Program Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth
Jacksonville Symphony 2022/23 Florida Blue Classical Series
Sean Shepherd’s Silvery Rills:
(World Premiere: March 6, 2011; Reno, Nevada)
- What exactly is a rill? Sean Shepherd describes rills as ripples in river water.
- Silvery Rills is a musical postcard about Shepherd’s home state: Nevada.
- Listen for individual instrumental details that are both delicate and vivid, capturing vibrant, natural landscapes.
- The Jacksonville Symphony will present the world premiere of an original commission by Shepherd next month.
Nevada native Sean Shepherd has written a four-minute valentine to his home state in Silvery Rills, which was commissioned by the Reno Philharmonic when he was its composer-in-residence. As part of his composer’s note on the piece, Shepherd wrote, “And, as a piece commissioned and premiered by my hometown orchestra, the Reno Philharmonic, it’s also meant as a postcard-sized letter from home; a reminder to myself of that strange, beautiful and sunny place where I no longer live, and of that the fresh water in those rills, which grows more precious with each season, surely for the next four or five generations to come.” The piece sparkles with vivid orchestral detail as it follows what he describes as “fast-flowing, ice-cold waters that descend from the mountains to the desert.” Shepherd packs a lot into four minutes of music and proves himself adept at illustrating orchestral color, using the full Symphony with expanded percussion. An effective mood piece, Silvery Rills fuses landscape and waterscape even as it hints at the concern for our most precious natural resources.
Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Suite:
(World Premiere of Overture: February 20, 1827; Szczecin, Poland)
(World Premiere of Incidental Music: October 14, 1843; Berlin, Germany)
- How quiet can a Symphony get? Listen to the opening of this magical overture as it unfolds with gentle pianissimo.
- Many of us have read William Shakespeare’s play, and in Felix Mendelssohn’s music, we are reminded of its timeless themes.
- The wedding march is one of the most famous works played around the globe.
The Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream are among Mendelssohn’s most beloved works. On an August night in 1826, young Mendelssohn took a walk in the garden to gaze at the stars. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night. Floral fragrances wafted through the air, gently prodded by evening breezes. These breezes are said to have been the origins of the four woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The feather-light string figuration taken up by both violin sections is Mendelssohn’s musical impression of fireflies flickering about the nocturnal atmosphere. Years later, he told the English composer William Sterndale Bennett, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!” The miracle of this music is that its overture dates from Mendelssohn’s teenage years, whereas he added the balance of the score in the 1840s in response to a royal commission. The Suite extracts four self-contained numbers from the incidental music. In the process, he added a Wedding March that is one of the most beloved excerpts in all Western music.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67:
(World Premiere: December 22, 1808; Vienna, Austria)
- Ludwig van Beethoven was a revolutionary and an important transitional figure from the Classic to the Romantic Era.
- Born in Bonn, Germany, he came to Vienna in his 20s and made it his home.
- His hearing began to fail when he was about 30.
- In his hands, his Fifth Symphony grew to unprecedented dimensions and intensity.
- His concertos, string quartets and piano sonatas are all pillars of classical repertoire.
Fate knocks at the door in symphonic literature’s most famous opening. Beethoven takes us on a journey from struggle to triumph in his magnificent Fifth Symphony. In fact, tradition has assigned a philosophical program to the Fifth Symphony, regarding the work as depicting the artist as hero, pitted against an unsympathetic society, emerging joyous after a victory over internal strife. After its second performance in Leipzig, Germany, on January 23, 1809, the local press reported that the first movement was “a very serious, somewhat gloomy yet fiery allegro, noble…with a lot of originality, strength and consistency–a worthy movement which offers rich pleasure even to those who cling to the old way of composing a symphony.” Beethoven had clearly seized upon a new way of composing. That reviewer more than 200 years ago deserves credit for recognizing the revolutionary qualities of Beethoven’s Fifth, which continues to thrill and astound listeners. Two centuries since its premiere, it continues to raise the hair on the back of our necks with its breathtaking melodies.
