André Watts Plays Beethoven, June 2 - 4 Program Notes
Tonight's program features superstar André Watts, who remains one of the most celebrated and adored pianists, over 50 years after Leonard Bernstein introduced him to the world.
In his talented hands, Beethoven’s revolutionary piano concerto No. 4 becomes a fitting farewell to the season. After intermission, Berlioz’s evocative Symphonie Fantastique, inspired by his infatuation with a British ingénue, will conclude tonights program.
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for June 2 - 4. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
Meet the Guest Artist André Watts here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
Concerto No. 4 in G Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 58
Andante con moto
Pianist André Watts
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
Un bal (A Ball)
Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country)
Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath)
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Ludwig van Beethoven in his Study; from a painting by Carl Schloesser, c 1811
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman
Instrumentation: 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, solo piano
Performance time: 34 minutes
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Ludwig van Beethoven - Picture from Meyers Lexicon books written in German language. Collection of 21 volumes published between 1905 and 1909.
When he was 22, Beethoven, like Mozart before him, moved to Vienna to further his career.
But Beethoven was far less fully formed as a composer at that age than was Mozart, who was composing masterpieces in his late teens. When he transferred to Vienna in 1792, few in Beethoven’s circle suspected that he might spend the rest of his days there—or that he would transform the notion of the concerto.
His great patron and protector Count Ferdinand von Waldstein had arranged the move so that Beethoven could take instruction from Haydn, who welcomed and valued him as his most talented pupil. But friends and associates in Bonn, who gave him a cordial sendoff, voiced their fond expectations of his return.
Beethoven’s writing indicates that he did not reciprocate Haydn’s friendly feelings, but he approached his work with music’s grand old man with utmost seriousness, cultivating mastery in the Classical style that he would eventually challenge and disrupt.
He spent just one year studying with Haydn, but worked his way through the major forms of Classical composition as if following a curriculum of his own meticulous devising that was less attuned to the statesmanlike Haydn than to the bolder Mozart—who, like Beethoven, was a pianist who viewed writing piano concertos as strategically important in building his professional standing.
Beethoven’s first two piano concertos were important not only as compositional milestones, but also as demonstrations of his virtuosity at the keyboard, as Mozart’s had been before him.
However, Beethoven was his own harshest critic, doubting his own compositional ability. Mozart’s apparent ease confounded Beethoven, who agonized over every note. Though Beethoven’s reputation as one of music’s boldest innovators is fully deserved, he did not publish a piano concerto until years after Mozart’s death despite his own considerable abilities on the instrument.
(Mozart and Cramer were the only pianists he seems to have praised unreservedly.) In Beethoven’s first three concertos, Mozart’s influence is unmistakable. But with his fourth, everything changes.
In the Piano Concerto No. 4 we hear the work of a more confident composer – one who has fully found his voice. This concerto’s themes have a nobility that is distinctly Beethoven’s own, and he develops them in ways that previous composers had never dared.
Mozart’s 20-something piano concertos had brought the form to a new level of beauty, expressiveness and formal refinement, representing the culmination of the Classical era; Beethoven built on this legacy, expanding the old forms beyond the breaking point and then creating new ones.
Joseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858), oil on canvas
His fourth piano concerto was a crucial leap in this process, and it opened the way for the great concertos of the Romantic era.
What to Listen For
Did our modern conception of the Romantic concerto start here?
Certainly, a case can be made for this idea. The concerto form was especially well suited to Beethoven’s approach to composition. His preoccupation with the great ideas of his time, especially the questions of human freedom and the individual’s relation to the state, were never far from his music.
As with his symphonies, Beethoven’s piano concertos pushed the scope and heft of the form as he worked his way through musical ideas. Beethoven greatly admired Mozart’s piano concertos, with their constant sense of spontaneity and delight, but did not pursue these qualities in his own concertos.
Instead, they get progressively weightier starting with this one and reaching an extreme in the fifth, which can be heard as an inquiry into freedom and tyranny.
In the fourth, the concerto’s freshness is apparent from its opening. The piano introduces a simple theme in G major with a few simple chords while the orchestra is at rest.
Then the orchestra enters with the same theme, but in a key that bears little relation to the piano’s statement, introducing a competitive tension between solo instrument and ensemble that would become a mainstay of Romantic concertos, and sustaining it with bold harmonic modulations.
Orpheus in the Underworld, Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau (French, 1869-1937)
The second movement is rhapsodic and almost agonizingly slow, setting up a contemplative mood; Franz Liszt, the most admired pianist of his generation, described this movement as a depiction of Orpheus taming the furies.
Apollo in his Chariot by Luca Giordano, c 1685
In the sublime third movement, the piano keeps returning to the dramatic main theme despite the allure of one sub-theme after another. The structure is a traditional rondo form—A-B-A-C-A-D-A— but it builds with a sense of joyful drama.
Hearing it, we can put a different twist on Liszt’s description: Apollo, in his chariot of light, triumphantly bringing music to the world.
Philipp von Lenard
Hector Berlioz (1803 –1869 )
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (second doubling on English horn), 2 clarinets (first doubling on E-flat clarinet), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, two trumpets, 2 coronets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, 2 percussion, 2 harps, strings
Performance time: 49 minutes
The life of French composer Hector Berlioz encompassed contradictory extremes.
He was a perceptive critic and writer who championed younger composers such as Charles Gounod. As an advocate for music, especially French music, he let logic be his guide.
But his personal life was wildly passionate and reckless, and his Symphonie Fantastique is a product of his passions—an expression not only of his burning infatuation with a seemingly unattainable woman, but also of opium-induced fantasies.
