German Giants Program Notes

Five Orchestral Pieces, Opus 16

Arnold Schönberg was born in Vienna on September 13, 1874, and, having changed the spelling of his name to Schoenberg after coming to the United States in 1933, died in Brentwood Park (Los Angeles), California, on July 13, 1951. He composed the Five Orchestral Pieces during the summer of 1909, which he spent at Steinakirchen, in Lower Austria. The first performance took place in London on September 3, 1912, when Sir Henry Wood introduced it at a Promenade Concert. In September 1949, Schoenberg revised the score with the intention of economizing on the size of the ensemble required, though in fact he only reduced it by six instruments (an oboe, a bassoon, a clarinet, two horns, and a trombone), and he absentmindedly wrote the “omitted” trombone back into the score for one note near the end of the fourth movement. The score of the 1949 version most often performed calls for piccolo, three flutes (third doubling second piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, small E‑flat clarinet, and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones (four at the end of the fourth movement) and tuba, timpani, xylophone, gong, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, harp, celesta, and strings. Duration is about 16 minutes.

Only once did Schoenberg experience a passing success in his native Vienna—in 1897, when his early string quartet in D was given its premiere. Never again in his lifetime did a Viennese audience applaud a new work of his. Two years later the organization that had programmed the string quartet refused to play his Verklärte Nacht on the grounds that it had a single “uncatalogued” dissonance. Despite the setback—and other worse problems to come—Schoenberg kept pursuing his own line. Virtually self‑taught in music, he was nonetheless a man of enormous intellectual force who could extract fruitful lessons in compositional procedure from the study of other composers’ masterworks. During the first decade of the present century he managed a fairly steady output of new works (in between stretches of orchestrating other men’s third‑rate operettas in order to make a living), ranging from the gigantic Gurrelieder (which had to wait a decade before Schoenberg could afford to orchestrate and perform it) to the increasingly confident encounters with the possibility of harmonic atonality. His second string quartet predicted the future (though perhaps unwittingly) by introducing a soprano to sing the words of Stefan George, “Ich fühle Luft von anderen Planeten” (“I feel the air of other planets”). And his song cycle to George’s poetry, Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens)—composed just before the Five Orchestral Pieces—finally dissolved any remaining connection between harmonic dissonance and a perceptible resolution.

Almost immediately after the George cycle, Schoenberg turned out a series of extraordinary works that marked the first stage of his musical revolution (though he himself always insisted that they were never intended to be revolutionary and that he was preserving the traditions of the masters). During the epochal year 1909 he composed the Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11, the Five Orchestral Pieces, Opus 16, and the extraordinary “monodrama” Erwartung. The orchestral pieces were typical of the music of this period in their brevity. Indeed, Schoenberg found it difficult to write anything but short works in this style unless supported by a text. The harmonic plan of earlier music—which required establishing a key at the beginning of a piece, then modulating to a new key, and finally restating the material of both of those opening sections in the home key—presupposed a certain length. Indeed, composers often used such “padding” as scales, arpeggios, or other filler in order to produce the required stretch of music in a given key for the proper architectural balance. But once the need for that kind of balance had passed, the composer could produce music that was vastly more dense and compressed than anything written before. Schoenberg’s own pupil Alban Berg pointed out (in an early article provocatively entitled “Why is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?”) that the real problem comes from the overwhelming richness of musical ideas, the compactness, the intensity of expression via swift transformations and abrupt contrasts. Schoenberg’s music was so eventful that a short three‑minute movement might well contain as much material as a large‑scale symphonic poem by another composer.

The Five Orchestral Pieces represent Schoenberg’s first grappling with this new style on a large scale. He was determined to unify the work from beginning to end, deriving virtually every element of the music from the few ideas presented in the opening measures (this, incidentally, was his practice throughout his life, not only in the later twelve‑tone pieces). When the score was originally published in 1912, Schoenberg gave only tempo designations for the five movements. He added titles for a revised and corrected edition in l922, but a note from his diary for January 1,1912, reveals that the titles were at least as old as the original publication, and that they were conceived at the request of the publisher Peters, who felt that they would help “sell” the music:

