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The Consecration of the House, Op. 124

About the Work

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quick Look Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor/Hélène Grimaud, piano, plays Beethoven Oct. 2 - 4, 2008
© Thomas May

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Overture to The Consecration of the House, Op. 124

Beethoven wrote only one opera - revised over a lengthy period - but the world of the theater inspired a number of compositions throughout his career. These range from the early ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, which generated one of the musical ideas later used in the Eroica Symphony, to incidental music for such plays as Goethe's Egmont. The final such project Beethoven undertook was in 1822, when he was asked to participate in the dedication of the renovated Josefstadt Theater (it still exists in Vienna). To celebrate the reopening, Beethoven was to provide incidental music for Carl Meisl's rewrite of August von Kotzebue's play The Ruins of Athens, a festive pageant using a classical motif to honor the Habsburg rulers. The rewrite was fittingly renamed The Consecration of the House. A decade earlier, Beethoven had already composed incidental music for The Ruins of Athens, and he recycled much of that material. However, he composed an entirely new overture, which elicited high praise from the critics and was featured on the concerts premiering the Ninth Symphony in 1824.

The Overture is written in two interconnected sections- an introductory Maestoso followed by an Allegro con brio. The overall scheme pays homage to the baroque; in fact the piece is sometimes described as Beethoven's "Overture in the Handelian style," and the earlier composer was indeed especially in his thoughts in this period when he was also working on the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. But there's no mistaking the Beethovenian thumbprint in the rhythmic eccentricities of the solemn, processional opening section. He scores for a theatrically expanded orchestra, drawing on his trio of trombones for a noble sonority. The introductory part includes a series of fanfares and scurrying scales to prefigure action in the play. The energy accelerates with great excitement as it spills over into the Allegro, in which Beethoven exploits his flair for dramatic counterpoint on a grandly proportioned scale.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58

Beethoven's fascination with the concerto format stretches back to his teenage years in Bonn. At 13 he made his first effort to compose one for piano (of which only a piano score survives). It's intriguing to realize that simultaneously Mozart was beginning to produce his famous series of piano concertos- a much-needed source of income to support the freelance career he had taken up in Vienna. After Beethoven moved there in 1792, he would put a personal stamp on that legacy when he performed Mozart's D Minor Concerto (K. 466) in public, providing his own cadenzas.

The genre of the concerto was especially attractive during the years before deafness forced Beethoven to abandon his career as piano soloist: It allowed him to combine the dual roles of composer and performer in a big public setting (and it was as a keyboard virtuoso that the ambitious young musician first made his name in the big city). In fact, the Fourth Piano Concerto marked the occasion of Beethoven's final appearance as a solo performer with orchestra. It was part of the program for the legendary concert of December 22, 1808, which also happened to include the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies as well as yet other pieces- with the unusually scored Choral Fantasy for piano, orchestra, and chorus (again featuring Beethoven as soloist) bringing this marathon event to its conclusion. Perhaps the sheer aesthetic overload (not to mention the underrehearsed orchestra and the theater's heating breakdown on a bleak, cold Vienna night) numbed the impression made by the Concerto. In any case, it fell into neglect until Mendelssohn posthumously made a case for this extraordinary work.

In his first three mature piano concertos, Beethoven had already fully absorbed what he could learn from the Mozartean models. The Concerto No. 4 ventures into very different territory. We often see the label "heroic style" applied across the board to works from the period to which the Fourth Piano Concerto belongs- the period inaugurated by the "Eroica" Symphony (hence the term). And these works do tend to convey an aggressive energy and ambitious scope. What gives Beethoven's heroism its lasting grip on us, as Maynard Solomon puts it in his eloquent biography (a must-read for anyone interested in the composer), is the "fusion of comic and tragic visions of life" that it ultimately expresses. But the "heroic" Beethoven is manifested in an extraordinary variety of guises. The Fourth Piano Concerto yokes his signature dramatic energy with a serene, lyrical outlook that makes this work particularly beguiling.

The Concerto's opening gesture presents in microcosm what is to follow- not just in the standard sense of highlighting essential thematic content that will be developed (which it does) but as a strategy for the entire work. The Fourth Concerto is, in a sense, about the concerto idea itself: Instead of following the expected formulas, it takes a step back to reflect on what this interplay between soloist and orchestra means. How can its theatrical possibilities be tapped in a way that makes it more than a vehicle for virtuosity? Beethoven's first decision is stunningly simple- have the piano protagonist start off with a monologue of its own- yet a brilliant, unprecedented breakthrough that casts classical convention aside (well, almost unprecedented- Mozart came close to the idea in his Concerto K. 271, where the piano grabs the spotlight moments into the opening).

