Program Notes: Beethoven, Schumann & Liebermann
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2, Op. 72a:
World Premiere November 20, 1805; Vienna, Austria (13 minutes)
- Ludwig van Beethoven favored instrumental music: symphonies, sonatas and concertos.
- His vocal music includes songs, folk songs and some sacred masses.
- He labored on his only opera, Fidelio, for more than a decade.
- Leonore Overture No. 2 originated as a prelude to the opera.
- A slow introduction followed by an allegro link the Overture to symphonic first movement form in this piece.
- Beethoven delivers Viennese heroic style with a touch of French military flavor.
Music Director Courtney Lewis opens the program and the season with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2, which was actually the first of four overtures Beethoven composed for his opera Fidelio. The overture’s themes and general concept may be familiar to listeners who love Leonore Overture No. 3, but the two scores are different in structure, pace and length. The traditional comparative view holds that No. 2 emphasizes space, expanse and intensity of drama, whereas No. 3 is a more formal symphonic composition. The Overture we hear is a fine example of the so-called concert overture, which functions equally well as an independent piece in the orchestra hall as it does in the opera house. In this case, it may well do better. While its familiarity, through shared material with Leonore Overture No. 3, may tantalize us, this overture is Beethoven’s first inspiration. As such, it boasts a freshness that delights the ear and leaves us in awe.
Lowell Liebermann’s Organ Concerto, Op. 141 (world premiere, Jacksonville Symphony commission):
World Premiere September 29, 2023; Jacksonville, Florida (31 Minutes)
“I’ve always seen my works as being part of the western classical continuum of music. I never intend for my music to be a radical break with what’s happened before it. To me, the whole history of music is a very enriching tradition, and my music often makes references to other composers, styles and techniques…In my music, there usually is no extra-musical inspiration. It’s not about sunsets, political events or things of that sort. It’s about the manipulation of the harmonies, the melodies, the musical materials I’m using and the abstract emotions that those evoke in the listener. I do stress that these are abstract emotions. I often compare it to working with emotions the way an abstract painter would work with colors…I never want to tell people what they should expect when listening to my works. I would much rather people listen to the music as it unfolds and see what they feel rather than having this fear that they have to listen for something, and if they miss it, they’re not getting the piece. I encourage all to simply sit back, relax and enjoy the music” (Lowell Liebermann).
Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 :
World Premiere November 5, 1846; Leipzig, Germany (38 Minutes)
- Robert Schumann was the quintessential romantic.
- During his lifetime, he was better known as a music critic than a composer.
- His wife Clara Wieck was also a talented pianist.
- His early piano masterpieces are the bedrock in romantic keyboard literature.
- Ravishing melodies are abundant in his four symphonies.
Schumann’s splendid Symphony No. 2 in C Major may well be his greatest orchestral achievement. With salutes to Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 (“London”) and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Schumann allies himself firmly with his classical predecessors. The Symphony also finds its primary models in the works of Felix Mendelssohn. In the outer movements, however, it becomes clear that this is the most Beethovenian of Schumann’s four symphonies. His second movement, Scherzo, presents some of the toughest passages for strings in classical literature. Watch how fast the strings are bowing in the Scherzo. Fleeting, it communicates an undercurrent of driven energy that is motoric in nature. They need the break of those two contrasting trios! His slow movement is as beautiful and moving as any art song he composed, calling forth the most soulful side of his nature. The finale is convincing and filled with characteristic melodies, overcoming any challenges musically expressed in a valiant declaration of victory.
Leonore Overture No. 2, Op. 72a
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany | Died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
Many Symphony patrons know Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 fairly well. It is a staple of the concert hall and is considered to be a superb orchestral showpiece. Opera goers probably know that it has become traditional to play Leonore Overture No. 3 between the first and second scenes of Act II in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. We must then assume that if Leonore Overture is No. 3, two others must exist. Why, then, do we hear the first two Leonores so rarely?
The answer to that question is complex, tied up both in Beethoven’s perfectionism and in the political and social circumstances surrounding opera of his day. Beethoven composed all three Leonores for his opera, each for a different production, then scrapped the lot in favor of the lighter Fidelio overture of 1814. By that time, the opera had also come to be known by the latter name. The duality of the opera’s title derives from its heroine, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio, to affect the rescue of her husband Florestan, who has been unjustly imprisoned.
Fidelio presented more challenges than any other work in Beethoven’s career. He worked on it for 10 years, suffering two failures and a third cancelled production in Prague, before finally achieving a modest success on the fourth try in 1814. That checkered history is the simplest explanation for the plethora of overtures that exist for Leonore. Leonore Overture No. 2 was the first of the four overtures to be composed for the premiere in Vienna in November 1805. The erroneously named Leonore Overture No. 1 postdated it by two years and was not published until after Beethoven’s death.
At the time of the first performances, Vienna was overrun by Napoleon’s troops. Most of Beethoven’s friends and patrons had fled the capital in anticipation of the invasion. Saddled with an audience largely comprising military personnel, the opera failed after three performances. Beethoven revised it for a revival in spring 1806. His reworking included an extensive overhaul of the overture, which resulted in the well-known Leonore Overture No. 3. That is the reason that the second and third overtures are so closely linked thematically.
