it somewhat overshadows what happens later (a dramatic-tragic opera, in case you were wondering). This led various conductors to “expropriate” Leonore no. 3 from the “overture” function it was supposed to fill and to perform it before the opera’s finale. We know that celebrated conductors, such as Toscanini and Mahler, used to do that. Another way of “coping” with the work’s independent quality is to perform it as an independent work (as performed in this concert). Those who are acquainted with Beethoven’s numbering concerns will not be surprised to learn that Leonore no. 3 is actually the composer’s second attempt to write an overture to Fidelio (the first is, for some reason, called Leonore no. 2. Leonore no. 1 was written for a performance in Prague that never took place and was discovered only after the composer’s death). Even if the intensity, drama and story that this Overture tells could be detrimental to the operatic narrative, the concert goers have a chance to hear an early version of a symphonic poem, which later flourished under the hands of Liszt, Strauss and others. Leonore no. 3 has all the required dramatic elements: from the ascending notes, the somberness of the jail house, the yearning of the prisoner, the unceasing love and the spectacular resolution of the conflict, the music makes use of all the popular Beethovenian implements: effective orchestration, harmonic density, touching melodies, a swift and sweeping ending and mainly a certain inconceivable spice of “drama”, the ability to orchestrate a descending sale in such a way that it turns into a real story, and the ability to compose unrest, which is resolved only in the final section of the work.