Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Scenes from Prometheus (1801)
Solo della Signora Casentini (Andantino - Adagio - Allegro)
Finale (Allegretto - Allegro molto)
Though his Seventh Symphony was nicknamed by Wagner “The Apotheosis of the Dance,” Beethoven and ballet seem like a contradiction in terms. Yet by the age of 31 he had composed two such scores. The first, his early Ritterballet, was merely hackwork, ghost-written for his friend Count Waldstein; but Prometheus, a few years later, was altogether more ambitious, and one of his first big Viennese successes.
Its full title, Die Geschopfe des Prometheus, has been variously translated as the Creatures, or the Creations, or the Children of Prometheus, but the story has little to do with the mythical hero who was chained to a rock, where an eagle tore at his liver until Hercules rescued him. Beethoven’s Prometheus suffers no such hardship. A more idealistic figure, he seemed something of a classical Lord Reith, who “drove ignorance from the people, and gave them manners, customs, and morals.” In Act One of this full-length ballet, he brings two statues to life. In Act Two, he delivers them to Parnassus to be instructed by Apollo and the Muses and endowed with the blessings of culture.
Sir Donald Tovey, Edinburgh University’s famous musical essayist, considered large tracts of the score to be “monotonously frivolous,” but he was being too severe. Haydn, meeting Beethoven in the street, supposedly praised the music, to which Beethoven replied: “Oh, dear Papa, you are too good, but mine is no Creation by a long shot.” The words may sound improbable, but Maynard Solomon, best of Beethoven’s modern biographers, has quoted them without reservation. The ballet in our own time has had a new lease of life, and several of the sixteen dances - not least the striking interlude for the ballerina Maria Casentini, with its solo cello and plashing harp - have regained a small place in the orchestral repertoire.
As for the overture, it has long enjoyed a separate existence as a concert piece. It is similar in style to Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte overture, and to the first movement of Beethoven’s own First Symphony, which he wrote around the same time. Each has a slow introduction, starting provocatively on a discord and continuing with a flowing, tender melody; and each then unleashes a racy, sparkling allegro, exhilarating in its momentum.
The sweet-toned Pastorale movement, which follows, anticipates the glow of the finale of the Pastoral Symphony. But - after the romantic Casentini solo - what the finale of Prometheus more startlingly anticipates is nothing less than the finale of the Eroica Symphony, with its famous Napoleon (or in this case Prometheus) theme, which for a time so obsessed Beethoven that he employed it in several of his works before bringing it to a state of symphonic perfection in the Eroica itself.
© Conrad Wilson
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto in B flat major, K595 (1791)
"Everything is cold for me – ice cold," wrote Mozart at the start of what was to be the last year of his life. He was not referring to the Viennese weather. His fame as Europe’s finest pianist-composer, who had brought the art of the piano concerto to its zenith, was dwindling. He had cash-flow problems, though these were in the process of being resolved. He was suffering from depression. But, as Meynard Solomon declared in his great Mozart biography, he "somehow managed to stem the drift into silence". He did so with a chain of masterpieces whose sheer quantity and variety - from The Magic Flute to the most subtle sequences of ballroom dances - he had not previously surpassed.
At the beginning of January he completed the last of his piano concertos, K595 in B flat major. His Clarinet Concerto, his last great string quintet, his last two operas, and a group of haunting miniatures - the Little German Cantata, the touching Ave Verum Corpus, the music for mechanical organ, the last few songs - still lay ahead, as also did the great unfinished Requiem. Though the last piano concerto has been thought to possess the quality of a 'transfigured farewell' - a very apt phrase with which to describe it - there is not the slightest evidence that Mozart himself thought about it that way, or that when he wrote it he was more than usually aware of his own impending demise. Those who say the music contains intimations of Mozart’s death are merely being wise after the event. His death-consciousness applied to the fate of all humanity.
Yet after the glitter of the ceremonial Coronation concerto, written three years previously, there is undoubtedly something very pared-down about K595, something conspicuously inward-looking about its mood. Its orchestration, with just a single flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns and strings, but no clarinets and certainly no trumpets and drums, is almost minimalist by Mozart’s standards at the time. Even the movement headings - 'Allegro', 'Larghetto', 'Allegro' - are reduced to single words. All this seems significant, but whether it signifies death or what might have been the start of a new phase in Mozart’s output of concertos is another matter.
Whatever else he had in mind - and it looked like quite a lot - further piano concertos at that point looked unlikely. When he played K595 on 4 March 1791, it was destined to be his last public appearance as a solo pianist before his death nine months later. The person who made it possible was an old acquaintance - the successful clarinettist Joseph Baehr - who slotted it into a concert in which Mozart was quite clearly not the star. The programme, given in the hall of a restaurant owner round the corner from Mozart’s apartment, featured Baehr himself as the main attraction. Next in importance was the singer Aloysia Lange, Mozart’s sister-in-law, whom he had loved and once hoped to marry. The information that "Herr Kapellmeister Mozart will play a concerto on the fortepiano" came third in line.
