Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Egmont overture, Op 84 (1810)
Beethoven, on reaching the age of forty, completed an overture and nine pieces of incidental music as an expression, he said, of his "pure love" for Goethe’s drama Egmont. The German author’s heroic tragedy, attacking tyranny and extolling the "brotherhood of free men," was bound to appeal to the composer of Fidelio and Coriolanus. Yet pure love, it is plain, incorporated on this occasion a degree of expedience, in that the music was not written for its own sake but was commissioned from him for a Viennese production of the famous play.
As a left-wing composer who six years earlier had planned to call his ‘Eroica’ symphony the ‘Bonaparte’, Beethoven wrote Egmont soon after Napoleon’s troops had marched into Vienna, driving him berserk with their noise. By then, in any case, his feelings about the French had changed, but he remained a revolutionary and idealist at heart, and the spirit of idealism shines through his incidental music, supplementing the noble overture with songs, entr’actes, a passage of melodrama (spoken words set against music) and a climactic "symphony of victory."
Goethe’s story, put simply, is that of a Fidelio which goes wrong (brave Flemish prince is imprisoned by Spaniards; plucky fiancée fails in her rescue attempt; she poisons herself; he is executed). The directors of the Vienna Court Theatre, who commissioned the music, had originally thought of staging Schiller’s William Tell, another drama about resisting foreign oppression, and it is fascinating to wonder what a William Tell overture by Beethoven might have been like.
Yet few people even know what the complete Egmont music is like, since, apart from the overture, it is seldom played. The virtue - and drawback - of the overture is that it forms such a satisfactory entity that it has come to seem quite self-sufficient. Composed between the ‘Emperor’ concerto and the Seventh Symphony, it shows Beethoven at the height of his dramatic powers, as the slow, sombre introduction arrestingly proclaims. The contrasted masculine and feminine elements of the succeeding Allegro - gruff rhythm, graceful melody - suggest the conflicts between patriotism and love that form the basis of the story. At the end comes the short "Symphony of Victory" (intended to ring out again at the climax of the play), a stirring fanfare-like coda whose sense of exalted jubilation echoes Egmont’s words as he is led to the scaffold: "For your dear ones, and for your homes, be prepared to follow my example and die with joy".
© Conrad Wilson
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Bassoon Concerto in F major, Op 127 (1811, rev 1822)
Allegro ma non troppo
Younger than Beethoven, older than Schubert, Weber died earlier than either of his two great contemporaries. Hampered by ill-health – he had the misfortune to be tubercular from birth – he never won the laurels that lay almost within his grasp. As a German opera composer, the best of his kind before Wagner, he suffered from feeble librettos which reduced potential masterpieces to miserable might-have-beens. Schubert, who as an opera composer had libretto problems of his own, recognised Euryanthe as a dud the moment he heard it in Vienna in 1823, and lost Weber’s friendship through telling him so. Yet it was a dud of a special sort, filled with glorious music, as also were Oberon and (Weber’s one true operatic masterpiece) the atmospheric Der Freischutz.
In smaller forms, on the other hand, he excelled. Significantly, the overtures to two of these operas are better than the works themselves. His Konzertstuck is a brilliantly compressed piano concerto, brimming with invention. His clarinet concertos are marvellously poetic products of a German romantic imagination, and the work in today’s programme is that choicest of rarities, a bassoon concerto which is nor meant merely to make you laugh. What it does do, and with high success, is suspend you in a state of constant surprise. The start of the first movement, with its martial rhythms and thwacking drums, sounds quite Beethovenian, at least until it swerves in a different direction and the soloist enters playing something other than a piano.
Weber’s solo bassoon, or so the music suggests, is a bit of a singer, nimble-voiced and wide-compassed, a tenor with a bottom register and some airy top notes. So it is natural that the first movement seems to keep wanting to turn into an operatic aria, and the slow movement could actually be one. This short romanze forms the lyrical heart of the work, again somewhat Beethovenian in manner but singing with Weber’s own expressively nasal voice. The rondo finale sustains the illusion that we are listening to something vocal, but on instrumental terms, too, it is music of great polish and wit.