Borne out by those who knew him, Berlioz’s account of the night in 1827 when he attended a performance of Romeo and Juliet in Paris shows him helplessly in the grip of overwhelming experience.
He found himself on his knees, almost unable to breathe, consumed by the power of the acting and the sound of Shakespeare’s language. He did not understand a word of it, but it became an obsession—as did Miss Smithson, the Juliet whom he pursued for years and eventually married.
“The impression her outstanding talent made on my mind is only comparable to the upset which I suffered from the poet whose worthy interpreter she was,” he later wrote.
Declaration Of Love
More relevant to us—though perhaps apocryphal—is another purported remark from Berlioz: “I shall marry Juliet and write my biggest symphony on the play.”
His reference was to his Romeo and Juliet symphony of 1839, but the Symphonie Fantastique, composed nine years earlier, is also focused on his burning passion for Miss Smithson. Berlioz wrote numerous love letters to the charismatic Irish actress when she was in Paris, but they went unanswered, and she left that city without having met him.
He composed the Symphonie Fantastique as a declaration of love, but it is also an expression of frantic despair in which he envisions his own death.
Opium Pipe, by Jacob Riis, c 1890
Few works of art have so successfully and vividly captured feelings so fevered that they seem to embody the paradigm of the American beat poets of the 1950s: life lived at a pitch that was next to madness.
And like many of the beat poets, Berlioz was more than likely under the influence of his drug of choice—opium—when he composed much of the Symphonie Fantastique.
Leonard Bernstein put it bluntly and brilliantly when he observed, “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
When Harriet Smithson finally heard the Symphonie Fantastique in performance, in 1832, she glimpsed the extent of his genius—and his passion.
Six years after he had first seen her on stage, Hector Berlioz succeeded in making her his wife, though they did not share a common language. (Perhaps few husbands and wives actually do.) Their marriage was a disaster.
What to Listen For
Yes, Berlioz’s life embodied the clichés of flaming Romanticism.
But our impressions of him as a firebrand spring not only from his eventful love life, but from his visionary music, which was early in its use of modern, overlapping rhythms and surprising harmonies.
Perhaps most important of all, Berlioz found ways to make orchestral music brilliantly dramatic, seeming to delineate incidents without words. Wagner, who attended the premiere of the Romeo and Juliet Symphony, shared Berlioz’ concern with the relationship of music to drama, and we can hear traces of this symphony in Tristan und Isolde, which came to the public 20 years later.
Berlioz’s spirit of innovation came at a crucial time for the symphony. Anyone who attempted the form after 1827 did so in the shadow of Beethoven, who had redefined the possibilities of symphonic form with his Choral Symphony, the Ninth.
Through the end of the 19th century, most Germanic composers were still incorporating the familiar, decorative conventions of the late Romantic era in their symphonies—Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, to name a few.
Though Brahms was also haunted by the specter of Beethoven, he worked as an apprentice might with a master’s tools and traditions.
Lithograph of Berlioz by August Prinzhofer, Vienna, 1845. Berlioz considered this to be a good likeness.
Berlioz wrote the Symphonie Fantastique in 1830, just three years after Beethoven’s death. Though the symphonic stakes were not quite so high in France, the desire for new formal directions was still to be reckoned with.
Berlioz met this challenge with symphonies that were programmatic in nature, providing a story line that sometimes eclipsed the usual architecture of sonata allegro form.
Though the technical elements of thematic introduction and exposition are still present, we are more compelled by drama than by form as we listen; the result is a symphony perched on the edge of the more freewheeling tone-poem.
The Symphony Fantastique is perhaps the single most famous example of a programmatic symphony, with its story line providing a way to push beyond historic boundaries of symphonic form.
Part of the almost hallucinatory vividness of this symphony’s effects comes from the fact that it tells a story that Berlioz lived; it is almost a literary memoir in music.
No other description of the emotional turmoil underlying the Symphonie Fantastique is as valuable as Berlioz’s own account, from his original program notes written in 1845, 15 years after the symphony’s premiere:
Movement One (Reveries – Passions)
The author imagines that a young musician… sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her.
By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.
[We hear this musical idea as the “idee fixe” that threads itself through this movement and, indeed, through the entire symphony, like the glimpse of an elusive love-object.]
Illustration by artist Zahar Pichugin from book "Leo Tolstoy "Anna Karenina", publisher - "Partnership Sytin", Moscow, Russia, 1914
Movement Two (A Ball)
The artist finds himself…amid the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.
Alvan Fisher, Pastoral Landscape, 1854
Movement Three (Scene in the Country)
One evening in the countryside [the artist] hears two shepherds in the distance…this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees…gives rise to some hope… that he will soon no longer be on his own…But what if she betrayed him!
Movement 4 (March to the Scaffold)
Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions.
He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. As he cries for forgiveness, the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but cannot, so he watches as an onlooker as he dies.
The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes somber and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when his head bounced down the steps.
Movement Five (Witches’ Sabbath)
[The artist] sees himself at a witches’ sabbath in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral.
Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter [are heard]; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath ... Roar of delight at her arrival ... She joins the diabolical orgy ... The funeral knell tolls, a burlesque parody of the Dies Irae, the dance of the witches…
To this day, the Symphonie Fantastique retains its power to shock, and no moment is more shocking than Berlioz’s introduction of the sacred melody of the Dies Irae distorted into the eerie profanity of a witches’ dance.
A final wisp of the beloved idee fixe is snuffed forever amid the corruption, a sublime motif twisted into a vulgar jig—a sad outcome rendered into glorious music.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
To learn more about tonight's guest pianist, André Watts, please click here.