Beethoven and the Blind Banister Program Notes


FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, D.485

Franz Peter Schubert was born in Liechtental, a suburb of Vienna, on January 31, 1797, and died in Vienna on November 19, 1828. He composed the Symphony No. 5 in September and early October 1816, completing the score on October 3; the work was played privately at the home of the violinist Otto Hatwig that fall. It was not heard in public until well after the composer’s death, on October 17, 1841, when Michael Leitermayer conducted it in a concert at the Josefstädter Theater, Vienna. The score calls for flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Duration is about 27 minutes.

As a young choirboy in the Imperial Chapel of Vienna between the ages of ten and fifteen, Schubert enjoyed the opportunity of a first-rate musical education, not only in singing but in piano and violin, as well as a strong basis in the fundamentals of composition. His teacher there was the eminent Antonio Salieri (whose pupils also included Beethoven and Liszt). Salieri taught him, among other things, to date his manuscripts, for which historians are deeply grateful. And during that time he played in the school orchestra under the direction of Joseph Spaun, a law student who would become his lifelong friend.

All of these experiences were formative, particularly the opportunity to learn from the inside, by way of performance, how a symphony worked as a musical genre. Soon after leaving the seminary, he composed his first symphony, three years before the work to be performed here. He had a chance to perform these works with his school friends and family (probably with only one or two strings on a part, not with a full orchestra), and he continued to learn and grow in his understanding of the orchestra.

The next few years were incredibly busy, partly with his short-lived career as a teacher in his father’s school, but primarily with composing: three more symphonies, his first opera, and dozens of songs (more than 150 in the year 1815 alone!). He was not yet twenty when he turned out the brilliantly achieved Symphony No. 5.  It is the shortest of the six symphonies he wrote in his youth, and also the smallest in terms of its orchestral requirements (it does not use clarinets, trumpets, or drums). Probably Schubert composed it for the specific make-up of the ensemble that gave the first performance at Hatwig’s.

There is a spaciousness and proportion to Schubert’s ideas that tells us from the ravishing opening gesture—a gentle slow breath in the woodwinds into which the strings introduce a scurrying figure—that we are in the hands of a master. There follows a cheerful theme whose opening figure dominates the discourse of the first movement, and the development turns to ingenious combinations of the buoyant figure and flowing idea from the opening.

The second movement, Andante con moto, presents an idyllic pastoral figure, developed and enriched with one of Schubert’s magical changes of harmony—here, for perhaps the first time, we find the mature control of the composer whose harmonic inventions went beyond anything known at his time. Though he calls the third movement a “minuet,” its fiery qualities are those of a Beethovenian scherzo, to which the Trio offers a serene contrast. The finale recaptures the joyous spirits of the opening with a chipper little tune that Schubert puts through its paces with a brilliant sense of mastery.

TIMO ANDRES (1985-present)
The Blind Banister, Concerto No. 3 

Timo Andres was born in Palo Alto, California, on DATE 1985. He composed The Blind Banister, his third piano concerto, in 2015 on a consortium commission from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.  It was written for and dedicated to the pianist Jonathan Biss. The first performance took place in St. Paul on November 27, 2015. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for INSTRUMENTATION.  Duration is about 23 minutes.

For centuries composers have often found inspiration for a new piece in the work of an older master. This does not involve anything remotely like plagiarism, but rather recognizing a springboard to move in a new direction from an older impetus, even a fragmentary one. In this way the “modern” composers of the 19th century—like Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner—all found inspiration in the Beethoven symphonies for different reasons and in different ways.  Mendelssohn took the question-and-answer “Must it be? It must be!” from Beethoven’s Opus 132 string quartet and started an entirely different quartet (Opus 13) with a direct quotation. Schumann twice specifically referred to the final song in Beethoven’s cyle An die ferne Geliebte  (To the Distant Beloved), a setting of the words “Nimm sie hin denn diese Lieder” (“Take, then, these songs of mine”); for Schumann this clearly was an offering of the music to his beloved Clara. Beethoven himself made frequent use in this way to then-classic works by Haydn and Mozart, not to say Handel. And Mozart, once he had discovered Bach, found extensive use for Bachian ideas.

