BEETHOVEN CONCERTO NO. 3 AND SYMPHONY NO. 4
The Piano Concerto No. 3 has been described as a turning point in Beethoven’s development as a composer, “where he leaves Mozart behind and becomes Beethoven,” as one observer put it. Romantic, imposing and virtuosic: the voice of a composer becoming his true self. The sonorous and lyrical pianist Benjamin Grosvenor performs the concerto, with Case Scaglione leading the Orchestra. The second half features Beethoven’s powerful Symphony No. 4.
Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
In 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed, and the composer’s place in the history of music established almost at a single stroke. In three years, from the triumphant premiere of The Firebird in 1910, through Petrushka in 1911, Stravinsky had vaulted from a Late Romantic Nationalist style (closely modelled on that of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov) to one of the most Modernist pieces ever written.
All three of these scores were written for Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet seasons in Paris, and it was in that French capital that this musical revolution made the greatest impact. Writers, painters, performers, composers… everyone in the Parisian artistic world…were astounded by what the young Russian was doing. And among those who took the closest interest was France’s greatest living composer, Claude Debussy. Debussy and Stravinsky became friends, and when the original piano-duet sketch of The Rite of Spring was ready, it was Debussy who joined Stravinsky in performing the new piece, wet on the page, to Diaghilev and his team. That must have been one of the great first performances in history!
Then, the next year, came the First World War. And Debussy fell dangerously sick with cancer.
In 1917, with the war still raging, the French composer died. Two years later, a group of Debussy’s friends and colleagues were asked to write short pieces in his memory, and Stravinsky responded with a piano miniature, a chorale (a hymn in church style). As Stravinsky himself later said: “Musicians of my generation, and I myself, owe most to Debussy.”
This short chorale then began to grow in his imagination, and eventually expanded into one of his strangest and most beautiful pieces, a short and simultaneously ancient- and modern-sounding ceremonial piece for a large group of woodwind and brass instruments. The harmonies and rhythms of this music are often as harsh and barbaric as those of The Rite of Spring (the piece the two men performed together), but the effect is not of violent dancing but of some forgotten archaic ritual. The whole work ends with the original starting point, the short chorale originally for piano, as in the ancient phrase: "In my end is my beginning."
Symphonies of Wind Instruments is certainly not a "symphony." By putting the word into the plural, the composer was returning it to its original Ancient Greek meaning: things that sound together. And he himself described the piece as “an austere ritual, unfolded in short litanies.”
In fact, Stravinsky’s description was a great deal more precise than he let on. Recent scholarship has shown that the whole composition is carefully modelled on the structure of the pre-medieval Russian Orthodox service in memory of the dead. He was not just suggesting "a ritual," or "any old ritual," but a specific ritual, one he himself had known since childhood, but this time in memory of a French friend.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
No piece of music exists on its own, like a separate object, untouched by anything else. In every musical culture, every time we make music, we are in conversation with other music that was made before. Music is like water or air… it flows… from one piece to another! And composers, when they write a piece, almost always have other composers’ music already in their minds, even when they say they don’t.
Of few pieces is this truer than of Beethoven’s glorious Third Piano Concerto. In this music, we hear almost more clearly than in anything else he wrote his huge love and admiration for Mozart. This is a concerto full of echoes of Mozart; and yet, wonderfully, at the same time it sounds like no one but Beethoven.
Beethoven certainly knew Mozart’s music intimately, and when he was a boy, he performed the solo parts in many of Mozart’s piano concertos, and even played in the orchestra for Mozart’s operas. It is even said he met the older composer, once, when he visited Vienna as a 17-year-old (though modern scholars suspect this might be a myth). Maybe, but it seems rather more likely he heard Mozart play, as we know that he commented to others on the style of Mozart’s performance (“Good, but choppy!”, he is supposed to have said. “No legato!”).
One of Beethoven’s friends claimed that once, when he and Beethoven were walking in the park in Vienna, they heard an open-air performance of Mozart’s C minor piano concerto, and that Beethoven had burst out: “We shall never be able to do anything like that!”
Which makes it the more touching and beautiful that the opening of Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto deliberately echoes the opening of this concerto of Mozart’s. Beethoven is triggering memories in the minds of musicians and listeners of a piece they and he already deeply love. But his opening is not a copy. What he does is take Mozart’s idea and stretch it out, giving it a new grandeur and space. Mozart’s opening is tragic and intimate. Beethoven’s opening is a kind of answer to Mozart’s question, or a follow-up, as though the younger composer were saying to the older one: "You took your thoughts that way. I will take mine this way!"
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60
Already in the 19th century commentators were fond of noticing that Beethoven’s symphonies divided neatly into two types: the heroic and Dionysian – numbers 1, 3 (the Eroica), 5, 7 and 9 – and the playful, serene and Apollonian – numbers 2, 4, 6 (the Pastoral) and 8.
It’s a cute idea, and sort of true, and helps to explain why the odd-numbered symphonies tend to be played more often than the evens (though the evens are played a LOT!). But it also irons out very significant differences between the individual symphonies. The fact is that each of the nine symphonies has their own character, their own orchestral color, their own drama and their own surprises.
The Fourth Symphony, slipped in between the mountainous achievements of the Eroica and the Fifth, may seem a quieter and gentler piece. But this is to ignore the astounding leap forwards – or perhaps sideways – that this symphony represents in terms of orchestral sound. And the amazing difficulty of playing some of it.
The symphony announces its differences and its strangeness with its very first note, a huge and mysterious-sounding woodwind B-flat octave (very soft!) spread right across the whole range of the orchestra from the flute at the top to the second horn at the bottom. Though less spectacular, because less loud, than the famous openings of the symphonies written either side of it, it is just as revolutionary. What Beethoven is doing is delicately balancing the instruments so that the harmonics (the "overtones," the upper vibrations of the sound waves coming out of the instruments) mix in our ears to create a strange aura, like the pink that the sun can give off in the morning or the evening. It’s a magical effect, incredibly simple when you look at it on the page, but deeply thrilling to listen to (and also very difficult to play!).
There are many unusual colors like that in this symphony. The cumulative impression over the four movements is of a huge but gentle landscape of sound, a feeling of immense unearthly space as a background against which the melodies of the symphony can unfold. You could even compare this background to the astonishing light-effects in paintings of the great English painter Turner from exactly the same period.
As for those melodies, which tumble out in profusion, they seem heard – many of them - from right up close, as though they were in our face, teasing us, invading our personal space. They are enchanting, brilliantly defined and catchy, almost like the hooks of an imaginary classical pop music. But then… as soon as they are established, Beethoven starts playing with them, throwing them up in the air, scattering them between the different instruments of the orchestra and almost obsessively throwing the rhythms off, so that the players become like high-wire dancers, trying to hold their balance over a tumultuous waterfall of sound. This music is so joyful and exuberant to listen to, but also… dangerous!
Perhaps that’s why so many 19th century composers held this piece close to their hearts. Berlioz described the slow movement as "the music of an archangel," while Schumann called the whole piece "a slender Greek maiden." Mendelssohn actually owned the original manuscript, and Wagner, who conducted this symphony many times, learned deeply from its orchestral magic as we can hear in the music of the river Rhine in his great operatic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung.
– San Diego Symphony Creative Consultant GERARD MCBURNEY
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Compare for yourself: the opening of Mozart's C minor Piano Concerto...
...and the opening of Beethoven's C minor Piano Concerto.