Beethoven's Eroica

by Kalindi Bellach ©2017


Rossini: Overture to La gazza ladra

Giaochino Rossini completed his overture to La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”) in 1817, when he was just twenty-five years old. The story is lifted from a French melodrama, and though mostly comedic, it also contains elements of tragedy.

The story goes like this. A housemaid called Nanetta hides her father, a deserter from the army, who then gives her a spoon to help with his expenses. Nanetta sells the spoon. Meanwhile, Nanetta is holding the mayor – and his affections – at bay. Then a different spoon is found missing from the house, and Nanetta is arrested. Her father comes out of hiding to argue for her and is himself arrested, and Nanetta is found guilty of stealing the second spoon and sentenced to death. As she is being taken to the gallows, the king issues a last-minute reprieve for both Nanetta and her father. It was discovered that a magpie had been stealing shiny things, including the missing spoon, which is proven to be different from the one Nanetta sold. The king also pardons her father because he simply feels moved to do so. The story La gazza ladra is based on did not have as amiable an ending, unfortunately.

Many of Rossini’s overtures are not strictly programmatic – that is, they do not follow or foreshadow the story too much. La gazza ladra is no different, following a basic traditional form (Sonata-Allegro) in which three different themes are presented.

The overture opens with what is perhaps the most well-known element: the snare drum rolls, which can be heard coming from opposite sides of the stage. Commentator Roberto Kalb suggests that this is an allusion to the fact that both Nanetta’s father and husband are soldiers. Commentator James Keller, however, categorizes the use of the antiphonal snare drums as a reference to the opera’s “tragic overtones.” He goes on to list the other references to these overtones as the “walking-on-eggshells bit[s] in the minor mode, and a passage of ‘Rossini storm music,’” but then reminds us that this is still comic opera, and “[these elements] can be written off as prefiguring tempests in teapots rather than high-stakes judicial proceedings.”

The second theme is faster, presented in the winds. The strings accompany them, using a technique called battute, meaning to lightly “beat” the bow on the string. The theme that follows is more lyrical and is heard first in the oboe and then in the clarinet. Throughout the overture, there are long crescendos – something of a Rossini trademark. But these ones are distinctive because of how he created them: instead of having the instruments add volume, Rossini gradually adds instruments, creating a steadily building intensity.

Although La gazza ladra is most often called Opera buffa, it might be more accurate to call it Opera semiseria, a hybrid between entirely serious operas and entirely amusing ones. La gazza ladra is clearly not straight comedic opera, but contains politically relevant and near-tragic material. It’s possible that the confusion over designation comes from the fact that Opera semiseria is derived from Opera buffa. It’s also true that Rossini is most celebrated for his contributions to the Opera buffa genre. Keller explains “He had written plenty of songs and piano pieces, a substantial catalogue of sacred music, and even a handful of thoroughly serious operas on topics tragical, historical, and Biblical. But there was no getting around the fact that his most towering achievement had been as one of music’s greatest comedians, as a composer of Opera buffa.” Rossini himself wrote the following note to accompany his Petite Messe solennelle in 1863: “Thou knowest, O Lord, that I was born to write opera buffa. Rather little skill, a bit of heart, and that’s all. So be Thou blessed and admit me to Paradise.”

On its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in May 1817, La gazza ladra was promptly declared a masterpiece. Keller details one account of the performance, which describes a full five minutes of applause and shouts of “Bravo, Maestro!” Now, over a century later, it remains one of the most engaging overtures in our repertoire.


Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Following young Serge Prokofiev’s American debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1918, the American ran an article headed “Russian Genius Displays Weird Harmonies.” Not everyone felt that way, however! A writer for the Journal, Henriette Weber, wrote that Prokofiev’s music was “big, sincere, true … [and] every man and woman there reacted to it.” Prokofiev’s debut made him a US success, so he decided to stay a while.