‘Maybe I’ll give in, for I’ve found titles that are at least possible. On the whole, unsympathetic to the idea. For the wonderful thing about music is that one can say everything in it, so that he who knows understands everything; and yet one hasn’t given away one’s secrets—the things one doesn’t want to admit even to oneself. But titles give you away! Besides—whatever was to be said has been said, by the music. Why, then, words as well? If words were necessary they would be there in the first place. But art says more than words. Now, the titles which I may provide give nothing away, because some of them are very obscure and others highly technical. To wit:

I. Premonitions (everybody has those)
II. The Past (everybody has that, too)
III. Chord‑Colors (technical)
IV. Peripetia (general enough, I think)
V. The Obbligato (perhaps better the “fully‑developed” or the “endless”) Recitative.
However, there should be a note that these titles were added for technical reasons of publication and not to give a “poetic” content.’

These titles, from the 1912 diary entry, finally appeared in the printed score for the 1922 edition. Later, when Schoenberg reduced the scoring slightly in 1949, he made one further change, giving the third movement the heading “Summer Morning by a Lake,” retaining “Colors” as a subtitle. It seems, though, that he had always privately given the movement that title (even pointing out a “jumping fish” motive to his students!), so this did not represent a change of conception.

The five movements of Opus 16 are brief—mercifully brief, according to the Boston critics in 1914, for whom the work excited only “wonder and bewilderment” if not worse. The emotional range is nonetheless extraordinarily wide. Schoenberg uses a large romantic orchestra, though he rarely calls for everyone to play together. Rather, the dramatic and wide variations of instrumental color—often with a few solo instruments at a time—reflect the great range of feeling in the piece. The first movement is relatively easy to follow, if only because it is built on an ostinato pattern which helps to focus the attention through the consistent bass motive. The second movement is perhaps the most popular because it is in some sense a bow to the past, a lyrical passage, still relatively tonal in its harmonic character.

The third movement, “Colors,” is usually described as a chordal movement that slowly changes in harmony and timbre by substituting one note at a time in the complex chord with which it opens. Schoenberg himself implied this view by noting in the score that the changes of chord are to be handled with the greatest subtlety, “avoiding accentuation of entering instruments, so that only the difference in color becomes noticeable.” Yet a recent analyst has also demonstrated that the movement is built up of cunningly disguised canons, probably the least recognizable contrapuntal movement ever composed (intentionally so!).

“Peripetia,” defined as a “sudden change of fortune, a sudden change of direction,” is the title that Schoenberg gave to the fourth movement, which is altogether more passionate than what has preceded it. The final movement of the set is in many respects the freest, avoiding normal patterns of formal organization, though built up of many of the same motivic ideas as the earlier four movements, with which it is closely linked.

Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces do not cause the kind of scandal that they generated among critics a century ago, though his music is still, to use Berg’s term, “difficult.” But it is difficult in the same way that the Beethoven symphonies, for example, are difficult (though we have heard them so many times that we now forget the fact): in richness of material and detailed working out of rhythmic and melodic ideas, which make far more pressing demands on our attention than we are used to in most of our listening. Perhaps if we should hear the Schoenberg pieces as often as we do the Beethoven, this would all be self‑evident.

Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. He planned a violin concerto as early as 1838, but it was not until 1844 that he settled down to serious work on it; the finished score is dated September 16, 1844. The first performance took place in Leipzig under Niels Gade’s direction, with Ferdinand David as the soloist. The concerto is scored for solo violin with an orchestra consisting of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets all in pairs, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 26 minutes.

Ferdinand David (1810‑1873) was one of the most distinguished German violinists and teachers of his day. When the twenty‑seven‑year‑old Mendelssohn became director of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig in 1836, he had David, just a year his junior, appointed to the position of concertmaster. Relations were always cordial between composer and violinist, and their warmth was marked in a letter that Mendelssohn wrote to David on July 30, 1838, in which he commented, “I’d like to write a violin concerto for you next winter; one in E minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace.”

But having said as much, Mendelssohn was in no hurry to complete the work. He sketched and drafted portions of it in at least two distinct stages over a period of years. His correspondence with David is sometimes filled with discussions of specific detailed points of technique and sometimes with the violinist’s urgent plea that he finish the piece at last. By July 1839 Mendelssohn was able to write to David reiterating his plan to compose a concerto and commenting that he needed only “a few days in a good mood” in order to bring him something of the sort.

