Program Notes: Beethoven to Brahms

Program NotesLeave a Comment

Leonore Overture No. 3, Op.72b
Ludwig van Beethoven

Born 16 December, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died 26 March 1827 in Vienna, Austria

Approximate duration 14 minutes

Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs; four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings

Leonore is the heroine’s real name in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. For most of the opera, she is disguised as the youth Fidelio, having infiltrated the prison where her husband Florestan is being unjustly held. Beethoven struggled with the opera, revising it extensively between 1805 and 1814, and ultimately writing four overtures for it. Leonore No.3 is considered to be the finest of them. The overture’s slow introduction uses the theme of the hero Florestan’s big aria. The trumpet call at the climax signals that help is on the way, to deliver justice and freedom. Beethoven’s brilliant coda assures us that this drama will resolve happily.

  • Beethoven was the major link between the classical and romantic eras in music
  • His music is often stormy and dramatic, demanding “Sit up and notice me!”
  • His hearing started to deteriorate in his early 30s; eventually he was completely deaf
  • He composed nine symphonies and seven concertos, but only one opera
  • Though he frequently fancied himself in love, Beethoven never married
  • A deeply moral man, he used the subject matter of Fidelio to champion liberation from political oppression

Beethoven regarded opera as something of a bully pulpit for high moral values. When he chose an opera libretto, his selection was eminently moral: a play about the triumph of good over evil, the power of love, and marital fidelity.

His opera, Fidelio, was originally titled Leonore, or the triumph of married love, after a French play by Jean-Nicolas de Bouilly. The plot concerns Florestan, who has been secretly imprisoned for political reasons. His wife Leonore suspects where he is being held. She disguises herself as a youth, Fidelio, so that she can take a job working for the chief jailer in that prison and possibly rescue him.

Fidelio occupied Beethoven intermittently for more than a decade, from 1803 to 1814. It caused him as much anguish as anything else he wrote. He overhauled its overture three times. Fortunately for us, the results were magnificent. Four splendid overtures exist for Fidelio, and all have remained in the repertoire. Leonore No. 3 is widely regarded to be the best of the four, however, and one of Beethoven’s most impressive symphonic movements.

Although it is a perfectly acceptable independent symphonic movement, the overture is intimately tied to the drama that inspired it, and borrows some of the opera’s melodies. For example, the slow introduction uses the hero Florestan’s second act aria. The main theme of the Allegro, however, is independent of the opera.

The climax of the overture is also borrowed from the stage action: an offstage trumpet call that signals the arrival of the Minister of State, just in time to prevent the evil Don Pizarro from stabbing Florestan. Never one to underestimate the power of effective drama, Beethoven repeats the trumpet call before resuming the forward motion of the overture.

Following a brief reference to a song of thanksgiving from the opera, Beethoven sweeps us along in a torrent with a breathtaking presto section that brings the movement to a triumphant close.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op.68
Johannes Brahms

Born 7 May 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died 3 April 1897 in Vienna, Austria

Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, contrabassoon, horns in C and E-flat, trumpets, timpani, and strings.

More than twenty years in gestation, Brahms’s monumental First Symphony was hailed as “Beethoven’s Tenth” when it was premiered in 1876. Brahms did emulate Beethoven’s rigorous command of form and counterpoint – but the harmonic richness and emotional content are pure Brahms. That stated, slow introductions precede the symphony’s first and last movements, which was unusual for Brahms. Like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, this work moves from tragedy to triumph. Listen for a horn call at the beginning of the finale, then a majestic chorale melody, which is often compared to the “Ode to Joy” finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. Brahms’s First Symphony remains an audience favorite because of its emotional power and the hymn-like concluding movement.

  • Like Beethoven, Brahms was German but spent most of his career in Vienna
  • Also like Beethoven, he never married
  • He favored classical forms like sonata, concerto, and symphony
  • His musical language was warm, emotional, expressive, and decidedly Romantic
  • Brahms enjoyed close friendships with Robert and Clara Schumann

The moniker “Beethoven’s Tenth” has been attached to Brahms’s First Symphony almost since before it was completed in 1876. Hans von Bülow (1830-1894), the eminent conductor, pianist and composer, is responsible for thus dubbing the C-minor Symphony. He was recognizing Brahms’s fulfillment of a prophecy articulated nearly a quarter century before, when Robert Schumann hailed then 20-year-old Johannes Brahms as the great Beethoven’s successor.

Brahms took the legacy of Beethoven very seriously, and the spectre of Beethoven lay heavily on his shoulders. He was a brutal critic of his own compositions, and destroyed a large number of sketches and completed works that did not satisfy him. Nowhere was his self-criticism more merciless than in the realm of orchestral music, because he was keenly aware that his first symphony would be compared to Beethoven. “You do not know what it is like hearing his footsteps constantly behind one,” Brahms wrote.

