Beethoven's Violin Concerto
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46
EDVARD GRIEG (1843-1907)

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was Norway's preëminent dramatist and poet, and one of the greatest playwrights of modern times.  He brought the middle class into the limelight, raising questions of morality, societal order, and political reform, without concessions to sentimentality.  Through plays like A Doll's House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, and Hedda Gabler, he earned himself a place among the immortals.  Peer Gynt was an early masterpiece.  Ibsen wrote it in 1867, after leaving Norway for Italy and Germany.  Excepting two brief visits to Norway in 1874 and 1885, he remained a world traveler for 27 years.

Peer Gynt himself is a world traveler, and a rogue.  In Ibsen's drama, he is a peasant youth who abandons his widowed mother to seek fame and fortune.  Self-centered and lacking a social conscience, he is also a charmer who draws people to him effortlessly.  He pursues romance and adventure around the globe, but happiness eludes him.  Returning to his homeland as an old man whose cocky buoyancy is long-gone, he finds redemption and happiness through Solveig, the faithful home-town honey who has loved him all along.

This sort of prodigal son tale may sound hokey to us, but it had enormous impact in its time.  Ibsen's technical artistry is evident in the rhymed couplets of its dialogue.  Perhaps because of that rhythmic undercurrent, he decided to stage it with music for the first production.  Ibsen wrote to Edvard Grieg in January 1874, asking him to compose incidental music for the play.  Grieg was initially skeptical, because he believed that Peer Gynt was an essentially unmusical subject.  He agreed to the project based on the guess that all that would be required was "a few fragments of music."

Grieg's opinion altered once he became absorbed in the project.  When the play was staged in 1876, his contribution had grown to more than a dozen numbers.  At the time, critics ranked the music on an equivalent level with the drama.  Grieg reorchestrated and added a couple of numbers in 1886 for a revival.  In 1892 and 1902, additional productions generated still more music.  By the time the score was published, Peer Gynt consisted of 23 separate movements, and a complete performance of the play with music took five hours!

Grieg extracted two orchestral suites from the incidental music.  These Suites did more to spread his reputation in Europe and America than any other composition besides the Piano Concerto.  Peer Gynt brought him fame and wealth.  More important, the success of the music gave him confidence.

The First Suite opens with "Morning Mood," originally the prelude to Act IV of the play.  This portion of the drama takes place in Africa, and Grieg wrote that he imagined "sun breaking through clouds at the first forte."  A pastoral sketch whose lovely melody is introduced by flutes and oboes, it could just as easily illustrate the Nordic dawn.  Next is "The Death of Ase," Peer's mother.  A somber essay for strings alone, it calls for the simplest of means to express sorrow and loss.

"Anitra's Dance" is the solo of an African desert princess.  Her music combines innocence and seductiveness.  The movement is marked "Tempo di Mazurka" (a Polish dance in triple time).  Once again, Grieg uses simple means to achieve his aim:  muted and pizzicato strings to keep the atmosphere intimate, with the addition of a triangle to evoke the exotic atmosphere of desert culture.

The Suite closes with "In the Hall of the Mountain King," which takes place when Peer's adventures take him to the mythical kingdom of the trolls.  A simple ostinato march figure launches the movement quietly, then increases in volume and tempo as it is repeated.  This movement is an example of a halling, a Norwegian folk dance in duple time, usually accompanied by folk fiddle.  The principle of steady crescendo leading to climax was echoed by Ravel in Boléro and Arthur Honegger in Pacific 231.  Grieg's gradual acceleration is all the more effective with the expansion to full orchestra, including bass drum and cymbals.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61

The Violin Concerto and the “Emperor” Concerto: a comparison

If the Fifth Piano Concerto is Beethoven's "Emperor," Op. 61 is its royal analogue among violin concertos:  the king of them all.  Like the "Emperor," it dates from Beethoven's middle period: approximately 1802 to 1812, the so-called ‘heroic decade.’  These two works are pinnacles of his achievement during these richly productive years, and certainly his two finest concerti.  Beyond that distinction, the Violin Concerto holds a special place in the hearts of violinists, orchestral players, and music lovers.  Yet how different in spirit it is from the "Emperor."  Instead of extroversion we have thoughtfulness; instead of display and inventive methods of exploring virtuoso technique, Beethoven gives us subtle explorations of what the violin's E string can deliver.  In fact, one of the most astonishing aspects of this concerto is Beethoven's instinctive understanding of both soloist and orchestra, despite the fact that he was a keyboard player.

Forgotten virtuoso

Beethoven wrote his only Violin Concerto for Franz Clement (1780-1842), an Austrian violinist, conductor, and composer who led the violin section at the Vienna Opera.  Clement is said to have sightread the piece at the premiere, because Beethoven finished writing it only at the last minute.  If that apocryphal story is true, it may account in part for the fact that this concerto took a long time to win friends before it became a staple on concert programs.

