Masterworks 1
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor”

Two of the signature aspects of Western thought are the importance of progress and individuality. Nowhere are these concepts more apparent than in the history of music, where we give special attention to innovation in form and harmony. While not always appreciated at first hearing – witness the audience riot over Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – innovators eventually receive their due – in hindsight.

In his greatest works, Beethoven was both an innovator and an individualist who attempted to put his personal stamp on everything from harmony and musical structure to advances in piano construction. While retaining the three-movement form of the concerto, he expanded the internal structure of the individual movements, especially in the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. The dramatic use of the piano in the opening phrases of these concertos was tried only once before – by Mozart in his Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K. 271 – and did not occur again in any major piano concerto until the B-flat major Concerto of Brahms. The thunderous opening of the Fifth Concerto was without precedent, as was Beethoven's refusal to allow the performer to improvise a cadenza.  

Beethoven composed the Concerto in Vienna during the summer of 1809, under conditions hardly conducive to creativity. Following a day of heavy bombardment, Vienna surrendered to the French army under Napoleon, and those citizens who could afford to flee did so, including Beethoven's patron and friend the Archduke Rudolph. Prices and taxes skyrocketed, food was scarce, parks were closed to the public and Beethoven remained in the city, alone and lonely. In spite of the hardships during those trying months, he managed to compose some of his greatest works: the Piano Sonata Op. 81a (“Les adieux”), the Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74 (the “Harp”) and the “Emperor” Concerto (the title bestowed on it by one of the publishers, without Beethoven's approval.)

The Fifth Piano Concerto was premiered in Leipzig in 1811 to an enthusiastic reception. It was the only one of Beethoven's piano concertos without the composer himself at the keyboard, since by that time his hearing had deteriorated too far for him to perform in public, especially with an orchestra. Two months later, however, the first performance in Vienna was a total failure, primarily because the Concerto was on the program of a Charity Society performance featuring three living tableaux on Biblical subjects – hardly a suitable milieu.

The concerto opens with a powerful and assertive orchestral chord, followed by a sweeping cadenza-like flourish by the piano solo. Example 1 Only after two more orchestral chords interspersed in the piano outbursts, does the orchestra introduce the principal theme. Example 2 The movement is stormy and propulsive with some of the same harmonic ambiguity as in the first movement of the Fourth Concerto. At the point where traditionally we would have expected a cadenza, the pianist’s score bore Beethoven’s directive: "Do not play a cadenza!" The music that follows, however, has all the characteristics of a cadenza; the composer wanted to be sure that his ideas, and not the performer’s would prevail, including the horn accompaniment that would certainly not have been part of a classical cadenza. Example 3

The hymn-like lyrical second movement opens with the muted violins introducing the theme, Example 4 followed by an aria pianissimo on the piano. Example 5 There follow two variations, the first on the piano, the second by the orchestra. Then follows one of Beethoven’s most mysterious musical moments, the hushed transition to the exuberant rondo third movement. Example 6 He builds up immense tension and mystery by subtle changes in key and tempo, until the finale bursts out in its jubilant mood. Example 7 Now, if you click on the first example in this commentary, you will see how the opening arpeggios of the Concerto return as the beginning of the main theme of the finale.
Franz Liszt 1811-1886
Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt
Les préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3

Franz Liszt was a man of paradoxes and extremes who could only have flourished in the Romantic period. He was a contemplative artist and superficial showman, mystic and hedonist, genius and poseur, saint and sinner. He broke many a commandment and many a heart, exhibiting incredible flamboyance in his virtuoso piano performances before adoring audiences, yet longed for a life of religious contemplation. He fathered numerous illegitimate offspring but ended up taking minor orders in the Catholic Church with the right to the title Abbé Liszt. He witnessed first-hand the cultural and musical transformation of Europe but unfortunately never wrote his memoirs, being “too busy living it.”

