by John Currie
When you study a mature Beethoven work with a view to conducting it, there often merges a sub-plot, a heroic drama beneath the notes. In the case of the Egmont overture, there is, of course, nothing hidden about its theatrical association, but, as so often with Beethoven, he writes into the music a large drama ending in a state of buoyant and, for me, extremely moving optimism. Thus in this overture he remolds the accepted Viennese overture form (slow-fast) to create a wonderfully dramatic three-part structure (slow-fast-faster). The two basic themes are heard immediately in the first section. It is not fanciful to describe them as a representing masculine heroism and defiance on the one hand, and feminine softness and persuasion on the other. In the central fast section both types are developed side by side until the climax (and resolution) in the fastest section - a typical Beethoven "glory march''. Such fast-moving bursts of triumph and hope are a strong Beethoven feature and it does not surprise that these are the places, in other works, where words appear: the Choral Fantasy, the Ninth Symphony. These outbursts strike me as highly excited optimistic statements about individual human heroism and about mankind generally.
The second work in our program is a rare and wonderful curiosity. Beethoven's least successful genre was the song or short choral piece, and yet here is a short descriptive work of the highest quality and inspiration from his mature period. Like Egmont, the starting point was texts by Goethe, and Beethoven here produced the sort of poetic descriptive music which we find in certain of the piano works but seldom in his choral-symphonic works. The becalmed ship is depicted in a sustained Adagio, reminding of what has been described as the "star-gazing" quality of certain slow movements in the string quartets and the piano sonatas. Dry plucked notes depict windlessness and there are two Beethovian outbursts at the work 'Weite' (distance). The 'gluckliche' section begins with the merest rustle of a breeze rising from the depths of the cellos through the upper strings to the flute; soon the trumpets and drums are declaring the joyful speed of the ship, and the voices are urging even more speed. The swiftness is arrested twice as for a longing gaze at the distant land, before the music dashes on to its abrupt, happy conclusion.
The word fantasy normally implies a free, possibly improvisatory approach, and the Choral Fantasy is no exception. In fact you will see from the accompanying historical note that Beethoven did indeed improvise the introductory piano section at the first performance. But basically the architecture of the piece is that of the classical overture (slow-fast). The opening slow section could be the cadenza of an unwritten piano concerto. The faster section, called "finale” settles to a melody which is quite close to the famous tune from the finale of the Ninth Symphony. As in that extraordinary work, Beethoven concludes the underlying drama with voices and words. This is probably the first instance of a romantic formula which was to appear again and again in works as various as Liszt's "Faust" Symphony, Busoni's Piano Concerto, and Mahler's Second Symphony. The Choral Fantasy is the delightful precursor of them all, the voices finally joining with piano and orchestra in double-speed fanfares declaiming the glory of Man and his Art. As in Egmont or the very end of the Ninth Symphony, this is the fast-moving, triumphant, and optimistic Beethoven.
It is good that the music-loving public is beginning to appreciate the genius of the late Masses of Haydn with their close integration of soloists and chorus and virtuosic string writing. Here two years before the death of his teacher Haydn, Beethoven takes up his pen within that rich Viennese tradition. The Mass in C emerges as a work of great individuality and power, no mere copy of Haydn's fine models.
The whole text of the traditional Greek prayer is incorporated in one rounded symphonic movement, opening and closing calmly. Somehow, although the Haydn influence is strong, the movement has a grand sweep, with sudden Beethovian contrasts and accents.
The Gloria opens with fast string passages accompanying the words, like Haydn. But these rushing string scales have the unmistakable energy of the later master. The mood, but not the tempo, changes as the tenor soloist introduces the words 'gratias agimus’ each of his phrases warmly affirmed by the chorus. In a perfect transition, the music darkens to F minor, and a throbbing string accompaniment with the contralto soloist introduces 'Qui Tollis'. The same solemn tempo remains for the majestic 'Qui sedes'. The quiet, penitent ending is shattered by the strong 'Quoniam' theme, mainly on wind instruments. The bass voices introduce the fugue which had become the standard formula for the words 'Cum sancto spiritu’ enlivened later by fast violin figures. The vivacious, happy ‘Amen' is typical.
The Credo begins quietly, breaking out suddenly at the ninth measure - yet another touch of Beethoven's love of dramatic contrast. The strong downward leaps at "Deum de Deo” have that hammering quality which pervades so many passages in his later works, a sort of rhetorical insistence that God (and Man) must hear. The key and tempo now change - exquisitely, with a little downward arpeggio of the clarinet - for 'Et incarnatus est' and the darker 'Crucifixus' with its puzzling setting of the name Pontius Pilate. 'Et resurrexit’ suddenly in the bright key of D major, sweeps us through to a quiet pause on 'mortuorum' and a strong Germanic fugue ('Et vitam venturi ... Amen) brings the Creed to its victorious conclusion.