Silvery Rills (2011)
Born July 1, 1979, in Reno, Nevada
Shepherd is originally from Nevada with family ties to the state going back multiple generations. He has come a long way in the world of music since joining the newly formed Reno Youth Orchestra as principal bassoon in 1995. Shepherd is a graduate of three of the nation’s premiere schools for composition: Indiana University (where he studied with Claude Baker and David Dzubay), the Juilliard School (working with Robert Beaser) and Cornell University (where he studied with Roberto Sierra and Steven Stucky). It is a formidable pedigree, and Shepherd has accrued an impressive array of composition awards, performances and commissions for new works. We’ll hear one of those commissions next month here in Jacksonville. Silvery Rills holds a special place in his heart since it was commissioned by his hometown orchestra, the Reno Philharmonic, during his tenure as that orchestra’s first composer-in-residence. His composer’s note explains the title and the piece’s deep connection to Nevada.
The clear question the title of this piece presents is obvious: what exactly is a rill? I understood it from the lyric I pulled from the official state song of Nevada (which is where I and my family come from, going back to the homesteading ranchers and sheepherders of four and five generations ago), which I sang in school as a kid: “…out by the Truckee’s silvery rills, out where the sun always shines…” I think of a rill as the ripple (some point to a rill as a contraction for ripple) caused during the flowing of a shallow river (the Truckee River flows from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada) or stream over water-polished smooth stones.
This short piece, with its nearly constant shifts of character, mood, gesture and scope, is meant as a reflection of the fast-flowing ice-cold waters that descend from the mountains to the desert (as so much of the water in the West does; the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers being other examples). And, as a piece commissioned and premiered by my hometown orchestra, the Reno Philharmonic, it’s also meant as a postcard-sized letter from home–a reminder to myself of that strange, beautiful and sunny place where I no longer live, and of that the fresh water in those rills, which grows more precious with each season, surely for the next four or five generations to come.
Though the Symphony only plays at full volume for one climax, vivid details pop in every phrase. It is as if those “fast-flowing waters” were taking note of the shifting landscape as their journey proceeds. Water may be inanimate, but its currents stream past Nevada’s diverse plant and animal life, both observing and reflecting its journey. Shepherd is currently a visiting professor of composition at the University of Chicago.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, vibraphone, xylophone, sleighbells, snare drum, suspended cymbal, ratchet, temple blocks, glockenspiel, triangles, antique cymbals, bass drum, castanets, tambourine, vibraslap, tubular bells, timpani, harp and strings.
From A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Born February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany
Died November 4, 1847, in Leipzig, Germany
The genesis of Mendelssohn’s beloved incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tale almost as appealing as Shakespeare’s play.
Mendelssohn had read Shakespeare in German translation and revered him as “the most perfect poet who ever lived.” His original intent was to express the spirit of Shakespeare’s immortal comedy in a single concert movement. He was only 17 when he composed his flawless overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The rest of his incidental music did not follow until 1843. Then, at the ripe old age of 34, he was commissioned by the King of Prussia to compose incidental music for a staged performance of the play in Berlin. Mendelssohn composed a considerable amount of new music for that production, incorporating both solo voices and chorus. In some of the instrumental excerpts that comprise the suite we hear, he expanded the existing overture’s themes. The miracle of his incidental music is that it captures the magic of both Shakespeare’s play and the earlier overture, despite the years that had elapsed since the earlier composition.
The overture is a fine example of sonata form, completely consistent with Mendelssohn’s lifelong penchant for the ideals of the 18th century. So effortlessly did he control the formal apparatus, however, that we are more conscious of various Shakespearean subplots unfolding than we are of first and second themes, development and recapitulation. Robert Schumann considered that, with this work, Mendelssohn had invented a new genre: the programmatic concert-overture. Yet, its success derives from atmospheric rather than specifically narrative means.
Mendelssohn’s incomparably light touch is absolutely perfect for this music. A lifelong master of the scherzo, he incorporated all the best characteristics of his style into the glorious overture. We have the mysterious, elfin and faerie world of Titania, Oberon and their minions Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed. The boisterous good nature of Bottom, Flute, Snout and their cohorts also finds its place in the score, including the braying of the donkey. Nor does Mendelssohn ignore the ultimately noble sentiments of the Athenian nobles, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. Magic and humor shine forth, happily joined in this miraculous opener.