Most of Liszt’s compositions underwent numerous revisions and transformations over many years before reaching their final form. Les préludes started life in 1848 as the introduction to a choral work, The Four Elements (The North Winds, The Waves, The Stars, The Earth) ultimately reaching the form we know today in 1853. The title refers to a poem by the French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) but, according to the composer himself, any relationship to the text of the poem is tenuous at best. The score is preceded by a long preface, added as an afterthought, which begins: “What is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song of which death sounds the first and solemn note?” and goes on to describe various events and stages of life. For generation, concert goers and music appreciation students solemnly learned about Liszt’s transformation of transcendental ideas into music, whereas, as Liszt biographer Alan Walker puts it,” …The Symphonic Poem (Les préludes) is not a philosophical meditation but a description of Mediterranean atmosphere.”

It’s not unthinkable, however, to recast Lamartine’s idea in terms of the life and adventures of a theme. The melodies of the work all originate from the opening germ motive on the strings, through a process of thematic transformation, a technique in which a musical theme undergoes many changes in mood, rhythm, key and tempo while retaining its basic shape and identity. Liszt favored this technique for achieving musical unity in a work. The process of transforming motives was certainly not original with Liszt; his is an evolution of the development section of Classical sonata form.

Liszt presents the germ motive in a slow introductory section in which the opening three notes are frequently repeated, as if to establish them solidly in the listeners' ears. Example 1 The first grandiose transformation is a sharp contrast in orchestration and mood. Example 2 The next statement incorporates the motive into a full-fledged theme, in which it comprises only the first few notes. Example 3 In a second broad theme, even though the actual intervals are altered, the relationship between the opening interval of this new theme and the germ motive is discernable. Example 4 The following incarnation emphasizes the motive alone in a harmonically unstable section akin to a Classical development. Example 5

A quiet passage, featuring the solo horn, clarinet and oboe, represents one of the more distant modifications. Example 6 And, of course, the motive is used as an accompanying figure throughout and as a transition between the sections of the piece.

Like a standard sonata form, Les préludes returns to the two principal themes based on the germ motives at the end of the work, but in a completely new, triumphant mood as befits a Lisztian conclusion. Example 7

Liszt coined the term “symphonic poem” in 1854 for compositions accompanied by an extra-musical “program” that the audience was supposed to read before listening to the music. Although they did not all use Liszt’s term, symphonic poems became a standard medium for the nineteenth century Romantics, reaching its apex with Richrd Strauss.

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov 1844-1908
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34

In the development and maintenance of the tradition of Russian nationalist music, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov occupies a place of honor. From 1871, when he joined the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, until his death, he taught and encouraged nearly every young Russian composer, from Glazunov and Arensky to Stravinsky and Prokofiev. After the death of Borodin and Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov edited, completed and “corrected” their manuscripts, especially their operas, and had them published. He also helped publish the works of many other less famous Russian composers.

Rimsky-Korsakov was particularly fond of “ethnic” pieces, creating compositions with a Russian, Central Asiatic, Italian or Spanish caste. In spite of the fact that his acquaintance with Spain was minimal – as a naval cadet in 1864-65, he spent three days in Cadiz – he felt sufficiently comfortable with its folk idiom to compose the symphonic suite Capriccio espagnol. The work started life as a movement in a planned fantasia for violin and piano, but during the summer of 1887 he abandoned the idea, completely revising and orchestrating the sketches. He borrowed the themes and harmonies from a collection of authentic Spanish songs, transforming them with multi-textured orchestration. From its premiere in October 1887, it has been a particular favorite among orchestra players, who get hefty solo riffs.

The five movements begin with: “Alborada” (a Spanish morning song) Example 1, which serves as a kind of musical glue to give unity to the piece. There follows a set of five variations, which are more variations in mood than bravura showpieces. Example 2 The “Scene and Gypsy Song,” features a series of faux-improvisatory orchestral solos that serve as a workup into to the principal theme. Example 3 The "Fandango," Example 4 a couples dance in triple time traditionally accompanied by guitar and castanets, completes the group. At the end a presto reprise of the Alborada returns as the coda. Example 5
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017