Solemn wind chords (Mozart's Magic Flute and Masonic pieces spring to mind) introduce unaccompanied voices, and later the drum-beats which were a feature of earlier Sanctus settings. 'Pleni sunt coeli' is a joyful outburst, a vigorous melodic fragment which seems to leap in the air. The 'Osanna' has its own calmer theme. ‘Benedictus’ traditionally the area in which the solo voices are featured more prominently, moves without transition from the bright A major ending of 'Osanna' to a darker, richer F major: an extended movement for the full ensemble. There is a scale and grandeur here which is unique among late Viennese masses. 'Osanna' returns.
In a dark dramatic C minor, this movement repeatedly builds from throbbing wind or string chords to great cries of ‘Agnus Dei'. A beautiful solo clarinet paragraph leads to an isolated, unaccompanied 'dona' for the solo voices, and Beethoven, still using the prayerful words, slips gently into a swift Allegro. Only the strange stuttering of 'miserere' disturbs the celebratory mood. Suddenly, only a few measures from the end the tempo is cut in half and we are miraculously within the beautiful Andante which opened the whole work. This calm, unspectacular ending is a masterstroke of structure and expression.
By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
The four works of Beethoven presented in this program provide an interesting and microcosmic study of the Master's mature style during the productive middle period of his life. The order of their presentation belies their sequence of origin. The earliest composition is the Mass in C, Opus 86 (1807), followed by the Choral Fantasia, Opus 80 (1808) the Egmont Overture, Opus 84 (1809-10) and finally A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage, Opus 112 (1814-15).
In 1809 the new and successful impresario of the Court Theater Joseph Hartl decided to stage Schiller's William Tell and Goethe's Egmont. Beethoven appears to have initially desired to set Tell, but accepted the commission to do the incidental music for Egmont. Not only did he accept this commission to pay tribute to "the first among German poets;' but because the drama itself undoubtedly stirred his Flemish blood. He could also give voice to his patriotic opposition to the Napoleonic occupation of Vienna in 1809. The music premiered at the Theater three weeks after the play commenced, June 15, 1810.
Egmont tells of the Spanish Duke of Alva's betrayal in 1568 of the Flemish Count Egmont. Trusting in the knowledge of his loyalty to King Philip II and his prestige as a Knight of the Golden Fleece, Egmont emerges at Alva's command from the security of his Brussel's castle. His companion William the Silent prudently remained safely behind. Alva seizes and imprisons Egmont in his dungeon on his last night his beloved Klaerchen appears to him extending to him the crown of victory. His execution next day signals the triumphant rise to revolt of the people of the Netherlands against Spanish overlordship.
Beethoven's superb dramatic overture "pours out music alight with genius" in which he has with tremendous concentration projected the whole of the drama's heroic struggle and spiritual thrust. As one commentator remarks: the Overture is "certainly the most important musical work ever inspired by Goethe." Beethoven encompasses with his illustrative music the heavy handed Spanish oppression, the irrepressible longings of the Dutch for freedom, the gallantry of Egmont, the despair of imprisonment, and with the finality of his death the fervid rise of the populous.
During July of 1812 Beethoven met Goethe at Teplitz for the first time. The poet expressed his views of Beethoven with perception. “A more self-contained, energetic, sincere artist I never saw ... His talent amazed me; unfortunately his is an utterly untamed personality who is not altogether in the wrong in holding the world to be detestable.”
In 1814 Beethoven selected two poems of Goethe combining them into a single choral work. This he dedicated to "the immortal Goethe with greatest respect.” In 1823 after the work had been published Beethoven "bringing myself again to your notice" sent it to Goethe. "The two poems,” Beethoven observed in his letter, "seemed to me, owing to the contrast between them, very suitable for the expression of this contrast through music. I should greatly like to know whether my harmony is well suited to yours.”
Tovey has rightly observed that the English title "A Calm Sea …” misses the point and suggest rather the poor landlubber's requirement for a prosperous voyage. Rather, he notes, Goethe's little pair of contrasting poems deals with the oppression and terror felt on a sailing ship long becalmed, and the joy and relief when the wind arises. Beethoven's music succeeds in the first part in portraying that deathly terrible silence, that enormous expanse in which not a ripple stirs. When at last the winds rustle and rise, the music becomes simple and jubilant.
