Beethoven's Seventh
Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901)
Concerto No.2 in for Organ and Orchestra, Op.177
  • This rarely-performed composer was Liechtenstein’s most famous musical son
  • Rheinberger is best known for organ pieces and sacred music
  • The Second Concerto displays his skill combining ‘the king of instruments’ with orchestra
  • Watch the soloist - he plays almost constantly!

    Joseph who? 

    Short answer: contemporary of Brahms, organist, conductor, composer, teacher.  Best known for his church music and secular choral works. Essentially forgotten today.

    But not forgotten by organists. In addition to two concerti for organ and orchestra, Rheinberger composed twenty solo organ sonatas, as well as a handful of chamber works for organ and other instruments, and some sacred music for voices and organ. Collectively, they occupy a central position in the German romantic organ literature. His music is also popular with Catholic choir directors, who draw regularly on his choral music.

    Joseph Rheinberger was a romantic who, like Brahms, held a lifelong veneration for the past, with special reverence for Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. His instrumental works consist of classically organized multi-movement pieces delivered in the musical vocabulary of the late 19th century.

    Born in Vaduz, the capital of the principality of Liechtenstein, Rheinberger demonstrated remarkable musical talent as a child. He was already the organist at a Vaduz church at age seven, and began composing shortly thereafter. Like most organists, he played piano as well. His father, a senior official in the Liechtenstein princely treasury, sent the boy to Munich in 1851 for advanced musical instruction. Within two years, Rheinberger was working professionally as an organist and private teacher. He remained in the Bavarian capital for the rest of his life.

    His teachers there included Franz Lachner and other prominent composers of the day. The conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow became an advocate. Rheinberger joined the Munich Conservatory faculty in 1859 – at the age of twenty -- teaching piano and later theory. Over the course of his teaching career, his students included Engelbert Humperdinck (not the pop star; the composer of the opera Hansel and Gretel), Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, the future conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Americans George Whitefield Chadwick and Horatio Parker.

    Although Munich was a hotbed of Wagnerian thought, Rheinberger was no fan of either Wagner or Liszt. He championed the classicists and sought coherence of musical argument in his embrace of traditional forms. He organized his music in structures reminiscent of Mendelssohn, with contrapuntal discipline clearly descended from Bach. Yet his melodies and harmonies have the warmth and emotional layers of late romanticism.

    Rheinberger’s traditionalist view is apparent in the Second Organ Concerto, completed in 1894. The opening Grave movement is in clear sonata form, with two contrasting themes in the opening section, which are thoroughly developed before the recapitulation. By limiting his orchestra to horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings, Rheinberger allows for the sound of the organ to ‘pop,’ and the solo instrument takes few breaks throughout the concerto.

    The slow movement Andante is a warm duet for organ and strings, their roles are conversational, with little shared material. Rheinberger lets the movement unfold as a dialogue. His contrasting middle section is energized by the brass, but ultimately the serenity of the initial Andante prevails.

    Rheinberger introduces his finale begins with a forbidding sequence of heavy chords. The organ introduces the principal theme via an ascending arpeggio. A series of episodes and free variations follows, preserving the dignified march tempo while building harmonic and rhythmic tension through embroidery in the organ part, strong punctuation from the timpani, and proud declarations from the brass.  While Rheinberger may not achieve the searing drama of a Beethovenian climax, his music has substance, sustaining the listener’s interest through to a majestic close.

    The score calls for two horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo organ, and strings.

    Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
    Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92
    • Richard Wagner famously called this symphony the ‘apotheosis of the dance’
    • Extroverted and flamboyant, the Seventh Symphony draws us into lively conversation
    • Beethoven’s Allegretto is sublime and mysterious
    • The finale exhilarates with an unceasing fount of energy

    If the string quartets are the realm in which Beethoven made his most profound philosophical observations, the nine symphonies were his venue for adventure, expansion and exploration of his musical language.  Beethoven's orchestra grew gradually as his own ideas grew, and the sheer sound of the middle and late symphonies seems to beg for an expanded string section to deliver the power of his ideas.  This concept of his music is, of course, a generalization.  The more intimate and smaller scale Eighth Symphony, for example, almost seems like a conscious look back over Beethoven's shoulder toward the eighteenth century.  But the Eighth Symphony's companion piece, the Symphony No. 7 in A (the two works were composed in 1811 and 1812, respectively, were published with contiguous opus numbers, and were premiered within five days of each other in December, 1813) is anything but intimate.  Public, aggressive, decisive in its gestures, and filled with boundless enthusiasm, it is one of Beethoven's most gregarious and optimistic compositions.

    The Seventh Symphony falls into what Beethoven's biographer Maynard Solomon calls "the heroic decade."  During this period – 1802 to 1812 – Beethoven wrote in a grand style that melded elements of the Viennese symphonic tradition and the French orchestral style.  French music of this era frequently bore a martial stamp.  Among Beethoven's orchestral works, the Fifth symphony is the easiest one in which to discern French "military" motifs, but the Seventh Symphony in its day was strongly associated with the victory over Napoleon.

    Op. 92 opens with the lengthiest slow introduction of any Beethoven symphony.  Music historian J.W.N. Sullivan has written of it:

    The great introduction to the first movement seems to convey the awakening and murmuring of the multitudinous life of an immense forest.  Much more than in the Pastoral symphony do we feel here in the presence of Nature itself.  It is life, life in every form, not merely human life, of which the exultation is here expressed.

    That spirit of exultation bursts forth in the ensuing Allegro, whose pronounced dotted rhythm dominates the entire fabric of the movement.

    The slow movement, Allegretto, enjoyed enormous popularity in the nineteenth century, and proved to be one of Beethoven's most influential compositions.  Essentially a march, it is closely related to the funeral march slow movement of the "Eroica" Symphony; among other similarities, it switches back and forth between the parallel major and minor (in this case A-major and A-minor), and features triplet accompaniment in the contrasting trio sections.  Beethoven emphasizes the string section in the minor sections and the woodwinds in the A-major parts.  Combining elements of rondo, march and variation, he spins a remarkable tale from the simplest of means.

    Beethoven's scherzo is a vibrant Presto in F-major, the only case in the nine symphonies where he strays from the tonic for this movement.  By expanding the conventional tripartite form (with contrasting middle section in D-major) to an A-B-A-B-A structure, he increases the length and scope of the scherzo, endowing it with more psychological weight. He closes with a jubilant Allegro con brio, an overwhelmingly optimistic movement that captivates us with its distinctive flourish in its opening measures and a compelling rhythmic drive throughout.  Indeed, rhythm is the most memorable feature of the Seventh Symphony, delivering Beethoven's personality more convincingly than his melodies do in this work, and setting in relief the understated calm of the unconventional slow movement.

    Beethoven's score calls for woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings.

    © Laurie Shulman, 2020