Indeed, listeners who know Leonore Overture No. 3 may double-take by the extent to which they recognize much of Leonore Overture No. 2‘s music. Both overtures are in C major, the key of Florestan’s liberation. Both use Florestan’s rhapsodic Act II aria as the basis for their lyrical sections. The famous fanfare is present; so too is the joyous presto coda. Yet the two movements are certainly not identical. The traditional comparative view holds that No. 2 emphasizes space, expanse and intensity of drama, whereas No. 3 is a formally tighter symphonic composition. No. 2 is a massive sonata form with an oversized slow introduction, exposition and development. The recapitulation and coda are comparatively modest, bringing the music to resolution after the dramatic climax of the trumpet call signaling the arrival of the minister who will free Florestan.
Leonore No. 2 is a concert overture. Although Beethoven composed it as a prelude to his opera, its musical and philosophical weight overwhelmed its function as a dramatic introduction. The music combines elements of French style with Beethoven’s own heroic Viennese style, resulting in inspirational and fresh melodies for the ear to enjoy.
Instrumentation: Beethoven’s score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs; four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61
Born June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Saxony, Germany | Died July 29, 1856, in Endenich, near Bonn, Germany
The best of Schumann, by general consensus, is found in his solo piano music, which is largely concentrated among his very early works. There are many treasures among the works from the later 1840s and even the early 1850s, and much of the poetic genius that we so revere in his music is also to be found among the youthful keyboard compositions.
Schumann’s wife, the gifted pianist and composer Clara Wieck, wielded a powerful influence on her husband. Their marriage in 1840 seems to have somehow freed Schumann to explore other avenues of expression for his ideas. First in song, then in chamber music and eventually in large orchestral compositions, he sought outlets for the unceasing stream of melody that swirled through his creative mind.
Listening to Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, one is hard-pressed to fathom why we do not hear it more often. It has nobility, a formal integrity and brilliant touches sprinkled throughout, both in melodies and in scoring.
Although it is numbered second, the C major Symphony was the third that Schumann composed. The D minor Symphony, Op. 120, preceded it, but Schumann revised it 10 years later and published it long after the work we hear at these performances. Op. 61 is actually contemporary with the energetic Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52. The Symphony finds its primary models in the works of Beethoven and Mendelssohn; indeed, especially in the outer movements, this is the most Beethovenian of Schumann’s four symphonies.
The Symphony opens with a mini fanfare: a rising fifth in dotted rhythm, delivered by the trumpets to inaugurate a slow introduction. Simultaneously with this affirmative gesture, whose motive recurs throughout the Symphony, the strings provide commentary and accompaniment with a questioning and exploratory idea in singular contrast to the proud brass. Right away, in the opening measures, we hear the inherent conflict and duality that characterizes so much of Schumann’s music, and in microcosm, describes the panoply of moods he explores in his four movements. Schumann’s diversity of musical atmosphere is the more remarkable because all four movements are in the key of C.
Schumann’s slow introduction leads to a lively Allegro ma non troppo dominated by dotted rhythm. His aggressive rhythmic profile proclaims the victory of the positive brass theme over the doleful intonations from the strings. The development section is fraught with warring elements, little dramas both public and private, as Schumann wrestles with the shadow play of dark and light implied in his opening bars. His recapitulation is fiercely affirmative, with a splendid conclusion.
The Scherzo, placed second in emulation of the Beethovenian Ninth Symphony model, is a virtuoso perpetuum mobile for strings. This is when part or most of the piece is repeated an often-unspecified number of times. Fleeting, it communicates an undercurrent of driven energy that is motoric in nature. He balances the frenetic stream of sixteenth notes by interpolating two contrasting trios instead of one, following his own successful model from the “Spring” Symphony, Op. 38 (1841) and the Piano Quintet, Op. 44 (1842).
Schumann’s slow movement is a standout, calling forth the most soulful side of his nature. When the Hamburg music director wrote to him in 1849 requesting interpretive guidance for this work, Schumann replied:
…I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work. All the same it reminds me of dark days. Your interest in a work so stamped with melancholy proves your real sympathy…I was greatly delighted to find that my mournful bassoon in the Adagio was not lost upon you, for I confess I wrote that part for it with peculiar pleasure.
In addition to the bassoon solo, Schumann also casts special spotlights on oboe and clarinet and provides a romantic moment for horn. The Adagio reaches its conclusion on a spine-tingling series of violin trills that have enormous effect.
The finale has strong echoes of the slow movement theme, plus an emphasis on dotted rhythms that harkens back to the opening movement. Brian Schlotel has written of its unusual form:
The chief structural novelty of this movement is that the development and recapitulation are telescoped together. There may well be no precedent for what Schumann does here. Development and recapitulation proceed by alternation; that is, Schumann moves back and forth, from one to the other, as if to unfold them as simultaneously as possible. There follows a huge coda of 300 bars, longer than all the rest of the movement.
The lengthy coda is all positive affirmation, a valiant declaration of victory over any challenges.
Instrumentation: the score calls for woodwinds, horns, trumpets in pairs, three trombones, timpani and strings.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023