Why this discussion here? Because in our modern concert life, and with regard to new music, we largely overlook (or suppress) the degree to which composers (not to mention all artists in other genres, visual and literary) are part of an ongoing conversation of ideas generated in the art itself. Such is the case with Timo Andres’s The Blind Banister.

Though born in Palo Alto, California, Timo Andres grew up in rural Connecticut and took part in the pre-college program at the Juilliard School before attending Yale University for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. He made a splash when John Adams conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in his Nightjar, composed in 2008, when he was twenty-three, though by that time he had already composed a large number of works for the piano (his own instrument) or for various chamber music compositions, and he received several awards given to promising young composers—the BMI  Student Composer Award in 2004, and the Charles Ives Prize in 2008. His compositional activity since the Los Angeles performance has included an increasing number of larger scores as well as the busy continuing creation of chamber and piano works, increasingly in demand from major musical institutions and performers. The fact that The Blind Banister, composed in his 30th year, was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize has in no way slowed his career.

The title of this third piano concerto, created for Jonathan Biss, comes from a poem, Schubertiana, by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015):

‘Like when the light goes out on the stairs and the hand follows—with confidence—the blind banister that finds its way in the darkness.’

There is a suggestion here of all art being developed in a place where the artist cannot see the scope of a new work while it is in progress, but finds a thread—or a banister—to draw him through its creation via a connection with the whole realm of the art in question. Andres’s own description of his procedure in this instant is especially informative:

‘Beethoven gave his early second piano concerto (“not one of my best,” in his own estimation) a kind of renovation in the form of a new cadenza, 20 years down the line (around the time he was working on the Emperor concerto). It’s wonderfully jarring in that he makes no concessions to his earlier style; for a couple of minutes, we’re plucked from a world of conventional gestures into a future-world of obsessive fugues and spiraling modulations. Like any good cadenza, it’s made from those same simple gestures—an arpeggiated triad, a sequence of downward scales—but uses them as the basis for a miniature fantasia.

  My third piano concerto, The Blind Banister, is a whole piece built over this fault line in Beethoven’s second, trying to peer into the gap. I tried as much as possible to start with those same extremely simple elements Beethoven uses; however, my piece is not a pastiche or an exercise in palimpsest. It doesn’t even directly quote Beethoven. There are some surface similarities to his concerto (a three-movement structure, a B-flat tonal center) but these are mostly red herrings. The best way I can describe my approach to writing the piece is: I started writing my own cadenza to Beethoven’s concerto, and ended up devouring it from the inside out.

  Solo piano introduces the main theme of the piece—one of those slowly descending scales. It’s actually two scales, one the melody and the other (lagging behind) the accompaniment, creating little rubbing major-second suspensions against each other with every move. This idea is later splayed out and reversed in a rising sequence of loping, two-note phrases. This “Sliding Scale” is presented over and over, forming the basis for movement of continuous variations, constantly revising themselves. Orchestral layers pile up around the scale, building dissonant towers out of those major seconds. One last, long downward scale gathers enough momentum to launch the second movement scherzo, “Ringing Weights.”

  Here, the downward scale is transformed into a propulsive motor in solo strings, driving bright cascades of chromatic chords in the solo part. This movement is also made from varying modules, each increasingly elaborate—though this time, each successive module descends a step, the scale theme subverting the structure of the piece, trying to push it inexorably downwards.

  The piano works hard to reverse this process in a trio section, trading a stumbling, step-wise melody with gentle orchestral echoes of the ringing chords from the scherzo. As the piano music lurches to its feet, it grows progressively more boisterous, and the steps move faster, whirling themselves into a return of the scherzo material, this time with full orchestra and pounding timpani.