A struggle to enter the canon

After its premiere in 1806, the Violin Concerto received only one additional documented performance during Beethoven's lifetime, and that in Berlin rather than Vienna, Beethoven's adopted city.  The nineteenth century favored flashy showpieces for its soloists, and this concerto does not focus on the violinist's brilliant technique.  Beethoven studied repertoire of his contemporaries Giovanni Battista Viotti, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and Jacques-Pierre Rode to become more conversant with the technical possibilities of the violin.

But display for its own sake never overtakes the broader musical architecture of his mighty work.  Among Beethoven's own compositions, the Violin Concerto's closest spiritual sibling is the Fourth Piano Concerto, Op.58, with which it shares serenity, absolute conviction in its own inherent balance, and a lack of need for overt display.

About the music

A timpani pattern of five gentle taps opens the concerto and become its leitmotif.  From this pattern springs the entire first movement:  its leisurely, unhurried pace, its emphasis on internal examination rather than external show, and the motivic cells from which Beethoven develops his ideas. These five beats are a stable foil to the woodwind theme, marked dolce, that answers them and eventually emerges as the principal melody of the movement.  The same five strokes, understated yet inexorable, firmly anchor the first movement in the tonic key of D. They are a welcome homing point in light of the disorienting and unexpected D-sharps (significantly, repeating the same rhythm of the opening timpani strokes) that the first violins interject as early as the tenth measure.

Beethoven takes subtle liberties with form in this expansive first movement. For example, he reserves the cantabile second theme for the orchestra until the coda, when his soloist finally has its turn at that lovely melody.

Intimate slow movement and foot-tapping finale

Built on variation principles, the Larghetto is sheer embroidery.  It is lovingly scored:  only muted strings and pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns accompany the soloist.  The mood is comfortable, intimate, friendly.  Beethoven's geniality carries through to the Rondo finale, a foray into near-irresistible foot-tapping that wields its power even on those who have heard the music dozens of times.  The double-stopped episodes are the only such occurrence in the concerto.  Taking unusual and beguiling advantage of the violin's upper register, the finale provides wonderful opportunities for a soloist to display discerning taste and polished execution.

For these performances, Mr. Jackiw plays the cadenza by Fritz Kreisler.

The score calls for flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo violin and strings.

Symphony No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 38, “Spring”

This symphony might well be subtitled “Schumann in Love.” Its seeds were sown at the time of his honeymoon with Clara Wieck, whose father had opposed their marriage vigorously for several years. The couple married in September 1840, launching Robert on the happiest period he would ever know. In a characteristic fever of activity, he sketched his B-flat major symphony during an intense four days in January 1841, orchestrating it by 20 February. A performance took place the last day of March, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Schumann’s initial idea for the symphony grew from a poem by the young German poet Adolph Böttger, describing winter’s darkness and barrenness yielding to the fresh joy of spring. The composer wrote to Louis Spohr:

[The symphony] was inspired, if I may say so, by the spirit of spring which seems to possess us all anew every year, irrespective of age. The music is not intended to describe or paint anything definite, but I believe the season did much to shape the particular form it took.

His original plan was to entitle the four movements Spring’s Awakening, Evening, Merry Playmates, and Full Spring. Although these programmatic headings were abandoned prior to publication, they still givepause for thought while listening to this symphony, whose themes seem to burst with the vitality of the new season.

Another factor that encouraged Schumann to attempt a symphony was the first performance of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony. Schumann had discovered it in manuscript and sent it to Mendelssohn, who led the première in Leipzig in 1839, eleven years after Schubert’s death. To his friend Ernst Adolph Becker, Schumann wrote:

It has made me tingle to be at work on a symphony, too, and I believe something will come of it, once I am happily married to Clara.

Schumann clearly identified the “Spring” of his subtitle with his own rebirth in life with Clara. In terms of his personal musical growth, he was intently preoccupied with developing a command of large forms. During the 1830s he had devoted himself to writing solo piano music, mostly series of miniatures. In 1840, he concentrated in Lieder [art songs]. His achievements in both those areas were masterful. Having conquered both piano and the solo song as a composer, he set out to master the orchestra.

In composing the “Spring” Symphony, Schumann strove for musical unity. That focus is easy to detect, for there are strong thematic connections within the symphony. The opening fanfare motto dominates both slow introduction and allegro in the first movement, and a brief trombone chorale toward the end of the slow movement provides the material from which Schumann constructs his scherzo. His keen interest in honing skill with large musical structures is particularly evident in the scherzo and the finale. The scherzo has two trio sections, a pattern to which Schumann returned in several works, notably the beloved E-flat major Piano Quintet. The finale is in sonata form, dominated by another catchy motto that helps to deliver the “Spring” Symphony’s exuberant and convincing close.

Schumann scored the symphony for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle (first movement only), and strings.

© Laurie Shulman, 2019