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Wednesday, 22 January 2014 16:46

Symphony Preview: Old and new testament + Video

The title page of the "Eroica."  Beethoven crossed out the original dedication to Napoleon so angrily he tore the paper. The title page of the "Eroica." Beethoven crossed out the original dedication to Napoleon so angrily he tore the paper. etonmess.wordpress.com
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This weekend's St. Louis Symphony concerts continue the "Beethoven Festival" as David Robertson returns to the podium for the first time in the new year to conduct a newly minted viola concerto and two works directly related to Beethoven's famous 1802 "Heiligenstadt Testament."  One—the "Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, op. 55," known as the "Eroica"—is by Beethoven and the other by the composer of the viola concerto, Brett Dean.  Neat bit of theme programming, that.

But first, a bit of background on the "Heiligenstadt Testament."  It is, as most classical fans will recall, a letter Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann at the town of Heiligenstadt (now part of Vienna) in which he told of his despair over his increasing deafness and his struggles with thoughts of suicide.  The letter was never delivered (it was found among his papers after his death in 1827) and seems, in retrospect, to have acted as a kind of catharsis for the composer.  Before the "Testament" he was a composer/pianist.  Afterwards, he would be exclusively a composer.

It also marked the beginning of the emergence of his unique compositional voice.  His first two symphonies were clearly in the mold of Haydn and Mozart.  But with the "Eroica" Beethoven created, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "a new musical genre, the Romantic symphony."

 

And what a symphony!  Those first two big chords are almost like a gauntlet thrown down to challenge established notions of what a symphony should be.  "A sense of energy and restless invention pervade [sic] the long opening movement," writes Mr. Schaivo. "Beethoven seems so full of creative fire that the usual first-movement design can scarcely contain his thoughts, and we find him continually overstepping its nominal boundaries.  As a result, this portion of the symphony has about it the feeling of an epic drama."

The drama continues with the heroic funeral march of the second movement, the restless energy of the third movement scherzo, and the towering finale—a set of elaborate variations followed by a powerful coda.  It clocks in at around fifty minutes, which no doubt seemed absurdly excessive to audiences accustomed to symphonies half that length.  "One early critic," writes the late Welsh musicologist David Wyn Morris, "described it as ‘a very long-drawn-out daring and wild fantasia' which, at least, reveals a response to its emotive power."

The finale is also a classic example of musical recycling.  The theme that serves as the basis for the variations was originally part of a set of twelve "Contredanses" Beethoven wrote between 1791 and 1802.  It seems to have been a favorite of his, popping up again in (among other places) his score for the 1802 ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus."  Composer and writer Derek Strahan has suggested that Beethoven saw it as a "hero" theme.  It certainly becomes heroic in the course of the final movement of the "Eroica."

 

Brett Dean

The second work inspired by the "Heiligenstadt Testament" was written two centuries after the first one.  It's "Testament (Music for 12 Violas)" by violist/composer Brett Dean, first performed in Berlin in 2003 and getting its local premiere this weekend by symphony violists along with guest violists Caleb Burhans of the contemporary music group Alarm Will Sound, International Contemporary Ensemble member Wendy Richman, and Margaret Dyer and Emily Deans of the chamber ensemble A Far Cry.

Quoted in the symphony program, Mr. Dean notes that Beethoven's despair over his deafness could have paralyzed him artistically but "the realization that his [Beethoven's] complete deafness was imminent, ironically also marked the beginning of one of the most creative phases in his compositional life, leading quickly to the Eroica Symphony, the ‘Razumovsky' Quartets and other thoroughly revolutionary scores. His time in Heiligenstadt, then, was a leave-taking, an acceptance and a fresh start."  Quotes from the first "Razumovsky" quartet show up in this piece, in fact, which moves from agitation, through sorrow, to what the composer describes as "implied anguish."  The final bars are "suspended somewhere between languor and resolve."

 

"Testament" opens the concerts this weekend, followed by Mr. Dean's 2005 "Viola Concerto" with the composer as soloist.  It's laid out in three movements titled, in order, "Fragment," "Pursuit," and "Veiled and Mysterious."  Reviewing the world premiere of the concerto by the BBC Symphony in 2005, Andrew Clements of The Guardian described it as "a substantial affair, elegantly proportioned and full of colourful musical imagery."  Writing for The Times, John Allison declared that the composer "has written something as personal as one would expect. The haunting and arresting sounds are all his own, and bright colours suggest a strong connection to his country's landscape. Indeed, the peaceful close, in which the previously hectic solo viola emerges purified, evokes a lullaby in which the earth seems to be singing itself to sleep."  Seems rather appropriate for the season in which, to quote Lewis Carroll, the snow covers the landscape "with a white quilt; and perhaps it says ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'"

The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony in Brett Dean's "Testament (Music for 12 Violas") from 2002 and his "Viola Concerto" from 2004 along with Beethoven's "Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major," op. 55, "Eroica" from 1803.  Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. Following the Friday performance, the symphony presents “Ask David,” an informal Q and A with David Robertson on the Orchestra level of the Powell Hall. For more information: stlsymphony.org.  The Saturday concert will also be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and on line at stlouispublicradio.org.

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