  Orchestra suddenly falls away, leaving the pianist to wrestle with the two basic elements of the piece—rising and falling. Arpeggios leap up and over each other, unbound to any meter, vaulting through the harmonic atmosphere before plunging down to the lowest E. As the arpeggios begin to trace more regular patterns, the orchestra drifts back in with another long scale, descending step by step, introducing a richly-harmonized Coda, really a super-compressed recapitulation of the first movement, the piano finally rushing off into an ambiguous future.’  –Timo Andres

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 2, in B‑flat major, Opus 19

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He evidently completed his B‑flat piano concerto in 1794-95 and probably premiered the piece in Vienna on March 29, 1795, though this is not definitely established. He completely revised the work before playing it again in Prague in 1798; only the later version is known today. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Duration is about 28 minutes.

Although numbered second in the canon, the B-flat concerto is actually the earliest of Beethoven’s piano concertos to find its way normally to the concert hall. Beethoven had moved from Bonn to Vienna in 1792, a twenty-two year old pianist and composer eager to make his mark in a big way. He knew the music of Mozart and Haydn, both of whom influenced his work, specifically including the B-flat piano concerto. The orchestra—which lacks clarinets—probably reflects the practice of Haydn, who came to employ the clarinet regularly only late in his life. And it may also recall Mozart’s last piano concerto, K.595, which is also in B-flat and (unusually for Mozart) omits trumpets and timpani.

Beethoven evidently finished the concerto just in the nick of time. It was scheduled for a benefit concert for the widows of members of the Musicians’ Society, but he had not written it all out. His friend Franz Wegeler recalled, “Not until the afternoon of the second day before the concert did he write the rondo, … In the anteroom sat four copyists to whom he handed sheet after sheet as soon as it was finished.”

Beethoven apparently played the concerto a few more times in Vienna during the following years. But when the opportunity arose for a performance in Prague, he revised it considerably. It was this later version that was ultimately published. But before it appeared in print, Beethoven had composed his C-major concerto, which was an immediate success and was snapped up by a publisher at once. The result was that the second concerto was published as the first (Opus 15), and the earlier work as the second (Opus 19).

A disgruntled Beethoven never lost an opportunity to set the record straight, since he felt that he had made progress between the two works. He did not want anyone thinking that the numerical order reflected the actual order of composition. Of course, Beethoven never disowned the concerto—he simply felt he had moved beyond it. Like every composer, he wanted his most recent work to be heard and appreciated.

One young Czech musician, Tomaschek, who heard the 1798 premiere in Prague, commented, “I admired his powerful and brilliant playing, but his frequent daring deviations from one motive to another, whereby the organic connection, the gradual development of idea was broken up, did not escape me. Evils of this nature frequently weaken his greatest compositions, those which sprang from a too exuberant conception.”

We, on the other hand, are likely to notice what is traditional: the Mozartean trick of combining a forceful and a lyrical idea together in the opening phrase, or the Haydnesque emphasis on rhythmic upbeat ideas. Thus we fail to notice that already Beethoven has an obsession for unexpected changes of harmony. The first of these is signaled in the simplest way—the full orchestra hammers out three repeated C’s fortissimo, followed by an echo, pianissimo, of D-flat. The melody seems about to continue in D-flat, a key very remote from where we just were, until Beethoven quickly engineers a phrase that brings it around to the “right” place. He may actually have learned this trick from Haydn, who used it quite frequently, but it became a central element of Beethoven’s musical armamentarium.

The slow movement may not yet show us a Beethoven capable of the most extraordinary profundities, but he is certainly already a master of the art of variation and decoration, which would ultimately lead beyond the facile and the merely pretty to new worlds of expression.

The unusual rhythm of the main theme marks the rondo finale. The rondo plays all sorts of little harmonic and rhythmic tricks on its listeners, with the aim of leaving its listeners smiling. This extended movement, carefully balanced and varied, full of wit and charm, was Beethoven’s finest accomplishment to this point.