Yet Mendelssohn didn’t find those few days for several years—not until he decided to shake off his wearying appointment at the court of Frederick William IV in Berlin. It wasn’t until July 1844 that he was able to work seriously on the concerto. On September 2 he reported to David that he would bring some new things for him; two weeks later the concerto was finished.

As Mendelssohn’s adviser on matters of technical detail for the solo part, David must have motivated the composer’s decision to avoid sheer virtuoso difficulty for its own sake. In fact, he claimed that it was his suggestions—which made the concerto so playable—that led to its subsequent popularity. It is no accident that Mendelssohn’s concerto remains the first major Romantic violin concerto that most students learn.

At the same time it is, quite simply, one of the most original and attractive concertos ever written. The originality comes from the new ways Mendelssohn found to solve old formal problems of the concerto.

Ever since Antonio Vivaldi had set his seal on the Baroque concerto with over 500 examples, certain features had been passed on from one generation to another. First of all, the traditional concerto built its first movement on a formal pattern that alternated statements by the full orchestra (ritornellos) with sections featuring the soloist. It was an effective device when the ritornellos were short summaries of the musical material and functioned like the pillars of a bridge to anchor the soloist’s free flight. But as first movements took on the shape of a symphonic sonata form, the orchestral ritornello got longer and longer. Instead of waiting perhaps a minute or two to hear the soloist, the audience had to wait five minutes or more. Proportions seemed skewed.

In his last two piano concertos, Beethoven tried to sought to change the situation somewhat by introducing the soloist and establishing his personality at the outset, and then proceeding with the normal full orchestral ritornello. Mendelssohn takes the much more radical step of dispensing with the tutti ritornello entirely. He fuses the opening statement of orchestra and soloist into a single exposition. The soloist enters with the main theme after just two measures of orchestral “curtain,” and idea that was part of Mendelssohn’s design from the very beginning.

The other problem of concerto form that Mendelssohn attacked in a new way is that of the cadenza. Normally, just before the end of the movement, the orchestra pauses on a chord that is the traditional signal for the soloist to take off on his own. Theoretically only two chords are necessary after this point for the movement to end (though in practice there is usually a somewhat longer coda). But everything comes to a standstill (as far as the composer’s work is concerned) while we admire the sheer virtuosity of the soloist—this, despite the fact that the cadenza might be outrageously out of style with the rest of the piece or that it may be so long and elaborate as to submerge entirely the composition to which it is attached. The problem is not quite so serious when the composer himself provides the cadenza, because it is then at least in an appropriate style. But there remains the absurdity of coming right up to the end of the movement and suddenly putting everything on hold.

Mendelssohn’s solution is simple and logical—and utterly unique. He writes his own cadenza for the first movement, but instead of making it an afterthought, he places it in the heart of the movement, where it completes the development and inaugurates the recapitulation! Before that time—and rarely afterwards—no other cadenza ever played so central a role in the structure of a concerto.

Finally, Mendelssohn was an innovator with his concertos by choosing to link all the movements together without a break, a pattern that had been used earlier in such atypical works as Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, but never in a work having the temerity to call itself a concerto. Yet we can’t imagine the Liszt concertos and many others without this change.

The smooth discourse of the first movement, the way Mendelssohn picks up short motives from the principal theme to punctuate extensions, requires no highlighting. But it is worth pointing out one of the loveliest touches of orchestration at the arrival of the second theme, which is in the relative major key of G. Just before the new key is reached, the solo violin soars up to high C and then floats gently downward to its very lowest note, on the open G‑string, as the clarinets and flutes sing the tranquil new melody. Mendelssohn’s lovely touch here is to use the solo instrument—and a violin at that, which we usually a high voice—to supply the bass note, the sustained G, under the first phrase; it is an inversion of our normal expectations, and it works beautifully.

When the first movement comes to its vigorous conclusion, the first bassoon fails to cut off with the rest of the orchestra, but holds his note into what would normally be silence. The obvious intention here is to forestall intrusive applause after the first movement; Mendelssohn gradually came to believe that the various movements of a large work should be performed with as little pause as possible between them, and this was one way to do it (though it must be admitted that the sustained bassoon note has not always prevented overeager audiences from breaking into applause).