Did the work’s murmuring, unhurried opening make its mark? Were the downward scales and chromaticisms thought to possess a forlorn wraithlike eloquence? Was the flow of the music, in which one theme merges with the next, perceived to be beautifully sustained or did the audience fail to grasp such extraordinary continuity of line? Mozart’s own cadenza, written into the score, adds to the first movement’s special unity, as does the similarly personal cadenza in the finale.
The simplicity of the slow movement, which one distinguished but sometimes imperceptive authority on Mozart’s concertos has deemed to be a sign of waning inspiration, is perfectly in keeping with the veiled beauty of the rest of the work. Even the buoyant main theme of the rondo finale, which in an earlier concerto might have sounded like a vigorous hunting motif, has a delicacy appropriate to the intimacy of the music. It is no surprise that Mozart employed almost the same melody in one of his last songs, entitled 'Longing for Spring'.
Though it might seem sentimental to point out that 1791’s was to be Mozart’s last spring, the poignancy of the music makes the temptation irresistible. Yet there is also a lightweight muscularity about this movement which makes it possible to draw quite different conclusions about its meaning. In Mozart's last piano concerto, as in so many of its great predecessors, ambiguity reigned supreme.
© Conrad Wilson
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Hebrides Overture (1829-32)
Great composers who visited Britain in the nineteenth century seldom ventured as far north as Scotland. Berlioz nearly made it in 1853, when it was suggested he perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the Glasgow Choral Union, but the singers refused to have him as conductor. Chopin certainly made it in 1848, though the journey nearly killed him. But it was Mendelssohn whose Scottish tour in 1829 was the most productive of its kind ever undertaken by a composer from elsewhere.
Not only did Holyrood Palace inspire the opening of his Scottish Symphony (a theme which, aptly enough, was to reappear under the title of Bad Weather at the start of another of his works) but the sight of Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa obviously bowled him over during his voyage to the Hebrides. In a letter to his family, he spoke of how "extraordinarily" the scene affected him, and he enclosed 21 bars of music which, he said, had sprung to mind there. These were the first bars of the Hebrides overture, though the rest of the work was not completed until he reached Italy the following year. It was then, as one of his biographers later commented, “among the laurels and orange groves that his thoughts and affections carried him back to the waves of the North Sea.”
Most of the music of the overture is built from the undulating, repeated phrase with which it opens. Wagner described the piece as an "aquarelle," and compared one passage to the wailing of sea-winds. But perhaps, in saying this, he was thinking ahead to his own Flying Dutchman overture - Mendelssohn’s, for most of the way, is a seascape recollected in tranquillity, and not even the spiky woodwind in the work's inspired middle section nor the rough waves that rise towards the end (where the pace quickens, the strings hurtle along in semiquavers, and trumpets and drums add an element of menace) are allowed to disrupt the formal perfection of the score.
When the storm subsides, we can expect the little introductory motif to be still there, and so it is. It has already provided a link with the theme of the second subject, first heard on bassoons and cellos and subsequently, in a poetically extended form, on the clarinets. Sir Donald Tovey, in one of his famous essays, declared this to be quite the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote, but notice how it makes its point in the first place without disturbing the natural flow of the music. Facile? Subtle? There may be works by Mendelssohn that tread a tightrope between these qualities, but the grey and silver beauty of the Hebrides overture shows the hand of a master.
© Conrad Wilson
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K466
It is not difficult to understand why the nineteenth century kept Mozart’s D minor piano concerto on the concert platform while ignoring many of his other works, for it is quintessentially Romantic in nature.
Mozart’s D minor concerto is dark and surprising in its outer movements while cradling a central slow movement of such tender lyricism that it would take a heart of steel not to succumb to its blandishments. The turbulence of the opening movement is offset by a Rondo finale that is full of irregularities – it even harks back to the tempestuous first movement. The unusual (for Mozart) addition of two trumpets and timpani to the orchestra for this concerto also contributes to the drama. But when all is said and done, Mozart cannot resist providing us with a ‘happy ending’ by concluding his masterpiece triumphantly in D major.
Given the unsettling parry and thrust of this concerto, it is astonishing to learn that the copyists were still busy writing out the orchestral parts the day before the concert. The orchestral musicians must have been the very best in Vienna, for the ever-critical Leopold Mozart (who arrived just in time to hear his son give the first performance of the concerto in Vienna in February 1785) noted how wonderfully the entire subscription concert had been performed – and the orchestral parts are no mere trifling accompaniment. The writing for both soloist and orchestra is powerful and dramatic, with the orchestra playing an equally important part in the musical development of the work. It is not hard to hear why Beethoven, who performed this concerto frequently, should have been so attracted to this magnificent specimen of Mozart’s art – but then, so are we all.
K466 has always been a regular visitor to the concert platform, and will continue to be so as long as we have ears! It is a perfect example of why music can so deeply touch human emotions while mere words can only hope to scratch the surface. But then, that is why Mozart is one of the immortals – his music goes straight to the heart.
© David Gardner
Piotr Anderszewski juxtaposes the stormy, operatic drama of K466 and the near Beethovenian breadth of K595 – Mozart’s last piano concerto.
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