Preparing for a First Symphony

In that sense, everything orchestral that Brahms composed up until the First Symphony was a form of preparation for him to fulfill the daunting legacy bequeathed to him by Schumann. He produced four large instrumental works while he honed his orchestral skills: the D-minor Piano Concerto, Op. 15 (1854-58), the two Serenades, Opp.11 (1857-58) and 16 (1858-59, revised 1875), and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op.81 (1873). The orchestral fabric of the major choral works he worked on during the 1860s and early 1870s was also significant in strengthening Brahms’s command of symphonic resources. A German Requiem, Op.45 (1857-68), was followed by the dramatic cantata Rinaldo, Op.50 (1869), the Alto Rhapsody, Op.53 (1869), Schicksalslied, Op.54 (1868-71), and Triumphlied, Op.55 (1870-71). Each of them became a repository for important instrumental as well as vocal ideas.

All along, Brahms had the goal of a symphony in mind. As early as 1854, probably with Robert Schumann’s encouragement, Brahms was at work on symphonic sketches. Two decades elapsed before that music found its way into any permanent form. Clara Schumann and Albert Dietrich both saw a draft of the first movement in 1862, in a version not yet preceded by slow introduction. Some five years later, Brahms wrote a letter to Clara including the famous horn theme that became the transition to the hymn of the finale. Not until 1873, however, did he concentrate seriously on the completion of his First Symphony. He waited until the age of 43 to contribute to the symphonic canon.

Less Political Stress

Op.68 was completed at Lichtenthal during the autumn of 1876, and premiered at Karlsruhe in November. Brahms chose the smaller town because it was a less politically stressful musical community than Vienna or Leipzig. He wrote to Otto Dessoff, conductor of the Karlsruhe orchestra:

It was always my cherished and secret wish to hear the thing first in a small town which possessed a good friend, a good conductor, and a good orchestra.

Dessoff was delighted by the honor accorded his orchestra. Brahms knew that the symphony would not have direct popular appeal, writing to Carl Reinecke of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra:

And now I have to make the probably very surprising announcement that my symphony is long and not exactly amiable.

He need not have worried. Dessoff’s first rendition was successful enough to warrant repeat performances under the composer’s direction in Mannheim and Munich shortly thereafter. The First Symphony dispensed with Brahms’s orchestral writer’s block. For the next 11 years, his orchestral harvest was bountiful: three additional symphonies, three more concerti, and two overtures.

Von Bülow had good reason to hailed the symphony as “the Beethoven Tenth.” Because of its heroic stance and C-minor tonality, the work is most often compared with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Both pieces have a general progression from tragic struggle to triumph and victory. Brahms’s First bears equal comparison to the Beethoven Ninth (Beethoven’s other minor mode symphony), primarily because of the obvious parallel in hymn-like finales.

The Ghost of Goethe: a Faustian Overture

Brahms’s good friend Theodor Billroth likened the C-minor symphony’s first movement to “a kind of Faustian overture” that might be thought of as a grand introduction to the whole work. Indeed, its complicated chromatic themes and inexorable timpani at the opening are hardly the stuff of which popular “singable” tunes are made. Hans Gal offers an insightful commentary as to why Wagner and his followers would have experienced impatience listening to the opening movement.

The nobility of this first movement rests on qualities that were alien to the dramatic composer: a thematic interplay worked out to the smallest detail and based on polyphonic structure; a delicate balancing, from beginning to end, of tonal relationships; –and a formal design whose grandiose dimensions only become apparent when one experiences the whole movement as a single, great continuum.

The perspective is significant because Wagner’s followers constituted such a major portion of the listening public in the 1870s.

Two Slow Introductions

One unusual feature of this very large symphony is the presence of two slow introductions, one for each of the outer movements. Slow introductions are rare in Brahms’s music in any case, and this double occurrence is unique among his compositions. In both movements, the introduction signals something portentous and monumental. It is a measure of Brahms’s genius that the effect is entirely different in the two: ushering in heroic conflict in the opening movement; introducing serene exaltation in the conclusion. By contrast, the inner movements are both shorter and lighter in emotional weight. In the slow movement, Brahms indulges in some orchestral decoration, embroidering his already rich music with a rare, breathtakingly lovely violin solo. Here and in the graceful Un poco Allegretto we have a welcome emotional breather between the mighty pillars of the outer movements.

If there were any shortage of melodies early on, Brahms compensates with abundance in the expansive finale. From the magical horn call to the majestic closing chords, unforgettable melodies vie with one another, providing this noble movement with some of his most beloved original themes.


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021 

Leave a Reply