What's even more striking is that the soloist doesn't begin with a big, dramatic declamation but is instead subdued and lyrical- even quasi-spontaneous. Yet embedded within its statement are energetic dramatic ideas. So these first solo bars suggest the tug between a lyrical quality and a more dynamic one: The Concerto revolves around this tension. As this generous movement unfolds- it outlasts the other two combined- there will be plenty of time to play up the drama inherent in this music. In fact, the main theme is powered by a very familiar Beethoven signature: it's the restless rhythmic pattern we know from the Fifth Symphony (which he was already working on) and other pieces of this period. Within the Fifth Symphony alone, the amount of mileage Beethoven gets from that rhythmic motto is astonishing enough; yet here he takes it in a completely different direction.

Notice too the magical point of contact where the orchestra (also subdued) takes over from the piano, with a luminous change of key (from the home territory of G to B Major). When this moment comes back in the recapitulation, Beethoven at last weaves the piano in with the orchestra to gorgeous effect. A second, march-like theme introduces a note of melancholy which mixes unpredictably with the sunny confidence of the opening music. Beethoven spins all of this material out in passages that alternate between reverie and sudden jolts into active awareness.

The brief Largo presents one of those examples in Beethoven where an extraneous image imposed by others has become indelibly associated with the music (another example is the "Moonlight" Sonata). Romantics later in the century mused that Beethoven was imagining a narrative based on the ancient myth of Orpheus- specifically, his taming of the Furies in the Underworld as he seeks out his beloved Eurydice. (In this connection, it's interesting to note that some claim Beethoven had ancient tragedy in mind while composing the Fifth Symphony.) What Beethoven does emphasize is the remarkable structure of the movement. It builds as an exchange between the orchestra, reduced to strings- which now start things off with a grim recitative that foreshadows the final of the Ninth- and the soloist. In his Norton Lectures on the concerto idea, Joseph Kerman notes that a musical fact- that each "side" plays utterly different music- becomes a psychological phenomenon: We hear this not as incongruity but as a 'series of responses.' And along the way, the orchestra begins to assuage its sternness, while the piano meanwhile erupts in a dazzling fountain of trills before the eloquently voiced final passage.

The finale presents the most exuberantly extroverted music of the Concerto, again turning on a prominent rhythmic element- this time with a brisk, rapidfire kick. But Beethoven reminds us of the fundamental contrast between lyricism and action from the first movement with a sweetly pensive second theme spanning both ends of the keyboard. He ratchets up the energy level even further with a gear shift to Presto for a dashing curtain. Suddenly, after the splendid rethinking of concerto interplay that has prevailed, virtuosity re-emerges in a fresh light.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

Being an artist in the Stalinist era could entail extreme hazard. Dmitri Shostakovich learned this firsthand through a devastating, overnight turn in his luck. The official Communist newspaper Pravda carried a review on January 28, 1936--a thinly veiled attack and warning in reality- of his wildly successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin had decided personally to attend the long-running production. He left before the final act began. For reasons that remain a matter of debate, the dictator took offense- or perhaps he just wanted to make Shostakovich a whipping boy as a further means to exercise thought control (much like Hitler to the West, with his "degenerate art" exhibits set up as cautionary tales). The review-editorial, ominously headed "Chaos Instead of Music," doomed Shostakovich to an immediate fall from grace. At least he was fortunate not to suffer the fate of many a fellow artist who was "disappeared" or sent to the gulag. But this disaster made the pressure of deciding where to go next with his music nearly unbearable.

Shostakovich came of age during a heady period of artistic experimentation following the Communist Revolution in 1917. He had been just a teenage student when his First Symphony catapulted him to international fame and launched his career as a significant new voice. All too briefly, creative ferment was in the air, from abstract painters like Kasimir Malevich to the anti-naturalist, avant-garde theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (who later collaborated with Shostakovich)- not to mention the rush instigated by the new art of cinema. But that freedom proved illusory.

It's striking how quickly Shostakovich discovered his voice and to find the technical means toward its expression. For all its obvious digestion of prior influences, already his First Symphony proudly elaborated a unique temperament, presenting the two faces of an intriguing but uneasy dualism: a kind of snarky sarcasm counterbalanced by sustained, crushing melancholy.

That work's success boosted the confidence of the young composer, who began to entertain highly ambitious projects, showing a particular flair for the world of opera. At one point he even projected a "Soviet Ring of the Nibelungs." (Lady Macbeth was meant to occupy the position of Das Rheingold as a prelude to a subsequent trilogy focused on the role of women before and after the Revolution.) But the condemnation of 1936 essentially spelled the end of Shostakovich's operatic career- undoubtedly a tremendous loss for 20th-century music theater. What was gained was a renewed focus on the more abstract genres of the symphony and string quartet. Into these Shostakovich would pour his profoundest creative impulses, becoming one of the century's great masters of each.