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 82

Jean Julius Christian Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna (then known by the Swedish name Tavastehus), Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää, near Helsingfors (Helsinki), on September 20, 1957. He composed the first version of his Fifth Symphony late in 1914 and introduced it at a concert on his fiftieth birthday, December 8, 1915, in Helsingfors. A year later he tried a second version on December 14, 1916. He withdrew the score again and led the third, and definitive version, only on November 24, 1919. The symphony calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 30 minutes.

Though Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony shares with the Second the distinction of being his most popular work in that genre, it underwent a long and painful progress from the first version, begun in 1914 and performed the following year as part of celebrations of the composer’s fiftieth birthday, and the publication of the third and final version in 1921. Sibelius’s musical language is deeply rooted in late nineteenth-century romanticism, yet his mature music sounds strikingly modern.

This has a great deal to do with his treatment of the orchestra. He scoffed at Wagner’s habit of blending the instruments from different orchestral families to produce a mixed sonority, and greatly preferred to isolate the woodwinds, brass, and strings often into different kinds of musical ideas. This created various levels of activity which frequently in the Fifth Symphony seem to be operating to two different rhythms at once or even going their own way.  Yet while doing so—and generating a powerful nervous energy—they are unfolding a fairly small number of thematic ideas that change character as they change their rhythmic pattern and orchestral coloration.

It is worth remembering two things about this symphony: It was composed mostly during the horrors of World War I (and it is the only major work that Sibelius worked on in those years), and it follows the Fourth Symphony, which was in many ways the most “advanced” work that Sibelius ever composed, at least in the sense of employing complex harmonies that put him in the group of forward-looking modern composers. The Fifth seems in some ways to be a step back, especially by the time of the powerful close of the last movement. Yet it also can be seen as a work that demands sanity in a world gone insane. And even though its harmonies seem “easier” than those of the Fourth, Sibelius poses harmonic challenges that are answered in novel and imaginative ways.

One recent musical analyst has declared that Sibelius is the truest descendant of Beethoven as a symphonic composer, and a work like the Fifth Symphony, with its emphasis on a handful of abstract musical ideas made over into a vast range of musical experiences, is an excellent case in point. And though Sibelius’s Fifth lacks a chorus, we find, upon reaching the celebratory final pages, that there are echoes in musical character (though not quotations!) of Beethoven’s Ninth: darkness and tension resolving into brilliant transfiguration; a central movement built largely out of a single rhythmic pattern repeated hypnotically (though slower in Sibelius than Beethoven’s demonic Scherzo), and finally a feeling of uplift and heroic conquest. In both composers, one can find a “profound logic” that may not be evident at first hearing on the surface of the music, but leaves the listener feeling fulfilled for reasons that perhaps cannot be put into words.

The first version of the symphony, the one that was performed for his fiftieth birthday, had four movements. Soon Sibelius decided to fuse the original first and second movements into one. He tried this plan, then undertook a more complete reworking, rewriting the first two movements so what had been the independent second movement becomes a central episode in the first. In doing this, Sibelius frequently hints at older forms and causes the listener to expect some particular kind of music event, then undercuts that expectation and surprises us.

The complex opening movement grows out of a horn call figure that Brahms had loved and often used, but here with a slight rhythmic surprise that hints at the rhythmic complexities to come. From this point on, one thing grows from another with seeming naturalness (just as it does in the Pastoral symphony of Beethoven). The former second movement seems to appear as a kind of fast waltz in the middle of the movement, but this activity proves to be another view of the opening, and it builds to a sonorous conclusion.

The middle movement is based almost entirely on a single rhythmic idea (in this respect it has some similarity the third movement of Beethoven’s Seventh or the second movement of the Ninth. It has the effect of a period of relative calm between two movements of gigantic power, but it offers its own interest in progressively developing the basic rhythm and the figure that express it.

The finale begins with a rapid buzzing in the strings that builds to a tolling figure in the brass that finally reaches the sonorous and heroic home key E-flat with a glorious sound and a sense of finality that casts aside all earlier doubts.

 

© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)