Sunday, May 23, 2010

Concert Review: Beethoven's Eroica

The concert I attended was the Philadelphia Orchestra's presentation of Beethoven's Eroica.
The concert I heard was Orchestra music.
This concert took place on Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 8 p.m.
The concert was held in Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center.
A Listing of the Selections Heard:
Tragic Overture- Composed by Johannes Brahms, Birth: May 7, 1833 Death: April 3, 1897
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 54- Composed by Robert Schumann, Birth: June 8, 1810 Death: July 29, 1856
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op 55 (“Eroica”)- Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, Birth: December 16, 1770 Death: March 26, 1827

Brahms' Tragic Overture was written as a companion to the Academic Festival Overture which he wrote to thank the University of Breslau in 1879 for awarding him an honorary doctorate. Brahms had trouble titling the piece; he had originally titled the piece “Dramatic Overture.” He intended the piece to function as an overture to tragedy, not as a musical “expression of personal pain or grief” (Gibbs 32). I think this misunderstanding prevented me initially from discovering what Brahms was trying to express. Brahms ambivalence to the title explains why I did not hear things that I would typically describe as tragic. I understand this reflects how Brahms was unwilling to write program music. I wondered how Brahms would feel about the composer Hugo Wolf's story about the overture representing “the ghostly apparitions in Shakespeare's dramas who horrify the murderer by their presence while remaining invisible to everyone else”(Gibbs 33). I think while Brahms' piece changes moods from triumphant to dark and mysterious in a way that we can describe as typical of the Romantic era. Despite Brahms' “Classical ideals,” his music certainly pushes boundaries in changes of mood and dynamics. I feel despite Brahms nostalgia for the Classical era, the expressive nature of his music represents to me a freedom of the artist that seems to begin with Beethoven and is emblematic of Romantic music. I felt like his music was very expansive. I plan on reading Claudio Spies analysis of the form to this piece which he describes the Tragic Overture as an “elaboration or transformation of given pieces of material to encompass long time-spans and changing contexts, and resources or properties inherent in musical materials--more so than themes or tunes themselves--to set up rich and varied relational networks” (Spies).


The piece that impressed me the most in the evening was definitely Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54.  It was very impressive to see a piano playing such a key role in the orchestra. When I played in orchestra in high school, the piano always seemed like a very neglected instrument that stood on the sidelines while the rest of the orchestra seemed to ignore it. This was not the case with this piano concerto. Robert's wife, Clara Schumann noted the importance of the piano especially within the first movement of this work, saying “the piano part is skillfully interwoven with the orchestra, so that it is impossible to think of one without the other.” He had written the composition with Clara's performance in mind. The program mentions that Robert had written out the cadenza rather than trusting others to improvise it but I would be interested to find out whether he had worked with Clara to write the solo. She performed the piece in 1845 before the birth of their first child. I would be interested in finding out how the range of the piano affected Schumann's handling of the rest of the orchestra's parts. While the piece focuses on the piano and has a solo, I would describe a lot of the piece as having a polyphonic relationship with the orchestra although the strings sometimes fall secondary to the piano. Schumann had wanted to write a piano concerto earlier when decided to become a concert pianist but lost interest in the composition “when an incurable weakness in the middle finger of his right hand forced him to abandon his plans for a life as a performing artist” (Daverio 34). His inability to perform lead him to experiment with new possibilities of musical form.
The architect of the Kimmel Center experimented with different forms to design the acoustic friendly chamber.
Schumann's exploration with form may have influenced Brahms after he befriended Clara. Though the Allegro affettuoso adheres to sonata form, Naxos describes the piece as having been “handled with considerable freedom, particularly in the central development.” I thought it was interesting that after difficulties with publishers, Schumann had to add more movements to the piece. Schumann over a period of five years writes a shorter Intermezzo and he adds the Allegro vivace to the concerto even though it had been conceived as a Concerto Rondo separately and he makes the piece connect to the themes of the first movement (“Work Information”).
While Brahms and Schumann may have explored with a variety of forms, Beethoven's symphonies seems to master the possibilities of expansion with a fifty-two minute symphony while maintaining a feeling of balance in form. David Smyth compares the Scherzo in Eroica to the Andante section of Mozart's Symphony in G Minor K. 550 for its unique structure, creating a “well formed overall patterning and coherent formal rhythm” (Smyth 241).  

Beethoven originally dedicated "Eroica" to Napoleon Bonaparte under his promise of bringing about a mor egalitarian society. His balanced nature was what Beethoven saw as hopeful to convey through his music before he famously scratched out his dedication from the score after Bonaparte declared himself emperor.
Beethoven's revolution to form was received about as well as he had reacted to Bonaparte's change of heart. While some hailed Beethoven's piece as a masterpiece, others complained about the “endless duration of this longest and perhaps most difficult of all symphonies.” Beethoven responded to these criticisms through the press, he was quoted in The Musical Times as saying “If I wrote one to last an hour, they ought to find it short enough!” (Knight).

Beethoven asks a lot of his audience's attention with his manipulation of form in his music. He effectively mixes traditional musical forms with new innovations. From the very beginning of the Allegro con brio the orchestra forces an intensity upon the listener that demands attention like a dictator or at least like a man with a Napoleon complex. This strength and complexity of the music makes it a demanding piece for an audience to absorb. My fellow classmates and I honestly had difficulty upon initial listening where one movement began or ended despite their being distinct moods within each movement. Barbara Barry describes this connectivity between movements as “expressive delineation” but notes that there is distinct “individualization of movements” (Barry 197). She describes how Beethoven makes movements connect so seamlessly. Beethoven uses “dislocation and restabilization” to expand his development sections and eventually create the means for key changes into the next movement (194). The piece starts in E flat major but transitions to E minor using a development that would “descend by thirds and have one pitch in common between each pair of triads.” After the development theme, the music descends another third and then after completing the octave interval will “rise through key areas a third apart, this time with two of the three pitches of the triad in common.” E minor in turn becomes a transitional leading note into F minor which is the “secondary dominant of E flat major” leading us into tension needed for the funeral march, Adagio assai (197). 

