Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Overture, King Lear
Although King Lear was in the repertory of the English company which visited Paris in 1827-28 and from which Berlioz first received his life-changing experience of Shakespeare’s genius, it wasn’t till several years later that he got to know the play, during his time in Italy as winner of the 1830 Prix de Rome. While waiting in Florence, in a state of intense anxiety, for news of his fiancée Camille Moke, he read King Lear in the woods outside the city. It filled him with a kind of appalled enthusiasm. Back in his hotel room he inscribed some lines from it on the title page of the manuscript score of the Symphonie Fantastique: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods – they kill us for their sport’.
A few days later a letter came announcing that Camille was marrying the piano manufacturer Pleyel. Berlioz promptly set off for Paris with the intention of killing both of them, and the perfidious Madame Moke, before turning the last bullet on himself. By the time he reached Nice his rage had ebbed, and he stayed, drinking in the beauty of the place and profiting by the advice of Horace Vernet, director of the French Academy in Rome, who wrote to tell him that the sovereign remedies for a mind in turmoil were love of one’s art and hard work. In a fortnight of concentrated composition he produced a concert overture on the play, composing in his head as he walked by the sea and writing it down in his room high above the waves.
The resulting work has a closer connection both with the play and with the events of Berlioz’s life than were apparent to Donald Tovey, who in a celebrated analysis described it as ‘a magnificent piece of orchestral rhetoric in tragic style’ which we should be content to call ‘the Tragedy of the Speaking Basses, of the Plea of the Oboe, and of the Fury of the Orchestra’.
The ‘noble and indignant’ phrases for the lower strings which begin the long introduction, starting in proud strength but dying away to an abstracted mutter, clearly portray the stubborn, once masterful king (as well as being influenced by the instrumental recitatives in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). So does the angry, obsessive first theme of the allegro, just as the introduction’s pure, artless oboe melody represents Cordelia. Berlioz’s letters and Memoirs speak of Lear and Cordelia as the protagonists of the work; they also mention the king’s entrance into the council chamber (introduction), the storm (allegro) and Lear’s madness (the reappearance of the introduction’s opening phrases in the midst of the storm).
Even though Berlioz’s desire for revenge had abated, the wound was still raw. The vibrations of his recent traumatic experiences are heard, unmistakably, in the extraordinary tension and dry, electric sonority of the string writing, and also in certain textures and colours reminiscent of the Tempest Fantasy (composed the previous autumn to celebrate his ‘Ariel’, Camille), and in the allegro’s long-drawn, lyrical second theme – its character, and what happens to it. The theme breathes regret, conscious or not, for lost happiness. It runs to more than fifty bars; even then, Berlioz cannot let it go: it keeps putting forth fresh, more poignantly expressive tendrils of melody. A short way into the development section its second strain is heard again, in the minor. And in the coda it is the subject of a violent and sustained conflict, in which the opening phrase is whirled round and round and finally sucked into the orchestral vortex. This can stand for the tragic destruction of Cordelia, but it is surely an echo of something more personal and painfully real – the loss of Camille and the annihilation of their love.
© David Cairns
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)
Allegro molto appassionato -
Allegretto non troppo - Allegro molto vivace
Never has a violin concerto had a happier send-off than Mendelssohn’s, or has seemed to spring more perfectly from the pen of its creator. Lucky Ferdinand David who, in Leipzig, gave the work its premiere in 1845. Lucky Joseph Joachim who, at the age of fourteen, later played it in Dresden, with Schumann as conductor. The abundant melodies sound totally spontaneous and instantly memorable. But superficial – which is something they have been said to be - they are certainly not.
Even their apparent ease did not come easily to the composer, and we should rejoice that the machinery of the music - the way one splendid tune works up to a climax before leading to another, the poise of the accompaniments, the beauty of the transition passages, the control of tension and relaxation - operates so discreetly and naturally, as if the concerto were composed in a single sweep. Yet this was not the case. As Mendelssohn himself reported, the opening notes in E minor kept spinning in his head, giving him no peace, and impeding the progress of the rest of the work. Such is the mystery of genius.
The first movement, in a manner typical of its composer, manages to be both passionate and delicate, but its smooth flow does not conceal some incomparable strokes of inspiration, such as the soloist’s sustaining of a long, low G while the woodwind announce the tranquil second subject. The placing of the cadenza, before instead of after the recapitulation of the principal themes, is a startling moment of surprise. Who could ever describe Mendelssohn as unoriginal? Yet the surprise has been scrupulously prepared. The music is deliberately allowed to lose momentum, as if to suggest that the recapitulation is pending. Instead, it is the cadenza that sidles in.
