Program 1

Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composed in 1801.

Premiered on March 28, 1801 in Vienna.

Salvatore Vigano was one of the great dancers of the early 19th century, whose fame during his own time has been compared to that of Nijinsky a century later and Nureyev and Baryshnikov in more recent days. Though he was constantly in demand throughout Europe as performer, producer and choreographer, Vigano showed Vienna the special favor of two extended residencies, the second beginning in 1799. Late in 1800, Vigano devised the scenario for a new ballet based on the Prometheus legend, a work he intended as a compliment to Maria Theresa, second wife of the Emperor Francis. He inquired at court as to which composer might be the most suitable to engage and was informed that Beethoven, who had recently (and tactfully) dedicated the score of his Septet (Op. 20) to Maria Theresa, would be an appropriate choice. Beethoven was approached, and he agreed to undertake the project.

The following description of the ballet’s plot appeared in the program for the premiere:

“The foundation of this allegorical ballet is the fable of Prometheus. The philosophers of Greece allude to Prometheus as a lofty soul who drove the people of his time from ignorance, refined them by means of science and the arts, and gave them manners, customs and morals. As a result of that conception, two statues that have been brought to life are introduced in this ballet; and these, through the power of harmony, are made sensitive to all the passions of human life. Prometheus leads them to Parnassus, in order that Apollo, the god of the fine arts, may enlighten them.”

The ancient legend of Prometheus had taken on a certain topicality in turn-of-the-19th-century Europe because of the association of the (then) hero Napoleon with the god who stole fire from Mount Parnassus to enlighten mankind. Beethoven, in those pre-“Eroica” years, may have wanted to show his respect for the French general in this ballet, his only work in the genre. It is also likely that the composer saw something of himself in the character of Prometheus. “Music should strike fire in the heart of man,” he once proclaimed. More specifically relating himself with the Prometheus legend was his statement to the Archduke Rudolph in 1823: “There is no loftier mission than to approach the Divinity nearer than other men, and to disseminate the divine rays among mankind.”

The Overture to Prometheus is Beethoven’s earliest work in that form, and one of his most compact. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “When I was a boy, an overture beginning emphatically with an unprepared discord made me expect something tremendous.” So begins this Overture. The characteristic tension — the expectation of “something tremendous” — generated by so many of Beethoven’s works appears here in the very first measure. The electric opening chord initiates a lyrical introduction in slow tempo. The main body of the Overture follows without pause. The first theme is an energetic display of rushing scales propelled by a vibrant rhythmic energy. The second theme is a more delicate melody, entrusted to the piping flutes in duet.

The Creatures of Prometheus, standing on the threshold of Beethoven’s second creative period, points forward to the substance of his later works. Of this prophetic quality, Marion M. Scott wrote, “In [Prometheus], Beethoven occupied himself with the theme of the beneficent saviour of mankind. It was a turning point in his career. His old style no longer contented him. Of conventional religion, Beethoven had none, but his mind was beginning to search into the deepest mysteries of the universe at the same time that he recognized the mission within himself that he must fulfill. The musician must be the liberator of mankind from sorrow.”

Violin Concerto, Op. 15

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Composed in 1938-1939.

Premiered on March 28, 1940 in New York City, conducted by John Barbirolli with Antonio Brosa as soloist.

Benjamin Britten was 26 in 1939, and much unsettled about his life. Though he had already produced fourteen works important enough to be given opus numbers and a large additional number of songs, chamber music, choral works and film and theater scores, he felt his career was stymied both by an innate conservatism among the British music public and by the increasingly assured threat of war in Europe. Additionally troubling was his proclaimed pacificism in a nation girding itself for battle. In January 1939, his friends poet W.H. Auden and novelist Christopher Isherwood left for America in search of creative stimulation and freedom from what Auden called the English artist’s feeling of being “essentially lonely, twisted in dying roots.” With the promise of a performance of his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge by the New York Philharmonic in August and the prospect (never realized) of writing a score for a Hollywood film about King Arthur, Britten decided to follow Auden, and in May he left England with his life-long companion, tenor Peter Pears, intent on becoming a citizen of the United States.