A few measures of modulation lead naturally to C major and the lyrical second movement, the character of which darkens only with the appearance of trumpets and timpani, seconded by string tremolos, in the middle section. Once again at the end of the movement there is only the briefest possible break; then the soloist and orchestral strings play a brief transition that allows a return to the key of E (this time in the major mode) for the lively finale, one of those brilliantly light and fleet‑footed examples of “fairy music” that Mendelssohn made so uniquely his own.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Opus 55, Eroica

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. The Eroica was composed between May and November 1803, with some further polishing in the following year. It was privately performed in the Vienna town house of Prince Joseph von Lobkowitz, to whom the score is dedicated, in the summer of 1804, Beethoven conducting; the first public performance took place in Vienna on April 7, 1805. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 47 minutes.

Rarely has any composition been so closely entwined with an anecdote about its composer’s life as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and the story of its intended dedication to Napoleon. On the face of it, everything seems direct and simple. Beethoven’s friend, Ferdinand Ries, recalled the incident this way:

‘In this symphony Beethoven had Buonaparte in mind, but as he was when he was First Consul….I as well as several of his more intimate friends saw a copy of the score lying upon his table with the word “Buonaparte” at the extreme top of the title page, and at the extreme bottom “Luigi van Beethoven,” but not another word….I was the first to bring him the intelligence that Buonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out: “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor. The first page was rewritten and only then did the symphony receive the title Sinfonia eroica.’

Stated thus, it appears that Beethoven admired the republican Napoleon, the hero of the French Revolution, and despised the later Napoleon, the emperor and despot. In fact, the composer’s feelings were more ambivalent and fluctuated wildly over many years.

Beethoven’s notion of dedicating a symphony to Napoleon, formed while he was writing the piece in the summer of 1803, had already begun to weaken by October when he found out that his patron, Prince Lobkowitz, would be willing to pay a good fee for the dedication and six months’ performance rights. He then thought of titling the symphony “Bonaparte” but dedicating it to Lobkowitz. This was evidently the state of affairs in May 1804 when Ries brought the disconcerting news that Napoleon had declared himself emperor and (according to Ries’s account) tore up the title page in a fine dramatic gesture, rewriting it as “Sinfonia eroica” (“heroic symphony”).

Unfortunately, however accurate Ries’s recollection may be in the broad outline, it is mistaken in the final point: the title Eroica was not used until the parts were published over two years later. The title page that Beethoven tore up may have been that to his own manuscript (which has since disappeared), but another manuscript (in the hand of a copyist) then in Beethoven’s possession reveals his outburst of emotion. The copyist had headed the manuscript (in Italian) “Grand Symphony entitled Bonaparte,” but the last two words are heavily crossed out‑‑indeed, almost obliterated. Still, at some point, Beethoven himself added the words “written on Bonaparte” in pencil on the title page, suggesting that he later reconsidered his emotional outburst.

By 1805 war broke out again between Austria and France after a peace that had held since about 1800. A title like Bonaparte would have marked Beethoven as politically suspicious, so on publication in 1806, the work became Sinfonia eroica. The “heroism” involves death as well as affirmation. Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon sees the symphony as Beethoven’s rejection of the heroic ideals of the Revolution that had been spawned in the Enlightenment, owing to the fatal imperfection of the ruler.

Another “fatal imperfection” played an increasing role in Beethoven’s consciousness (and perhaps therefore in the character of his music) in these years: the physical infirmity of deafness, of which the composer had been gradually becoming aware for some time. He first revealed the awful secret to two of his close friends in the summer of 1801. Although sometimes merry enough in this period, Beethoven suffered from wide emotional swings and at least once contemplated suicide. In October 1802 he wrote a lengthy personal statement, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, placing responsibility for his apparent misanthropy and willfulness on the increasing awareness of his infirmity (this was a little disingenuous considering the stories of his moods and stubbornness even from childhood.)

In reaction to the devastating approach of deafness, Beethoven turned to creation; in fact he began an extraordinarily fertile period, one in which he composed most of the works that have generated our popular view of the composer wresting control of his fate from a malign universe. And the first of these new and overpowering works was the Third Symphony.