No less surprising is the way the first movement’s fast, impulsive coda is propelled straight into the slow movement via a note suspended on the bassoon, followed by the gentlest of modulations on the strings until the concerto settles iridescently in the key of simple C major. Though given no more than the one-word marking, andante, the music has no lack of sweet expressiveness, either in the serenity of its main theme or what sounds like the quiet anguish of the middle section before the theme returns.
Recognising that a straight move to the scurrying wit of the finale might seem too abrupt, the ever-thoughtful Mendelssohn inserted a little interlude, poetically recalling the start of the first movement. It is another moment of Mendelssohn magic, in which the soloist prepares us for the new mood and new key of E major. Then the music dashes off in a new array of mercurial melodies, redolent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the best of them, on the cellos, is held back until fairly late in the movement, but serves to assert, once again, the tirelessness of Mendelssohn’s spinning invention.
© Conrad Wilson
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 3 in E flat, 'Eroica' (1806)
Allegro con brio
Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
Scherzo – Allegro vivace
Finale – Allegro molto
"I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the other is already started; the way I write now I often find myself working on three, four things at the same time."
— Ludwig van Beethoven
While still writing the Second Symphony, Beethoven started on his Third, another work from that dark Heiligenstadt Testament year (though any connection to Beethoven’s personal struggle with deafness has been utterly eclipsed by the story of its dedication).
For Beethoven, this symphony was Revolutionary as well as revolutionary. The original title page simply read 'Buonaparte' at the top and 'Luigi van Beethoven' at the foot. Beethoven’s admiration for the Corsican was no secret, which must have been a little risky. After all, he lived in the heart of the Hapsburg Empire, whose dominions were deeply threatened by all that Napoleon represented. And, in spite of his 'republican' passions, he was highly dependent on the goodwill of aristocrats. This very symphony had its earliest try-out performances at a private concert in a grand ballroom of a grand palace, in the heart of reactionary Vienna.
Beethoven’s respect for Bonaparte was famously dashed when the Corsican proclaimed himself emperor. Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s friend, reports:
"...[Beethoven] flew into a rage and cried out: 'Is he too, then, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!' "
Ries goes on to say that Beethoven then ripped the title page of this piece in two and threw it on the floor. Ries, like many of Beethoven’s friends, was apt to dramatise his recollections, but we have further evidence of Beethoven’s disappointment. Writing to the publisher Hoffmeister in 1802, he responded indignantly to a suggestion that he write a "Revolutionary" sonata:
Well, perhaps at the time of the revolutionary fever such a thing might have been possible, but now, when everything is trying to slip back into the old rut, now that Bonaparte has concluded his Concordat with the Pope – to write a sonata of that kind?
Yet Beethoven did not definitively change the symphony’s dedication until 1806, when orchestral parts were finally published. Perhaps a lingering nostalgia for what Bonaparte had once represented stayed his hand.
‘Eroica’ undoubtedly is the most apt title for the piece. It encapsulates not only the spirit of the times and Napoleonic Europe, but also the extent of Beethoven’s musical achievement. The scale and ambition of this piece set it apart from anything he (or anyone else) had previously written. The form of the classical symphony he had inherited from Haydn and Mozart is easily recognisable, but with a drama and sense of conflict that go far beyond their work. He freely embraces ugliness as well as beauty, coarseness as well as great refinement, violence as well as concord, brute force as well as masterly craftsmanship. His instrumental palate – enriched by three horns instead of the usual two – is astounding, full of martial effects and the generous use of timpani and brass. With this work, Beethoven paved the way for Romantic-era composers Schumann, Bruckner and Mahler, and redefined what 'symphony' meant.
Igor Stravinsky, of all people, was flattered to note that some listeners had drawn a parallel between the opening notes of his pivotal 20th-century work, Rite of Spring, and the ‘Eroica’. Few works in the history of music are considered more significant and revolutionary than these two.
© Svend Brown
Musically, the 19th century was a golden era. To this day, its music brings the age of Romanticism alive: that time of sweeping change, tumult, war, revolution and passion is celebrated in this concert. Berlioz wrote King Lear a year after his Symphonie Fantastique: it is easily as vivid and dramatic, full of grand-guignol tumult, but pathos and tragedy too. It makes a powerful complement to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, which Ticciati conducts for the first time in Scotland. Don’t miss the SCO Season debut of the young German violinist Veronika Eberle: currently a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, she inspires reviews extolling her ‘star quality’ and ‘electrifying’ performance’.