The Intermezzo was intended to be played while there is no action taking place on the stage, allowing for a scenery change. Musically, it attests to the composer’s mastery of the orchestra. Alternating groups of instruments set forth the agitated texture: strings in tremolandi (when instruments play with a wavering effect) beneath a nervous melody in the violins, contrasting with woodwinds and horn. Presently, Mendelssohn introduces a bold countermelody in cellos and bassoons. The movement concludes with a switch to a country-like dance in A major, featuring a bassoon duet against a dominant pedal in the low strings. Eventually, clarinets join in, and we move toward a joyous finale.
The melodious Nocturne, a simple tripartite form (A-B-A), is set as a glorious trio for principal horn and two bassoons. Mendelssohn’s Scherzo, a genre at which he excelled, recaptures the gossamer magic of the overture. Delicate, humorous and fairy-like, it features dramatic crescendos that rouse its quiet moments. A fabulous flute solo crowns the movement, which, like the Overture, is in sonata form.
Only Elsa’s wedding music in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin rivals Mendelssohn’s Wedding March for fame and immediate association with the festivities of marriage. This March opens with a celebratory trumpet fanfare. The march itself is so familiar that we hardly notice how unusual is its initial melodic statement. It was very bold at its time. The audience stood at the premiere, remaining on their feet for the balance of the play. As Mendelssohn’s biographer Heinrich Eduard Jacob observed, “It was as though they were the wedding guests invited by the Duke of Athens in person.”
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, ophicleide or bass tuba, timpani and strings.
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
The decade from 1802 to 1812 was a period of astonishing productivity for Beethoven, yielding a remarkable succession of musical masterpieces. The twin pillars of 1807 and 1808 were his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Ideas for a symphony in C minor, however, have been traced as far back as the “Eroica” sketchbook of 1803/1804. Considering that E-flat major, the key of the “Eroica” symphony, is the relative major of C minor, it is not all that surprising that Beethoven generated ideas for both works at the same time.
C minor has been called both the “key of fate” and the “heroic key” in Beethoven’s music. There is no question that certain tonalities carried deep significance for Beethoven, and several other works in C minor share the terse drama of the Fifth Symphony. The “Pathétique” Sonata, Op. 13 (1798/1799) and the Third Piano Concerto, Op. 37 (1800) are earlier examples; the “Coriolan” Overture, Op. 62 (1807) is a C minor work contemporary with the Fifth Symphony.
Tradition has assigned a philosophical program to the Fifth Symphony, regarding the work as depicting the artist as hero, pitted against an unsympathetic society, emerging triumphant after a victory over internal strife. Beethoven’s amanuensis Anton Schindler reported that Beethoven:
“. . . pointed to the beginning of the first movement and expressed in these words the fundamental idea of his work: ‘Thus Fate knocks at the door!’”
Musical scholar W.J. Turner referred to the symphony’s:
. . . non self-seeking hero, the passionate idealist battling against the inclemencies and hostilities of nature and the passions of his fellow men and struggling to harmonize his own desires with those of the rest of mankind.
Robert Schumann detected French influence in the music of the Fifth Symphony, particularly that of Etienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763-1817). Much French music at the turn of the century, especially opera, bore the imprint of the French Revolution. France was in a state of political and social upheaval for Beethoven’s entire creative life, and the strong presence of a growing military culture made its impact felt in the arts.
About the Music
Beethoven’s Fifth was premiered at the Theater-an-der-Wien on December 22, 1808; it shared the program with the Sixth Symphony and the Choral Fantasia, Op. 80, both of which also received first performances. When it was published in April 1809, the score bore an unusual joint dedication to Beethoven’s patrons Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasoumovsky.
Military flavor is perhaps the overriding characteristic that unifies the music of the Fifth Symphony. March rhythms figure prominently, sometimes even when the music is in triple time, as in the C major sections of the slow movement. Beethoven’s emphasis on the brass section underscores the martial quality of the symphony. So too does his expansion of the orchestra to include piccolo (redolent of military band flavor), contrabassoon and trombones for the finale.
The first movement is dominated by the famous four-note motto. Beethoven’s focus on it is imaginative and varied, building dramatic tension that leads to electric conclusions. The motive recurs in the later movements, ingeniously altered.