Since Britten and Pears planned on taking up a permanent working status, they skirted immigration regulations by entering the United States through Canada, where they became “legal British immigrants” and spent several pleasant weeks in Toronto establishing contact with the representatives in that city of the composer’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. (In December 1939, Britten composed the lighthearted Canadian Carnival for orchestra as a souvenir of his visit.) They arrived in New York in late June, and were invited “for a weekend” by William and Elizabeth Mayer to their home in Amityville, Long Island — except for short trips away and a brief, rowdy period with a houseful of artists headed by Auden in Brooklyn, it was to be their principal residence until they returned to England almost three years later. Despite frequent bouts of depression and ill health, Britten composed freely in America, producing such important scores as the Violin Concerto, Les Illuminations, Michelangelo Sonnets, Sinfonia da Requiem, Ceremony of Carols and the operetta Paul Bunyan. (The Hollywood film project never materialized.)

In August 1938, several months before he left for America, Britten appeared as soloist in the premiere of his Piano Concerto at a Promenade Concert in London. The venture went well enough that he began a concerto for violin three months later, and carried the sketches with him when he sailed for Canada in May 1939. He worked on the Violin Concerto in Toronto over the next several weeks and at his home on Long Island during the summer, and finished it while vacationing in the Quebec town of St. Jovite in September. He submitted the score for consideration to Jascha Heifetz, who was then preparing for the December premiere in Cleveland of the Violin Concerto that William Walton had just written for him, but the famed violinist rejected Britten’s Concerto as unplayable (though without specifying whether his judgment arose from technical, contractual or political considerations). Britten then contacted the Spanish virtuoso Antonio Brosa, an old friend and fellow student of the English composer Frank Bridge with whom he had given the premiere of his Suite for Violin and Piano (Op. 6) on a BBC broadcast in March 1936. Brosa, like Britten, had settled in the United States with war looming in Europe, and he agreed to give the Concerto’s premiere on March 28, 1940 with the New York Philharmonic and its music director, John Barbirolli, another English musician then working in America. The reviews of the premiere were mixed — “pretty violent: either pro or con,” Britten remembered — but among those who heard a distinctive voice in this music was the American composer Elliott Carter, who wrote that “nobody could fail to be impressed by the remarkable gifts of the composer, the size and ambition of his talent.”

The Concerto’s broad, darkly noble first movement begins with a succinct, open-interval motive in the timpani that recurs throughout as a motto. Above the bassoon’s muttering repetitions of the motto, the solo violin presents the main theme, a melody made from a series of short, smooth, mostly descending phrases. The orchestra takes over the main theme to provide a transition to the second subject, which is constructed from extensive elaborations of the rhythms and intervals inherent in the motto. A climax is built from this material in the development section before the recapitulation begins with roles reversed from the exposition: the upper strings play the main theme while the soloist hammers out aggressive permutations of the motto. The second subject is omitted in the recapitulation, but the violin reclaims the main theme in the coda, intoning it musingly above a sparse accompaniment of timpani, harp and plucked strings. The second movement is a driving, virtuosic, slightly sinister scherzo for which the more relaxed central section provides formal and expressive contrast. A brilliant cadenza that recalls the timpani motto and the main theme from the first movement serves as a bridge to the finale. The somber closing movement is a passacaglia, a formal technique using a series of variations on a short, recurring melody that was highly favored by Baroque composers but which fell into disuse with the changed requirements of the music of the Classical era. Britten fitted this passacaglia with nine variations on a stern scalar melody, and gave the music a serious emotional cast that seems to have reflected his sorrow over the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, which reached its bloody climax when he was completing the Concerto. “It is at times like these,” he said, “that work is so important — so that people can think of other things than blowing each other up! ... I try not to listen to the radio more than I can help.” Though Benjamin Britten was only 27 when he composed his Violin Concerto, the work shows that he had already become a master of reflecting the human condition in music of technical mastery and emotional depth.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composed in 1803-1804.

Premiered in December 1804 in Vienna.

The year 1804 — the time when Beethoven finished his Third Symphony — was crucial in the modern political history of Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte had begun his meteoric rise to power only a decade earlier, after playing a significant part in the recapture in 1793 of Toulon, a Mediterranean port that had been surrendered to the British by French royalists. Britain, along with Austria, Prussia, Holland and Spain, was a member of the First Coalition, an alliance that had been formed by those monarchial nations in the wake of the execution of Louis XVI to thwart the French National Convention’s ambition to spread revolution (and royal overthrow) throughout Europe. In 1796, Carnot entrusted the campaign against northern Italy, then dominated by Austria, to the young General Bonaparte, who won a stunning series of victories with an army that he had transformed from a demoralized, starving band into a military juggernaut. He returned to France in 1799 as First Consul of the newly established Consulate, and put in place measures to halt inflation, instituted a new legal code, and repaired relations with the Church. It was to this man, this great leader and potential saviour of the masses from centuries of tyrannical political, social and economic oppression, that Beethoven intended to pay tribute in his majestic E-flat Symphony, begun in 1803. The name “Bonaparte” appears above that of the composer on the original title page.

Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1804, and he was crowned, with the new Empress Josephine, at Notre Dame Cathedral on December 2nd, an event forever frozen in time by David’s magnificent canvas in the Louvre. Beethoven, enraged and feeling betrayed by this usurpation of power, roared at his student Ferdinand Ries, who brought him the news, “Then is he, too, only an ordinary human being?” The ragged hole in the title page of the score now in the library of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna bears mute testimony to the violent manner in which Beethoven erased Napoleon from this Symphony. He later inscribed it, undoubtedly with much sorrow, “To celebrate the memory of a great man.”

The “Eroica” (“Heroic”) is a work that changed the course of musical history. There was much sentiment at the turn of the 19th century that the expressive and technical possibilities of the symphonic genre had been exhausted by Haydn, Mozart, C.P.E. Bach and their contemporaries. It was Beethoven, and specifically this majestic Symphony, that threw wide the gates on the unprecedented artistic vistas that were to be explored for the rest of the century. In a single giant leap, he invested the genre with the breadth and richness of emotional and architectonic expression that established the grand sweep that the word “symphonic” now connotes. For the first time, with this music, the master composer was recognized as an individual responding to a higher calling. No longer could the creative musician be considered a mere artisan in tones, producing pieces within the confines of the court or the church for specific occasions, much as a talented chef would dispense a hearty roast or a succulent torte. After Beethoven, the composer was regarded as a visionary — a special being lifted above mundane experience — who could guide benighted listeners to loftier planes of existence through his valued gifts. The modern conception of an artist — what he is, his place in society, what he can do for those who experience his work — stems from Beethoven. Romanticism began with the “Eroica.”

The Symphony’s first movement, perhaps the largest sonata design composed to that time, opens with a brief summons of two mighty chords. At least four thematic ideas are presented in the exposition, and one of the wonders of the Symphony is the way in which Beethoven made these melodies succeed each other in a seemingly inevitable manner, as though this music could have been composed in no other way. The development section is a massive essay progressing through many moods which are all united by an almost titanic sense of struggle. It is in this central portion of the movement and in the lengthy coda that Beethoven broke through the boundaries of the 18th-century symphony to create a work not only longer in duration but also more profound in meaning. The composer’s own words are reflected in this awe-inspiring movement: “Music is the electric soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”

The beginning of the second movement — Marcia funebre (“Funeral March”) — with its plaintive, simple themes intoned over a mock drum-roll in the basses, is the touchstone for the expression of tragedy in instrumental music. The mournful C minor of the opening gives way to the brighter C major of the oboe’s melody in a stroke of genius that George Bernard Shaw, during his early days as a music critic in London, admitted “ruins me,” as only the expression of deepest emotion can. A development-like section, full of remarkable contrapuntal complexities, is followed by a return of the simple opening threnody, which itself eventually expires amid sobs and silences at the close of this eloquent movement.

The third movement is a scherzo, the lusty successor to the graceful minuet. The central section is a rousing trio for horns, one of the earliest examples (Haydn’s “Horn Call” Symphony is an exception) of the use of more than two horns in an orchestral work.

The finale is a large set of variations on two themes, one of which (the first one heard) forms the bass line to the other. The second theme, introduced by the oboe, is a melody that appears in three other of Beethoven’s works: the finale of the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, the Contradanse No. 7 and the Variations and Fugue, Op. 35 for piano. The variations accumulate energy as they go, and, just as it seems the movement is whirling toward its final climax, the music comes to a full stop before launching into an extended Andante section that explores first the tender and then the majestic possibilities of the themes. A brilliant Presto led by the horns concludes this epochal work.

©2013 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

August Symphony Series performance location

Door Community Auditorium - Fish Creek 

The Peninsula Music Festival - 10347 Highway 42

Unit B Green Gables Shops 

P.O. Box 340, Ephraim, Wisconsin  54211

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