Leó Weiner (1885-1960)
Divertimento No 1, Op 20 (1934)
I: A good csardas
II: The dance of the fox
III: Waltz of the town of Marosszeki
V: Pestle dance
Dubbed the ‘Hungarian Mendelssohn’ by the press in his homeland, Weiner looked set to achieve unprecedented widespread fame and to bring Hungarian music to a new international audience. His early works earned him a number of composition prizes, and with them the attention and respect of both the Hungarian public and the country’s music critics. Like his closest – and more famous – contemporaries, Bartók and Kodály, Weiner wrote music in the Hungarian verbunkos (gypsy) style, and spent time collecting and recording traditional Hungarian folk tunes for use within his works. This national agenda, when combined with his gift for lyrical melodies and colourful rhythmic style, quickly earned him his status as a national treasure. But so in demand were his services that he was soon offered a number of important teaching positions, and when he accepted the prestigious position as professor composition (and later of chamber music) at the Liszt Academy, it was not long before his own compositions began to tail off.
Weiner composed around 50 works in total, most of which can be called chamber music. Although he was touted as the future of Hungarian music, with one critic suggesting he would become the next great symphonist, Weiner rarely ventured into orchestral composition, and did not write any symphonies; his symphonic poem and five divertimenti for orchestra were among his few forays into large-scale composition. While this focus on small-scale works is partly to blame for his disappearance from the public sphere, he was also overtaken by both Bartók and Kodály, who incorporated Hungarian folk melodies and transformed them into something new and distinctly modern. Weiner, meanwhile, was content to replicate the folk style without reinventing it, never venturing into the more complex worlds of polytonality or atonal composition.
However, it is precisely this commitment to simplicity and lyricism that makes Weiner’s works so compelling. His Divertimento No 1, the first of five divertimenti that he wrote for string orchestra, brings together a selection of five Hungarian folk melodies, each given its own short movement. Each movement presents a different type of dance, beginning with the classic Hungarian peasant dance, ‘A good czardas’. Taken from the Hungarian word for tavern, the czardas usually starts out as a measured dance that becomes faster and more unstable towards its conclusion. In this case, there is no change in tempo, but the elegant march-like melody with which the movement opens becomes increasingly haphazard – and even a little drunken – as it progresses. This runs attacca into one of Weiner’s most famous pieces of music, ‘The dance of the fox’, a fast and furious dance that depicts the fox scampering across the hillside, lapsing into a lyrical country idyll shortly before the end. Colourful, energetic and neatly orchestrated, it is one of the finest examples of Weiner’s authentic Hungarian style.
© Jo Kirkbride
Jacques Ibert (1890-1962)
Flute Concerto (1934)
III: Allegro scherzando
Often maligned for his overly-tuneful, lyrical works in a lush Romantic style, Ibert deserves a far more meaningful reputation than simply a composer of ‘pleasant’ music. His works, while often simple, direct and evocative, demonstrate a composer with a gift for melody and a deep understanding of the instruments for which he was writing. Of his concertos he once claimed: "In my concertos I have allotted the instruments the types of themes which correspond to their particular tone qualities and respect their expressive possibilities." That such intentions should produce music that is easy on the ear and immediately accessible should not allow us to lose sight of his impeccable craftsmanship and talent for picturesque instrumental colours.
As a young composer, Ibert gained fame and recognition quickly when he won the Prix de Rome on his first attempt, at the age of just 29, with his cantata Le Poète et la Fée. As a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he had also been the recipient of many of the Conservatoire’s most prestigious prizes, but such accolades did not impress his father, who had hoped that his son would become a businessman and subsequently withdrew his financial support for his studies. Determined to continue as a composer, Ibert supported himself by selling popular songs and piano pieces, which he wrote under a pseudonym, and by improvising the accompanying music at silent film theatres. While he would later go on to establish himself as a composer for many major French films, the techniques he developed during his early forays into improvisation also spill over into his instrumental works, which carry a sense of natural spontaneity and effortless charm. Ibert considered composition to be ‘the expression of an interior adventure’.
Refusing to ascribe himself to a particular movement or school, Ibert’s music might be considered a little conservative for its time, but this does not diminish its charm. The Flute Concerto, written in 1934 for the virtuoso flautist Marcel Moyse, is characteristic of Ibert’s breezy, lyrical style, but despite its charming exterior it presents a considerable challenge in performance. A witty Allegro and gentle Andante precede the longest and most complex of the concerto’s three movements: a jazzy Allegro scherzando. Technically challenging, with a dazzling solo cadenza at the end, this movement requires such skill that it became one the test pieces at the Paris Conservatoire. Evoking the sights and sounds of a bustling Parisian summer evening, this bubbling finale is testament to Ibert’s own claim that he knows just how to make the most of each instrument’s expressive possibilities.
© Jo Kirkbride
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
Following sell-out performances in recent years, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra returns to Strathpeffer Pavilion under the baton of dynamic young conductor Gergely Madaras. The SCO performs Beethoven’s ever-popular Symphony No 3 ‘Eroica’, alongside music by Weiner and Ibert, with virtuosic SCO Principal Flute Alison Mitchell as soloist. A perfect summer evening’s entertainment!