Because of his public disgrace, the stakes were enormous when Shostakovich was ready to reveal his next major public work, the Fifth Symphony. He had actually completed another probing and highly experimental work- his Fourth Symphony- around the time of the Lady Macbeth review. But he now deemed this too dangerous to bring before the public and cancelled rehearsals that were already under way (the Fourth would remain unperformed until 1961). Then, in a burst of creative fire, Shostakovich found a new direction for his Fifth Symphony, which he began in April 1937 and completed in an astonishing three months. In her fascinating memoirs, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of the National Symphony's fourth Music Director, Mstislav Rostropovich) observes that the composer had to have the piece vetted by a Party committee before the public premiere: "A few dozen nincompoops got together to judge a genius."

Yet even instant success and official approval were not enough to safeguard the composer's position. Throughout the rest of his career, Shostakovich still had to face the whims of the Soviet thought police with tormented uncertainty. Indeed, shortly after the Second World War he endured another reversal of fortune. Even in post-Stalinist times official pressure intruded: When his devastating Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar") was essentially banned, for example, Rostropovich smuggled the score out of the country so it could be performed in the West.

Perhaps the single most extraordinary aspect of this work is how true to its composer's original voice it remains while turning in a more consciously "populist" direction that resorts to traditional forms. In the wake of the attack against him, Shostakovich might easily have submerged his identity in the faceless sort of pseudo-epic, pseudo-folk music that was favored by the Communist Party (under the catchphrase "Socialist Realism"). But instead we hear both the darkly lyrical and the sarcastic- characteristics already present from the First Symphony, though here in different proportions- presented through highly imaginative orchestration.

The Symphony's two longest movements (the first and third) present emotionally probing canvases. The first stretches over a highly charged landscape, all the while economically playing out variants of essentially just two ideas. First is the opening call-and-response statement in the strings with its jagged, quasi-baroque dotted rhythms (this passage even found its way into pop music when Morrissey sampled it on his song "The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils"). Immediately following, the violins sing a plaintive and long-breathed melody. Shostakovich uses his large orchestra with masterful confidence to build up blaring, Mahler-like marches (with perhaps Mahler-like irony, if we pay attention to the anxious tone inherent in the first theme's ambiguous questioning). He also gives us touchingly fragile moments to savor: notice especially the beautiful dialog of flute and horn in the coda. Conductor Vladimir Spivakov identified this as a quote of Carmen's phrase "l'Amour" from her signature Habañera in Bizet's opera, as if to ask, he notes, "what love means in a Communist society, where people are supposed to love each other."

Shostakovich's biting sarcasm returns for the brief Scherzo (opening in the lower depths, with a number of echoes of the Scherzo from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony). This brevity conveys the feeling of comic relief, though its manic spirit is more likely to whip up than relax the listener's pulse. The movement's attitude of ostensible merriment begins to teeter ever closer to a mad waltz, on the brink of sanity- a foretaste of what is to come in the finale. The expansive Largo following is painted with a reduced palette- Shostakovich leaves out the brass- but contains some of the Symphony's most radiant and emotionally gripping music, alternating the string choir with passages for woodwinds and harp. Shostakovich creates an especially powerful long-term effect in his contrast of thin-atmosphere textures (such as the lone flute's solo, voiced as if from atop a mountain) with the ensemble climax toward which the movement relentlessly builds.

The finale is the Fifth Symphony's puzzle movement. On the surface, it seems to confirm a long tradition (since Beethoven's Fifth) of achieving the end of the journey from darkness to triumph. Indeed the first movement's tragic minor mode and scope seem to yield to brassy assertions of D Major triumphalism, punctuated by chest-pounding timpani and bass drum- an ending basically mandated by the doctrine of Socialist Realism. Given the specific circumstances in which Shostakovich composed the work, a tendency arose to view this finale as "selling out" - for those inclined to take a superficial, literalist view, that is.

But all is not as it seems here- and it is all but impossible to explain further without referring to the NSO's former music director, who was pivotal in challenging that once-prevailing view. First, the symphony's proportions- with those long first and third movements full of pain- do not seem to gravitate toward an "optimistic" ending. Even more, those close to the composer have claimed that the final pages are intentionally unconvincing. The whole issue is in fact caught up in a larger debate- one which shows no signs of subsiding, more than three decades after his death- about Shostakovich's music in relation to his times. On one extreme are those who claim- using this finale as a prime example- that the composer was a sort of musical apparatchik opting for conformity over conscience. Through his legendary performances of the work, however, Rostropovich (who knew Shostakovich as a close friend) movingly argued that this is an act of subversive irony, giving us the sound of a hollow victory.

The critic who praised the Symphony No. 5 with the famously smug phrase "a Soviet artist's creative response to just criticism" (which Shostakovich was compelled to accept as its subtitle) was at least right - with unknowing irony- about the "creative response" part. As Rostropovich suggested, the real victory, in the end, belongs to Shostakovich.