Soon, Cleofonte Campanini, director of the Chicago Opera, commissioned Prokofiev to write The Love for Three Oranges. It’s a testament to Prokofiev’s abrupt and extreme popularity not just in Chicago but across the States that the new opera was used to promote citrus! Unfortunately, the opera’s production was not smooth. It was during one of its stalls that Prokofiev composed the Third Piano Concerto (which, with The Love for Three Oranges, he referred to as “American”). He premiered the Third Piano Concerto on December 16, 1921. It was not as popular as his symphonic work. Prokofiev said that the audience “did not quite understand” it.

As a pianist, Prokofiev was described as both formidable and fearless, and he astonished audiences with, as fellow composer Francis Poulenc called them, his “long, spatulate fingers [that] held the keyboard as a racing car holds a track.” With those fingers Prokofiev enjoyed performing the most difficult concertos, including Beethoven’s “Emperor” and those by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The two concertos he completed while he was still at school, his first, are also quite challenging. A critic described the “ultramodern second [from 1913] … [as leaving listeners] frozen with fright, hair standing on end.” During the gap between his second and third piano concertos, Prokofiev collected a lot of the material that makes up his Third Piano Concerto. Building up a stash of sketches for eventual use was part of his compositional process throughout his life.

While the Third Piano Concerto can by no means be called “ultramodern,” its various musical elements, combined with the sincerity and simplicity of the writing, certainly qualifies it for a place in the halls of modernity. As Huscher states, “The score is a remarkable achievement, combining the brilliant, edgy momentum of Prokofiev’s previous music with a haunting new lyricism.”

Prokofiev provided his own program note for the work: “The first movement opens quietly with a short introduction (Andante). The theme is announced by an unaccompanied clarinet and is continued by the violins for a few bars. Soon the tempo changes to Allegro, the strings having a passage in sixteenth notes, which leads to the statement of the principal subject by the piano. Discussion of this theme is carried on in a lively manner, both the piano and the orchestra having a good deal to say on the matter. A passage in chords for the piano alone leads to the more expressive second subject, heard in the oboe with a pizzicato accompaniment. This is taken up by the piano and developed at some length, eventually giving way to a bravura passage in triplets. At the climax of this section, the tempo reverts to [the slower] Andante, and the orchestra gives out the first theme ff. The piano joins in, and the theme is subjected to an impressively broad treatment. In resuming the Allegro, the chief theme and the second subject are developed with increased brilliance, and the movement ends with an exciting crescendo.

“The second movement consists of a theme with five variations. The theme is announced by the orchestra alone. In the first variation, the piano treats the opening of the theme in quasi-sentimental fashion, and resolves into a chain of trills, as the orchestra repeats the closing phrase. The tempo changes to Allegro for the second and the third variations, and the piano has brilliant figures, while snatches of the theme are introduced here and there in the orchestra. In Variation Four the tempo is once again Andante, and the piano and orchestra discourse on the theme in a quiet and meditative fashion. Variation Five is energetic (Allegro giusto). It leads without pause into a restatement of the theme by the orchestra, with delicate chordal embroidery in the piano.

“The finale begins with a staccato theme for bassoons and pizzicato strings, which is interrupted by the blustering entry of the piano. The orchestra holds its own with the opening theme, however, and there is a good deal of argument, with frequent differences of opinion as regards key. Eventually the piano takes up the first theme and develops it to a climax. With a reduction of tone and slackening of tempo, an alternative theme is introduced in the woodwinds. The piano replies with a theme that is more in keeping with the caustic humor of the work. This material is developed, and there is a brilliant coda.”

Prokofiev follows basic classical forms in each movement but also integrates his own harmonic language. This harmonic language is partially responsible for an enthusiastic following in his native Russia and for the subsequent claiming of the concerto as an early example of a national style. Musicologist Igor Glebov states in particular that this was “the beginning of a trend towards national music that would be consummated in the forthcoming Second Symphony.”