© Conrad Wilson
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Clarinet Concerto No 1 in F minor, Op 73 (1811)
Adagio ma non troppo
Like Mozart before him and Brahms after him, Weber loved the clarinet and wrote with maximum eloquence for what at the time was still a fairly novel single-reed member of the woodwind family. Numerous passages in his operas reveal his responsiveness to its sound, but his enthusiasm went further than that, as his two clarinet concertos, clarinet concertino, and sublime Mozart-inspired clarinet quintet all confirm.
As with Mozart, and indeed with Brahms, most of this music was written with one particular player in mind – not Mozart’s gloriously gifted Anton Stadler, who was by then on the brink of death, nor Brahms’s self-taught Richard Muhlfeld, who was not yet born, but Heinrich Baermann, famed as the ‘Rubini of the clarinet’ because he rivalled the great Italian tenor in richness, beauty, and phenomenal compass.
Though Baermann started as a bandsman in the Prussian Life Guards and was captured by Napoleon at the Battle of Jena, he survived to become the leading clarinettist of his day, hailed by Weber for his ‘welcome homogeneity’ from top to bottom of the register. His abilities were exploited by this evening’s concerto, with its brilliant, agile top notes and sudden plunges into shadow. Weber, even in this early work, was a great and natural orchestrator, a quality he shared with Schubert, who lacked Weber’s professional experience as a conductor but possessed a similarly profound feeling for instrumental timbre.
Yet if either of these composers had been just an orchestral colourist, his music would not arrest us today the way it does. In Weber’s case, the individuality of his sound world makes him seem prophetic of Berlioz and Mahler, both of whom adored him. It is a sound which fits his ideas like a glove, as the sombre, jerky, minor-key restlessness of the first movement of this concerto instantly proclaims, before the clarinet makes its poignant entry. The slow movement has as its highpoint a passage for clarinet against an exquisite horn chorale (the horn being another of Weber’s special instruments) and the finale has a piquancy that never degenerates into mere fluency.
© Conrad Wilson
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No 25 in G minor, K183 (1773)
Allegro con brio
Though the Symphony No 29 in A major is traditionally hailed as the eloquent turning-point among Mozart’s symphonies - most of its predecessors being interesting juvenilia, most of its successors increasingly sublime masterpieces - the so-called “little” G minor symphony, No 25, dating from the previous year, is filled with perhaps even more startling foretastes of things to come.
Its key is conspicuously assertive. G minor, both instrumentally and operatically, meant much to Mozart and he reserved its use for occasions when he had something specially passionate to say. The orchestration is bold, with four horns, such as he would use later in Idomeneo, instead of the customary two. The music’s agitation, right from the first note, is strong. This was the period - the 1770s - of the German literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), which had Goethe among its leaders, and which for a time influenced the symphonies of Haydn and of Bach’s musically edgiest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. In these works (Haydn’s early Symphony No 39 being a vehement example) surges of feeling are unleashed with exceptional minor-key intensity. Though young Mozart remained on the fringes of the trend, his flair for G minor - a Sturm und Drang key if ever there was one - was a consistent presence, leading eventually to the greatest of all his G minor utterances, the Symphony No 40, K550.
In comparison, the 'little' G minor symphony, K183, is by no means as slight as it was once thought to be. Its four movements have scope to express themselves, and nobody should underrate the ardent message the music delivers. The first movement is all agitation and syncopation. The E-flat major andante, with its prominent bassoons, is less peaceful, more plaintive, than it initially seems. Indeed, it is one of the first manifestations of Mozart’s incomparable ability to make his music sigh, something he could do to the end of his life.
The G minor minuet is decidedly not for dancing. With its foretastes of of the minuet of K550 and that of Schubert’s Symphony No 5 (another G minor movement) it is stark and chromatic - though with a lovely woodwind-soaked trio section in the major, again prophetic of these later works. The finale brings back the storm and stress of the first movement, along with further agitations and syncopations. From start to finish, K183 is a keen-edged, marvellously unified and often sombre score, its violin tone frequently darkened by violas, its quartet of horns invariably justifying their unexpected presence.
© Conrad Wilson
A perfect curtain-raiser to the festive season. High spirits, brilliant comedy and jaw-dropping virtuosity are the essence of Weber’s concertos: a man of the theatre, he certainly knew how to entertain and thrill. Beethoven had no time at all for him, but had to eat his words when Weber wrote the most successful and influential opera of the decade. Egmont belongs to an utterly different kind of Romanticism: dark, heroic and stormy.