Overture to Goethe’s Tragedy Egmont, Op. 84
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven had tremendous respect and affection for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the poet, playwright, critic, journalist, novelist, painter, natural philosopher and scientist who was revolutionizing Germanic literature as Beethoven was revolutionizing music. “I read Goethe every day,” declared Beethoven, “when I read at all.” He had already set several of Goethe’s poems to music and must have been overjoyed when he was asked in 1810 to write incidental music for one of Goethe’s most popular plays, Egmont.
He responded with nearly an hour of music, including four entr’actes, two songs for Clara (Egmont’s fictional fiancée), a melodrama, a description of Clara’s death, and a concluding “Victory Symphony.” But the glory of the set is undoubtedly the overture—one of music’s truly great overtures.
What did Beethoven have in mind when he went about composing this overture? Just how much was he trying to relate the Egmont story with specific musical references to events in the play? Goethe’s 1787 play tells the story of Count Lamoral d’Egmont, historical hero of 16th-century Holland, who as military commander, statesman and eventual martyr inspired his compatriots to throw off the oppressive Spanish yoke and establish the Netherlandish Republic.
While following the strictures of classical sonata form, Beethoven seems to want to put as much dramatic description into his overture as he can. Clearly the glorious fanfares of what Beethoven called the “Victory Symphony” (which appears as the coda of the overture) are deliberately descriptive. But do earlier passages reflect parts of the play? Do the opening heavy minor chords—redolent of the Spanish sarabande—depict the oppression of Spain? Does the quick tempo after the introduction represent the dashing figure of Egmont? Are the delicate woodwind phrases in the development evocative of young Clara? Does the abrupt cutoff of the violins right before the coda symbolize Egmont’s beheading?
Beethoven, of course, never told us. But by filling his great overture with suggestions of tone painting, he opened the door for the next generation of composers to see the possibility of a new genre, a new vista in which music would take on the task of truly telling a story. Beethoven himself never walked through that door. His classical roots were too strong to allow him to yield to the romantic temptation to paint pictures in music. Beethoven’s form remains classical: a sonata preceded by a slow introduction and followed by a victorious coda. There are certainly suggestions of descriptive imagery and outbursts of romantic emotion, suggestions that would allow later composers to go further, but, in Beethoven’s Egmont, they doggedly remain shaped by the composer’s powerful craft into absolute musical form.
Double Fugue on American Hymn Tunes
Charles E. Ives (1874-1954)
Ask a concert audience to name America’s greatest composer and the consensus will likely be Aaron Copland. Ask critics or scholars and they may well name Charles Ives.
Born in the same year as the atonal Austrian Arnold Schoenberg and the staid Englishman Gustav Holst, Ives developed his talent far removed from the current European struggle over the direction of music. He created his ultramodern yet comprehensible style from the music he heard all around him as a child.
George Ives, Charles’ father, served during the Civil War as the youngest bandmaster (a teenager, actually) in the Union Army. Years later, as town bandmaster of Danbury, Connecticut, he got a kick out of creating clashing musical novelties: playing (on the piano) one song in the left hand versus another in the right; or having two bands march through one another’s ranks while playing different marches in different keys. As a result, young Charles grew up with an ear for dissonance as well as an intimate acquaintance with the popular hymns, marches, patriotic songs, fiddle tunes and parlor pieces of his time. While a music student at Yale (as well as a baseball and football hero), he consistently broke harmonic and structural rules, often incorporating familiar melodies into his works. His teacher, composer Horatio Parker, railed at him that “the hymn tune is the lowest form of musical life,” but to no avail.
After graduation Ives became an insurance man, eventually co-owning a company and becoming quite well off. (In fact, he had an influence on life insurance as strong as he did in music; historians of insurance invariably discuss his innovations in policy writing and group sales.)
But on the side, he continued to compose, writing piece after piece that shattered tradition but never got played. He anticipated Schoenberg’s atonality by more than a decade, Stravinsky’s polytonality by two decades, and Stockhausen’s polyorchestral techniques by a half century. He cared little about other composers, live concerts, or hearing his own music performed. He occasionally published some of his songs at his own expense but reacted brusquely to complaints about their difficulty: “The impossibilities of today are the possibilities of tomorrow.” Disgusted with the insurance business, he retired in 1924 at the age of 50. Alas, he was just as disgusted with the music scene, so he quit composing at the same time.
Much of Ives’ music is extremely complex, consisting of at times indecipherably dense textures made by superimposing and juxtaposing piles of contrasting material—original themes, quotes from Beethoven, Brahms or Wagner, and, especially, snippets of standard American music: hymn tunes, ballads, round dances, fiddle tunes, patriotic songs. His Fourth Symphony—perhaps his most complex work—is no exception.