Musicologist Robert Markow cites the Third Piano Concerto as the “startling point of future evolution … In the composer’s development, such a work is a pivot point that accumulates … the best things that can be drawn from his past experience.” Markow goes on to talk about the relationship between the concertos of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, which, although they handle the element of folk music in different ways, share an “organic fusion with the greatest efforts and achievements of the Russian musical outlook, in the beautiful combination of novel invention with the power of expression, and in the typically Russian inclination to combine formal simplicity [i.e., Classical] with emotional sincerity.” The opening, described by Markow as one of “luminous and tender melancholy,” followed by the mostly joyful bulk of the piece with its consistent rhythmic clarity and diatonic idioms (the most often-cited “Russian” element) is a perfect example of this.

First recorded in 1932, the Third Piano Concerto has become Prokofiev’s most popular. As Markow explains, Prokofiev’s “extraordinarily rich talent has found its full expression in this work … [in which he] weaves the simplest elements into a sturdy fabric of unexpected sonorities.” However wonderful all the details are, however, the main point remains “that pulsing of life which is spread everywhere, and the blossoming of the joyful composerly thought which is finding the art of expression.”


Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven announced, “I am not satisfied with my works up to the present time. From today I mean to take a new road.” His Third Symphony, titled “Eroica,” was the first step on that new road. While his first two symphonies are more closely related to the works of Mozart and Haydn, his Third shows us something unique. As musicologist George Grove explains, “The Eroica first shows us the methods which [would] so completely revolutionize that department of music – the continuous and organic mode of connecting the second subject with the first, the introduction of episodes into the working-out, [and] the extraordinary importance of the Coda.” Beethoven’s Eroica is also the first time a third movement had been labeled a scherzo.

The Eroica was named in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte at the suggestion of General Bernadotte in 1798. It appeared early in Napoleon’s career; he was still known more as a “public man,” a passionate advocate for freedom and responsible for bringing order, and a great leader “to whom no difficulties were obstacles.” It was only later that his reputation as a soldier took precedence. Beethoven, having grown up in Bonn on the edges of the French revolution, had long admired republican ideals of hope and personal freedom. As Grove notes, “The feeling was in the air ... much also which distinguishes his course after he became a resident in the Austrian capital, and was so unlike the conduct of other musicians of the day – the general independence of his attitude, the manner in which he asserted his right to what his predecessors had taken as favors; his refusal to enter the service of any Austrian nobility; his neglect of etiquette and personal rudeness to his superiors in rank – all these things were doubtless more or less due to the influence of Revolutionary ideas.”

In light of this mood, it is no surprise that Beethoven was sorely and personally disappointed when Napoleon turned out to be a tyrant and “the scourge of Austria.” When the score for the Eroica was finished in early1804, Beethoven inscribed at the top the name “Buonaparte.” Beneath this was a blank space – and there’s no way of knowing what Beethoven intended to write there. In May of the same year, the senate asked Napoleon to accept the title Emperor, to which he agreed. This prompted Beethoven to exclaim, “After all, then, he is nothing but an ordinary mortal! He will trample all the rights of men under foot, to indulge his ambition, and become a greater tyrant than any one!” He ripped his title page in half and didn’t speak of the incident again until after Napoleon’s death. Grove notes that there is no reason to think the work was altered (beyond the title page). “It is still a portrait – and we may believe a favorable portrait – of Napoleon, and should be listened to in that sense. Not as a conqueror – that would not attract Beethoven’s admiration; but for the general grandeur and loftiness of his course and of his public character.”

The first movement, Allegro con brio, opens with two great staccato E-flat chords from the full orchestra, “in which all the force of the entire piece seems to be concentrated.” (Grove) This immediately gives way to the first theme, which sets the atmosphere of the movement. This theme is heard first in the cellos before being passed to the violins, and is expansive and lively. Musicologist Charles Wood points out that while this is not technically a leitmotif the way the word is defined in Wagner’s work, the concept does apply here, and we may call the first eight or nine bars the “Napoleon” motif. This first theme is also loosely related melodically to both his D Major Symphony and his Violin Concerto, as well as rhythmically to the Scherzo from Schubert’s C Major Symphony. Furthermore, although this work is set apart from his earlier symphonies, Grove explains that Beethoven is still “not free from the direct influence of Haydn, and even such individual creators as Schubert and Brahms bind themselves by these cords of love to their great forerunner; and thus is forged, age by age, the golden chain, which is destined never to end as long as the world lasts.”