Early listeners were astonished by the symphony’s unusual length, almost twice as long as any written to that date. It is rare to find a musical composition that is suddenly twice as long as its immediate predecessors. We may wonder how it manages to hang together. The answer has to do with the proportions, which have changed in a vital way that is made possible—even necessary by a new kind of melody.

In earlier classical symphonies, the lion’s share of the time is allotted to laying out the main thematic ideas and the tension inherent in their key relationships (this is the “exposition”) and the resolution of those tensions (the “recapitulation”). The development section, which comes in between and takes the musical discourse through a series of modulations ultimately returning to the home key, was usually shorter, and the concluding coda, which simply reaffirmed the home key, would be shorter still.

In the Eroica, these proportions underwent a dramatic change. Although the exposition and recapitulation remained roughly the same size, the development became the longest section of the movement; and the coda, far from being a perfunctory closing fanfare, was almost as long as the exposition. How was this possible? The answer lies in the concentration of the musical ideas and their harmonic implications. The first movement of the Eroica has not one single theme that stands complete in and of itself. Things begin in a straightforward way but shade off immediately into doubt and ambiguity. The very first theme is Mozartean for its just eight notes (indeed, Mozart used the same idea in the overture to his youthful opera Bastien und Bastienne). But Beethoven’s theme continues–and gets “caught” on its tenth note, a C-sharp not part of the home key. Left dangling uncomfortably and unexplained at the end of the phrase, this C-sharp generates an unusually lengthy musical discourse to explain its meaning.

The troublesome note appears in every conceivable context, as if Beethoven is trying to suggest each time, “Perhaps this is its true meaning.” In the exposition, it is a C-sharp (which is to say that, when it resolves, it moves up to D); in the recapitulation it functions as a D-flat (the same pitch, written differently) by moving down to C. Finally, in a two-fisted way that we recognize as characteristic of the “heroic decade,” Beethoven offers a direct challenge: after ending the recapitulation with a solid return in the home key of E‑flat, the entire orchestra suddenly jumps to a loud D-flat chord. The glove has been cast into our faces: here is the direct confrontation of the home key with its most problematic element. What are we to make of it? Beethoven makes of it a new developmental section of great breadth that finally leads triumphantly back to the E-flat, having exorcized that disturbing, out-of-place note. Only now, at the very end of the movement, do we hear the opening musical theme presented four successive times (with orchestral excitement building throughout) as a complete melody without that troubling C-sharp. Of course, many other things also happen in that monumental first movement, which remains one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the history of music.

Each of the other movements is justly famous in its own right. The Adagio assai generated heated discussion as to the appropriateness of including a funeral march in a symphony. No attentive listener can fail to be moved by the shattering final measures in which the dark march theme returns for the last time, truncated, broken into fragments in a dying strain: a convincing demonstration of the power inherent in the music of silence. Beethoven’s comment upon hearing of the death of Napoleon in 1821 is well known: “I have already written the music for that catastrophe.”

The scherzo’s whirlwind of activity scarcely ceases for a moment. All suggestion of the traditional third-movement menuetto of vanishes before a torrent of rushing notes and irregular phrases. The three horns have an opportunity to show off in the Trio.

The last movement builds a set of variations from a tune taken from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. For the finale of the symphony, Beethoven sometimes used the theme’s bass line, sometimes its melody in variations full of witty and felicitous touches. The finale starts out as nothing more than a cheerful little tune varied in charming and characteristic ways. A fugal section in the center of the movement gives it some density, and the wonderfully expressive oboe solo, accompanied by clarinets and bassoons in the Poco Andante just before the final rush to the end, lends an unexpected poignancy. The conclusion, with virtuosic outbursts in the horns and energetic fanfares for the full orchestra loses nothing in the way of rousing excitement, no matter how many times we hear it.

Many years later (though before he had composed the Ninth Symphony), Beethoven maintained that the Third remained his favorite of all his symphonies; in saying this, he was no doubt recognizing what listeners have felt ever since: that in the Eroica they first know the mature Beethoven, the composer who has held such a grip on the public imagination and on the attention of later composers. They know the Artist as Hero, a role that was eagerly sought by the romantics after Beethoven’s time and remains, perhaps, the most frequently encountered image of the artist to this day.


© Steven Ledbetter (