But in the third movement of this Fourth Symphony, Ives’ mature complexity gives way to youthful simplicity. He reaches back to his college years at Yale to resurrect what began as an assignment in counterpoint and ended as a movement in his first string quartet. Ever eager to pontificate about the philosophy of his music, he called his effort “an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism.” The formalism lies in the fugue form—straight out of Bach—and the ritualism, in his use of popular New England hymns. As usual, Ives uses only snippets: the principal theme is the opening line of “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”; its eventual partner is the final line of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” (at the text “Bring forth the royal diadem…”).
The combination of baroque fugal form and classic American melodies as rendered by a 20th century revolutionary somehow ends up sounding rather romantic. But Ives reminds us not to take it all too seriously: he closes puckishly with a very slow quote, in horns and trombones, from “Joy to the World.”
[Personal recollection: when I first conducted this piece in graduate school, I consulted John Kirkpatrick, curator of Yale’s Ives Collection and a personal friend and collaborator of Ives. When I asked him about this curious addition of “Joy to the World” in the final bars, he chuckled and told me what Ives had told him: the published edition calls for “Joy” to be played like the rest of the piece—smoothly and expressively. But Ives put it in as a joke and wanted it to sound like one. “Play it short and bouncy,” he had said. We’ll try.]
Suite of Dances from Estancia
Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)
Born in Buenos Aires, Alberto Ginastera was the first Argentinian composer to receive truly international acclaim. Like many Argentinians, he is of partly Italian extraction. Ginastera was proud to be Argentinian, but he was also proud of his Italian roots. In fact, he pronounced his surname as if it were Italian (“Gene-astera”) rather than Spanish (“Heen-astera”).
Ginastera was a thoroughly homegrown talent. Starting piano lessons at seven, young Alberto entered a local conservatory at twelve, moving in 1936 to the National Conservatory, where he won highest honors in composition. His first successful work was Panambi, a ballet subtitled “choreographic legend.” Though the story and some of the melodic content are derived from native sources, we can hear in the music the influence of composers the conservatory student had been studying: Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky.
Five years later, Lincoln Kirstein, director of the American Ballet Caravan, commissioned a second ballet for ABC’s upcoming Latin American tour. In the end, the tour was canceled because funds were not available in wartime, and the music from Estancia could be heard for decades only in the suite of four excerpts we hear tonight. (This was not the only gem for which Kirstein was the inspiration. In 1938 he had commissioned Aaron Copland for his first successful ballet, Billy the Kid.)
Estancia is the work that made Ginastera’s international reputation. Like Copland’s Rodeo, which appeared the following season, Estancia depicts cowboy life, but the life not of cowboys on the North American plains but of gauchos on the pampas, the vast expanse of plains—somewhat warmer than their northern counterpart—that stretches from Brazil through Uruguay but is found mostly in Argentina. What Ginastera sought to depict was a rich portrait of one day—dawn to dawn—at a country ranch, or estancia.
The story Ginastera presents sounds like a typical Hollywood western: a young woman from the ranch at first despises a new arrival from the city but finally falls for him when he proves himself at least the equal of any of the rough workers on the ranch.
By the time of Estancia, Ginastera had defined what he called his “objective nationalism” period (1936-1948). He used Argentinian themes, rhythms and native dances in a style that came to be called “gauchesco” after the native cowboys of Argentina, the gauchos. The lessons he had learned in conservatory were not forgotten, however. The “Land Workers” scene, for example, opens with the orchestra playing its explosive rhythms in two keys at once (C and F-sharp), the very keys that Stravinsky fused famously in the bitonal scene of his ballet Petrushka (1911). The rhythm is relentless and the dynamic continuously powerful, never dropping below forte. Though he shifts his keys frequently, there are nearly always two going at once, creating an aura of agitation that can find no rest.
The “Wheat Dance” is as serene as the opening section is agitated. Again we hear bitonality from time to time, but less insistently than earlier. Light lines from the piano combine with pizzicato strings in a bed over which the flute, then horns, can be heard in a theme of ultimate repose. The orchestra builds this theme to a full-throated climax before fading into the distance.
That mood is shattered by “The Cattle Men,” whose dance appears in a meter that is a composite of 3/4 and 3/8 with instructions from Ginastera to play quickly (mosso) and roughly (ruvido). It is a dark roughness at first, with the lower instruments having their say. But higher, lighter instruments get their moment as well, before light and dark combine in an explosive end.