Beethoven opens the slow movement with an elegant, elaborate theme that dissipates the storminess of his Allegro con brio. He then presents four variations, including one in minor mode and another with a brilliant fanfare incorporating the military aspect. His scherzo is traditional in its organization: loosely related to the classical structure of minuet-trio-minuet. Beethoven departs from tradition with the menacing lower strings that outline his opening gesture. Military elements return as the horns announce a new theme whose rhythm is the same as the iconic first movement motto. The central trio is bumptious and good-natured, reminding us that Beethoven had both a wonderful sense of humor and a formidable command of counterpoint.
The transition to the finale is one of classical music’s great moments: a controlled crescendo that builds to a triumphant first statement. There is no pause between the third and fourth movements. The finale overflows with an abundance of new themes, all of which reinforce that the struggle is over. The symphony closes with victorious, resounding chords that will linger in your ears long after the concert is over.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings
More About Beethoven:
Many music lovers consider Beethoven to be the greatest musical genius who ever lived. The literature about him is enormous, since scholars continue to examine every aspect of his life and works. The general public has been no less curious, flocking to films such as Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved (1994). Consequently, we know more about Beethoven than other composers–or we think we do. Even seasoned concert-goers, however, may be surprised at some unusual information about his background, life and colorful personality. Consider the following:
- Beethoven’s grandfather, also named Ludwig [Louis] van Beethoven (1712-1773) was the first of three generations of Beethoven musicians. Born in Antwerp, Belgium, he later moved to Bonn, Germany, to take the position of Hofkapellmeister in the court of Elector Maximilian Friedrich of Cologne, Germany.
- Under the tutelage of his most important instructor, Christian Gottlob Neefe, Beethoven learned Bach’s complete Well Tempered Clavier, 48 preludes and fugues that were not well known in the 1780s. He was playing them by memory in his early teens.
- Beethoven’s first professional position was being the court organist to Elector Max Franz in 1784. Five years later, he was playing viola in the Elector’s court orchestra; he was also a capable violinist.
- After a visit to Vienna in 1817, the English piano maker Thomas Broadwood sent Beethoven a six-octave grand piano. According to Broadwood’s biographer David Wainwright, “The case was Spanish mahogany, inlaid with marquetry and ormolu, the brass carrying-handles formed as laurel wreaths.” Beethoven’s name was inscribed along with a Latin translation noting the gift. Broadwood enlisted five other musicians to autograph the instrument, including the pianists Frederic Kalkbrenner and Johann Baptist Cramer. Franz Liszt acquired the instrument about 1846. Eventually, he presented it to the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, Hungary.
- Twelve museums in five European countries are devoted to Beethoven. Four of them are in Vienna, where he lived for most of his life, moving frequently within the city.
- Beethoven’s favorite composers were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Haydn, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel (he preferred Handel to Bach.) Among older composers, he also revered Palestrina. Although he was critical of most contemporaries, he admired the operas of Gaspare Spontini and Luigi Cherubini.
- The concept of heroism, and specifically the death of a hero, is a recurrent theme in such great works as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85 and the incidental music to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Egmont. Heroism surfaced much earlier in Beethoven’s music. His first known composition was a funeral cantata from 1781 that has not survived. In 1790, the city of Bonn commissioned him to write a Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph II. We know it as WoO 87.
- Most major composers have a thematic catalogue compiled by scholars. Bach has the Schmieder catalogue, abbreviated S. (or BWV for Bach Werke Verzeichnis); Mozart has the Köchel catalogue (source of the K. number) and Franz Schubert the Deutsch catalogue (abbreviated D.). Beethoven has multiple catalogues. Four 19th century efforts were superseded by Georg Kinsky and Hans Halm’s Das Werk Beethovens: Thematisch-Bibliographisches Verzeichnis in 1955, which is the standard. Kinsky and Halm included a special category, WoO, which stands for Werke ohne Opuszahl, or “work without opus number.” Willy Hess published another catalogue in 1957 that catalogues Beethoven’s unfinished works and sketches.
- Dozens of Beethoven’s conversation books survive from 1818 until 1827. They reflect thoughts communicated to the deaf composer by his friends, family and associates, but not his own comments, since he usually responded verbally. Consequently, these books, while a valuable biographical source, require the reader to reconstruct Beethoven’s half of the conversation. They are filled with details about everyday life, from gossip to family matters, from medical maladies to weather. Comparatively, few of the entries pertain to Beethoven’s music.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023