Not everyone appreciated Beethoven’s use of certain newer harmonic elements, which herald the beginnings of German Romanticism. For example, composer Hector Berlioz complained of the “disjointed rhythm, [and the] rude dissonances … where the first violins strike F-natural against E... [claiming that] it is impossible to repress a sensation of fear at such a picture of ungovernable fury.” At an early rehearsal of the first movement, Ries, a student of Beethoven’s, thought that one or more musicians had made a mistake, as the harmony at a particular point seemed to him “as wrong as stealing or lying.” However, the second subject in B-flat is “a passage of singular beauty – more harmony than melody … a theme which, with its yearning, beseeching wind instruments … goes to the inmost heart like a warm pressure of the hands.”

The second movement is quite slow, and is marked Marcia funebre: Adagio assai. Breaking his long silence on the work following Napoleon’s death, Beethoven is reported to have commented that he had “already composed the proper music for that catastrophe,” referring to this movement. The title here is another innovation, as it wasn’t common to call a work a funeral march. The piece is performed sotto voce throughout, and the melody is presented in the oboe, with rhythmic support given by the horns, bassoons, and strings. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described this movement: “It was like a funeral procession in deep purple … before the grief becomes more personal and diffuse.” Berlioz also thought of this in terms of color, describing the difference between chord colors as the difference between blue and violet. He also notes the dramatic tension of the movement, and compares it to “[tracing] … the translation of those beautiful lines of Virgil on the funeral procession of young Pallas.”

The Scherzo and Trio – the Allegro vivace, alla breve comes as something of a relief following the weighty second movement. It opens nimbly, running pianissimo and staccato. The main melody has been assumed to come from a soldier’s song written by musicologist A. B. Marx, but Grove points out that the dates don’t match, so the soldier’s song was likely inspired by Beethoven. Some of Beethoven’s early sketches suggest that this scherzo may have been intended as a minuet.

The Finale: Allegro molto is interrupted by the Poco Andante, con espressione – Presto in the last movement, which has long been a puzzle in its intentions. What is it meant to convey? Is it somewhat too trivial and playful after all the seriousness of the first two movements? Grove references its sense of “daring and romance which pervade [it] … under so much strictness of form,” which gives it more weight but may not explain it. Following a performance in 1827, a critic claimed that Beethoven should have ended with the second movement, because the Finale and the Scherzo are “entirely inconsistent with the avowed design of the composition.”

But regardless, the movement is skillfully crafted, and the Poco andante is evidence that it belongs. It’s often regarded as the apotheosis of the work. The included Fugato also lends it weight. Grove describes the second subject as rough. “[It] might be the dance of a band of Scythian warriors round the tomb of the hero of their tribe.”

Following the premiere in April of 1805, a review was published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung detailing the work’s “extraordinary wealth of lovely ideas treated in the most splendid and graceful style, with coherence, order, and clearness reigning throughout … virtually a daring, wild, fantasia, of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution.” Beethoven himself was aware of the Eroica’s uncommon length, and published the following notice with the score: “This Symphony, being purposely written at greater length than usual should be played nearer the beginning than the end of a concert, and shortly after an Overture, an Air, and a Concerto; lest, if it is head too late, when the audience are fatigued by the previous pieces, it should lose its proper and intended effect.” In fact, a member of the audience at the premiere reportedly promised to pay “if it would just stop.” This certainly was not a problem felt by many, however. Schumann once said of Brahms: “He should be always thinking of the beginnings of Beethoven’s Symphonies [particularly the Third], and try to make something like them. The beginning is the great thing: once begin, and the end comes before you know it.”

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