The “Final Dance” is deceptive. It begins swiftly but very softly with a less percussive bitonality than we heard from “The Land Workers.” Ginastera asks the orchestra to build almost imperceptibly but continually until we hear a new mood when it launches into a propulsive malambo. The malambo is the gauchos’ dance: with their heavy boots, the gauchos (men only—women strictly forbidden) pound their feet on the floor in rapid patterns that fall somewhere between tap dancing and clogging. The dynamism is unabated, rising to become simply the most energetic music ever written for orchestra.
Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 23
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky’s dramatic, pyrotechnical piano concerto stands nearly unchallenged as the concerto most adored by musiclovers. Its crashing chords, soaring melodies and exhilarating rhythms have been thrilling concertgoers since its astonishing journey into existence.
The story of the concerto’s creation remains barely known though it is among the most poignant in the annals of composition—replete with humiliation, an erased dedication, and a triumphant premiere halfway around the world.
Tchaikovsky dashed off his concerto in less than two months (November-December 1874) in hopes that dedicating it to his colleague and former teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolas Rubinstein, would guarantee its acceptance despite its Slavic flavor and demanding pianism.
Rubinstein suggested Tchaikovsky play through his new concerto for him privately at the Conservatory before a Christmas Eve party both were attending. At the close of the first movement, Rubinstein was silent. Not until the composer had played all three movements did he utter a word. Then it was a tirade deriding the concerto as “utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable. Certain passages were so commonplace and awkward they could not be improved, and the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar.” (So testified Tchaikovsky in a letter.)
Rubinstein insisted that the concerto be completely revised before he would play it. Tchaikovsky replied, “I shall not alter a single note. I shall have the concerto printed exactly as it stands.” After he erased the dedication to Rubinstein, he thought through the short list of great piano virtuosos and picked one who, he had heard, admired his work. He penciled in that new name: German virtuoso and conductor Hans von Bülow, a man he had never met.
Bülow received the concerto graciously, with a far different reaction: “The ideas are so original, so noble, so powerful, the details are so interesting, and though there are many of them they do not impair the clarity and the unity of the work. The form is so mature, ripe, distinguished in style, and intention, the labor being everywhere concealed. I would weary you if I were to enumerate all the characteristics of your work, characteristics which compel me to congratulate equally the composer and those who are destined to enjoy it.”
Bülow, in fact, could not wait to present the new concerto. His next project was a concert tour of North America, so he took the concerto with him.
At his first stop, Boston, Bülow hired an orchestra quite amenable to him: “largely German, industrious, their intelligence not yet drowned in lager beer.” The conductor was another matter. Carl Bergmann may have been conductor of the New York Philharmonic and, according to Dwight’s Journal of Music, “the best conductor in America.” But to Bülow, himself one of the world’s great conductors (the favorite of Wagner until Wagner stole Bülow’s wife Cosima—daughter of Franz Liszt), Bergmann just would not do. Instead Bülow engaged American pianist Benjamin Johnson Lang, like Bülow a Liszt pupil. Dwight’s Journal reported:
Mr. B. J. Lang, who had been called to succeed Mr. Bergmann,…being himself a pianist and an enthusiastic admirer of Von Bülow, was in better sympathy and understanding with him for the rendering of the extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto. It is the composition of a young professor at the Conservatory of Moscow, a pupil of Rubinstein (indeed the work contained not a few suggestions of the master) and is dedicated to Bülow, who complimented Boston with its very first performance.
So it was that Tchaikovsky’s concerto, reviled in Moscow, was first heard in Boston.
In New York, Bülow was even more triumphant in an exhausting fourteen concerts in nineteen days, including two performances of the new concerto. Bülow reported: “Never, anywhere, have I felt so well, I might say so happy. Whereas before I often played like a pig, I now, on occasion, play like a god. Chickering’s gorgeous pianos, undeniably the best in both worlds, have turned me into a top-flight pianist.” Bülow and Chickering pianos had a mutually satisfying arrangement: he inaugurated the Chickering Concert Hall on Fifth Avenue on November 15, 1875, and presented the Tchaikovsky concerto there the next week. (Sixteen years later, Tchaikovsky would come to New York to conduct the first concerts given in Carnegie Hall.) Bülow reported on his performance:
The concerto went much better here…than in Boston. It was a distinct success and is to be repeated next Saturday. In fact, Tchaikovsky has become popular in the New World; and if Jurgenson [Tchaikovsky’s Russian publisher] were not such a damned jackass but would send over a reasonable quantity of Tchaikovsky’s music, he could do a lot of business.
Tchaikovsky relished the news from America, especially since he had just heard the rather flat Russian premiere of his concerto (by pianist Gustav Kross) in St. Petersburg. He was not to be dejected for long. A number of his pianistic compatriots undertook the concerto, not excepting Nicholas Rubinstein, who changed his mind and played it repeatedly at home and abroad—without altering a single note.