By heightening the tension through these ascending key changes, Beethoven creates a unified feeling of progress after what feels like a long journey for the listener that does not know where Beethoven is going. So while Beethoven's symphony may have been too long to less attentive audiences, they should know that he used all those extra notes to make sure they did not have to endure the pain of a minor second to transition from movement to the next.

Some of Beethoven's transitions in moods may not seem as controversial to our ears today but Beethoven's dramatic changes caught his traditional audiences off guard. In the recapitulation of the first movement, a French horn “seems to enter prematurely” which Beethoven's contemporaries thought was a mistake (Gibbs 39). While the third movement properly follows sonata form by following a slow movement with a dance, the Allegro vivace was “confusing” to some commentators in Beethoven's time. I am not sure however what really would be an appropriate follow up to a funeral with a dance. The program notes that another part of the confusion over the dance is in its “metric ambiguities” where it is difficult to tell whether the piece is in duple or triple meter (39).

If Eroica was meant to present Beethoven conception of a “new way” in the world in light of the recent French Revolution, it was equally successful at pioneering these a “new way” within music (Barry 186). Beethoven uses traditional “Classical” forms and mixes theme with new ideas like his fragmentation of themes which can be best exemplified by the fugue in the finale movement, Allegro molto. The fugue originally came from Beethoven's ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. I enjoyed the fact that Beethoven may have cited his Prometheus fugue with the clear intention of comparing Napoleon's revolution for the people or his own revolution within music. The Greek myth about Prometheus is that he stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. I wonder whether Beethoven felt as though his deafness had been a punishment from God but at least he did not have his liver eaten out by an eagle like Prometheus did (Gibbs 39). In the scene of the ballet Beethoven originally composed the Prometheus fugue for Salvatore Vignano, Prometheus creates the first man and woman from clay, animates them with the stolen fire, and resolves to destroy his “creatures” after he fails to give them “reasoning power” but is stopped by a “higher voice.” Later in the play Prometheus brings his clay people along to be enlightened by Apollo, god of the Arts, who teaches them of science and the arts so that they are refined and “given manners, customs, and morals” (Holden 644). In this way does Beethoven's imply through association with the story that his music has this kind of effect on his audience?

Beethoven's use of the “extremes of register, dissonance, extension, and reintegration” may have shocked or bored the audiences while he conducted his symphony—deaf to their reaction regardless of their opinion—the audience at the Kimmel Center was patient and responsive to the orchestra (Barry 187). I wondered how much their behavior was a result of Beethoven's attempt to tame them through music. His music certainly requires a taming of the abilities of the musicians. At the end of the show, the audience gave a standing ovation, displaying their understanding of a demanding piece with their respects towards the musicians that enabled their enjoyment. When I spoke with one of the ushers, they mentioned that difficulty of the piece demanded the musicians to work overtime with the conductor.
I really enjoyed the Kimmel Center as a venue overall. The acoustics in the chamber are incredible. I would like to know more about the structure of the building and how they designed it for the sake of sound. One of the ushers amazed me when he had me walk to the edge of the stage and turn around to reveal the upper levels of the chamber.
I appreciated the music a lot more this time because I was able to see the musicians performing in front of me, unlike the ballet. My ability to see the musicians enabled me to appreciate their virtuosity as they performed demanding pieces. I felt like I appreciated the Schumann piano concerto the most because of the ability of the pianist but I enjoyed Eroica the most after I listened to it after the concert more especially I started to put the program notes together with the music better in my head. I can see why many people would consider this piece to be a key turning point in the transition from the Classical era to the Romantic era. I plan to talk to people more in depth next time I go to a concert. While I have had the chance to observe audience members, I simply have not taken the time to discuss what makes them attracted to this music to the point that they would spend as much as they do. Is it their appreciation for the musicians? Is it the feeling they get from the music? Is it the stories that inspired and surround the music? How are they listening to the pieces? Are they listening in ignorance or with the intellect of a “refined” mind that Beethoven defined as “heroic?”

Works Cited

Daviero. John. “Piano Concerto.” The Philadelphia Orchestra. March 2010. pg. 34-36. Playbill.
Gibbs, Christopher H. “Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica').” The Philadelphia Orchestra. March 2010. pg. 37-39. Playbill.
Gibbs, Christopher H. “Tragic Overture.” The Philadelphia Orchestra. March 2010. pg. 32-33. Playbill.
Holden, David. “The Riddle of Beethoven's 'Eroica.'” The Massachusetts Review. Vol 3. No. 4. (Summer, 1962). pp 635-653. The Massachusetts Review, Inc.

Knight, Henry. “The "Eroica" and Its Critics.” The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular. Vol. 34, No. 601 (Mar. 1, 1893), p. 174. Musical Times Publications Ltd.
Smyth, David H. “Large Scale Rhythm and Classical Form.” Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 236-246. University of California Press on behalf of the Society for Music Theory.

Spies, Claudio. ""Form" and the Tragic overture: An adjuration Oxford: Clarendon." Oxford: Clarendon RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. 1990. Web. 24 Mar 2010.
“Work Information: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54.” Naxos Music Library. Kalmus Music & Co., Inc. Schott Music.
Barry, Barbara R. “Pitch Interpretation and Cyclical Procedures in Middle-Period Beethoven.” The Musical Quarterly. 1992 Oxford University Press. p. 190- 197. Web. 24 Mar 2010.