Shin Kojima interestingly notes that A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage "is the only choral song of Beethoven to have retained its original freshness:'
December 22, 1808 must have retained bitter-sweet memories for Beethoven. On that harsh cold night in the Theater an der Wien he had prepared what even for the musically voracious Viennese was to prove a long and somewhat disastrous Akademie concert. Premiered in their first public performance that evening were the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto the aria “Ah Perfido” two "hymns" i.e. the Gloria and Sanctus from the Mass in C, and the Choral Fantasia.
When the Finale of the Fifth Symphony would have furnished a highly suitable ending for the whole concert, Beethoven felt it would come at a time when the audience might from sheer weariness not appreciate its impact. Since he was soloist in the Concerto, he produced an experimental work to end the concert, utilizing an idea which had occupied his mind since 1800 of concluding an orchestral work with words.
The Choral Fantasia consists of an introductory piano fantasy, variations for piano and orchestra using the melody of his song of 1797 "Gegenliebe,” and a concluding chorus for which the poet Christian Kuffner hurriedly furnished the words. The choral melody clearly foreshadowed the music of the Ode to Joy in the Ninth Symphony.
So new was the work to be played that night that the sheets of music provided the instrumentalists and singers were still ink wet. Obviously rehearsal preparation was minimal. Beethoven improvised the piano introduction. The orchestra sufficiently fouled up its timing in the last section because of Beethoven's garbled instructions that he angrily had it stop and recommence the section. Later a repentant Beethoven apologized to the indignant musicians.
We do not know how closely the early published Choral Fantasia or Breitkopf's version of 1811 approximates the 1808 premier performance. Much to Beethoven's anger Breitkopf without asking his leave dedicated it to Maximilian Joseph, King of Bavaria.
Each year since 1796 Prince Nicholas Esterhazy feted his wife Princess Hermenagilda's birthday at High Mass in the Berg Church of Eisenstadt Palace with a newly composed Mass. Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) had produced his six greatest masterpieces in the genre each year between 1796 and 1802. Between 1802 and 1806 the Prince's Kappelmeister Hummell seems to have furnished the festive Masses. Probably at old Haydn's suggestion Esterhazy commissioned Beethoven in the spring of 1807 to produce the Mass in C Major to be sung September 13, 1807.
In late July Beethoven wrote the Prince from Baden that the finished Mass would be delivered to him August 20. “This will leave plenty of time to have it performed on the nameday of her Serene Highness, the Princess.” Perhaps the sentiments Beethoven expressed to the Prince indicate something of his true attitude toward the commission. "May I add that I shall deliver the Mass to you with great trepidation since you, Serene Highness, are accustomed to having the inimitable masterpieces of the great Haydn performed for you.”
There is considerable speculation as a result of Schindler's observations on the occasion of the performance, judged by some to be inaccurate, about the reception Prince Esterhazy gave the Mass in C. That worthy having feasted on the glories of Haydn's Masses - "accustomed" to them as Beethoven had written - appeared nonplussed, to say the least, or even shocked at the individuality displayed in Beethoven's work. "Herr Beethoven, what is this we have here?"
As J. Merill Knapp observes in his study of the Mass, Beethoven certainly followed the precedent set by Haydn in the structuring of the Mass in C, in the symphonic dimensions with which he imbued it, in the integration of the quartet, choir, and orchestra. The essential structure is the traditional Haydn Viennese division into five movements. The first three movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo) were as Haydn had done subdivided into three interior movements, fast, slow, fast. Haydn's and Beethoven's "methods may be the same, but;' says Knapp, "the musical texture is different ...It is Beethoven's individual musical language within a conventional framework that has struck their (the commentator's) attention and not the structure itself, which was rooted in the liturgy and the past ... His own mark of unity both within and between movements gave the Mass in C its true Beethoven stamp.”
Much to Beethoven's frustration Breitkopf refused until 1812 to publish the Mass. We have noted that parts were sung at the December 1808 concert. Church music was not in demand, observed the publisher when Beethoven attempted to force his hand by threatening to withhold other more marketable works from publication. German words were provided the published version to make it palatable to the Protestant North. When it was finally published, Beethoven dedicated it to Prince Kinsky who had annually for some time contributed 1800 florins to the annuity of 4000 florins given Beethoven by his princely patrons.
Let us conclude with Knapp's summary judgment of the Mass in C: “This Mass, then, is mature, percipient Beethoven, bringing to bear on one of Christianity's most familiar texts the full force of his personality and creative genius. It is spiritually religious ...It breathes a spirit of prayer and mystical being that come from the inner Beethoven. Whereas it really belongs in a church for a celebration of the Mass, it also reaches outside to humanity at large.”