celebrate…with music, of course!

I haven’t seen a wedding band play in years. I’ve attended my share of weddings, but in the last couple of decades, I’ve noticed that the popularity of wedding bands has waned in favor of the lone DJ, who plays the hits just as you remember them. I’ve also been to weddings where the couple compiled an epic playlist beforehand and left an iPod to play their choices while the rest of us danced and ate. But think back to a time when recordings were not an option. Think back to Europe in the eighteenth century, a time when music had to be played live by skilled musicians. If you liked to listen to music back then, your choices were somewhat limited. I came across an interesting tidbit the other day when looking up some information about Antonio Salieri. In the 1700s, Salieri went to Vienna and found work in a chamber orchestra run by Emperor Joseph II. Joseph was such an enthusiastic music lover that he employed a group of musicians to play for him while he ate dinner. And not just once in a while either; these musicians played for him every evening. Such a thing would only be possible if money were no object.

read more →For most people, then, daily music-making fell to individuals. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, piano lessons were very popular. The piano was a focal point of many homes. There were also public concerts to attend, if one had the time, inclination, and resources. (Location was also important.) Although not strictly for entertainment value, churches provided music, and indeed, some of the most talented composers and musicians worked at the churches in Europe. Opera was the most popular musical entertainment of the day, of course, and a composer’s career could be made or broken in the opera house. Another place to hear music was at special events like weddings.

One of the pieces on LACO’s upcoming concert is a Serenade by Mozart that was composed for a wedding celebration. A Serenade is a piece for orchestra, usually in many movements (more than the typical four movements of a symphony), reserved for some light entertainment. The instrumentation for a serenade is chosen with two practical concerns in mind: the music had to be heard wherever the musicians were placed, which was sometimes outside; the musicians were sometimes called upon to stand and play their instruments. (Cellists were always exempt from this for obvious reasons.) The “Haffner” Serenade by Mozart—so named because it was composed for the occasion of the wedding between Elisabeth Haffner and Franz Xavier Spaeth—is scored for instruments that would do well both in the outdoors and with standing instrumentalists. There are strings, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets.

The music for a wedding celebration, or any serenade or divertimento from the Classical period is light and airy, but not without substance. Mozart had a knack for making such carefree music interesting. For those who were socializing and eating while the music was going on, they would have enjoyed pleasing background music, but for those who cared to listen more closely, they would have been treated to some charming and clever pieces. Mozart used dance forms, which was a common practice when writing such light entertainments. Often lively and catchy, dance forms have the advantage of seeming familiar, even if they are quite new. Hearing the “Haffner” Serenade and its accompanying march—which would likely have played while the bride and groom made their entrance, or while guests were arriving—in a concert setting allows one to really appreciate the nuances of Mozart’s composition. And best of all, the orchestra will likely be seated as well. (I’m sure they appreciate that!) The couple for whom this piece was composed married in 1776. That makes this year their 238th anniversary!

If celebrating a two-century-old wedding wasn’t cause enough for jollity, LACO’s upcoming concert also features a piece that was thought lost to history. Haydn’s Cello Concerto was for years misattributed to Anton Kraft, the cellist for whom the piece was written. The work was there, in plain sight, just with the wrong composer’s name on it. Some suspected that Kraft’s Cello Concerto might have been the missing concerto that Haydn included on a list of all of his works. The proof didn’t come until the mid-twentieth century when an autograph score of this piece was finally found, confirming Haydn’s authorship of the Cello Concerto. Better late than never, I suppose.

LACO’s upcoming concert will have the upbeat mood of a celebration, which is a wonderful and fitting thing. Every time we get to support this music and orchestras like LACO, it is a celebration. We have the privilege of experiencing live music played by skilled musicians, which means we have something in common with those music-lovers from the eighteenth century. Sure, we have streaming music, YouTube, radio, television, and recordings, but there is simply no substitute for being there, in the theater, watching and listening to the magic of live music. ↑ less ↑

vivaldi & schubert

Tonight’s eclectic program covers hundreds of years of music histo¬ry, including a Baroque concerto from Vivaldi, a Symphony of Franz Schubert, the late 20th-century minimalist piece Shaker Loops and Peteris Vasks’ Lonely Angel from the cusp of the 21st century. Karina Canellakis is conductor and soloist for the Vivaldi and Vasks and leads the rest of the program.

read more →We begin the evening with the earliest piece, a Baroque concerto by Antonio Vivaldi: the Violin Concerto, “La tempesta di mare” (“Storm”). In his lifetime, Vivaldi wrote more than 500 concertos, and in so doing, set the standard for many of the characteristics we commonly associate with the genre. For instance, his usual structure of quick outer movements framing a slower central movement soon became the norm for the entire Baroque period, as did the ritornello form he favored for his fast movements that feature a lively give-and-take between soloist and orchestra. Some of Vivaldi’s concertos featured solo instruments (often violins) with orchestra, while others featured groups of soloists with orchestra, a genre known as the concerto grosso. His works were a great source of inspiration for later composers like JS Bach, who copied out many of them for study. Bach’s concertos would not have been the same without Vivaldi’s influence.

“La tempesta di mare” was part of a collection of a dozen concertos called Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, or The Contest Between Harmony and Invention. All of the concertos in this collection are scored for solo violin with string orchestra and basso continuo (a combination of harpsichord and string bass that provides harmonic foundation), including Vivaldi’s famous set, The Four Seasons. In these concertos, Vivaldi evokes the unique characteristics of summer, winter, spring and fall—thunderclaps, rain, a barking dog, birdsong — all without a single word uttered. Vivaldi employs this same pictorial writing in his La tempesta di mare, a concerto depicting a great storm at sea. In the outer movements, the ritornello provides animated interplay between the soloist’s more virtuosic passages and the orchestra’s energetic accompaniment. The slow movement in the center represents a calm eye within the storm.

Native Latvian Pēteris Vasks began his musical career as a double bass player, and studied composition in Lithuania. His early style is reminiscent of the aleatoric work of Lutosławski, Penderecki and Crumb. (Aleatoric music employs chance procedures in the composition process.) As he has matured as a composer, Vasks has discovered his own unique voice. His pieces often endeavor to convey a message or idea, and therefore the composer’s style fosters communication over obfuscation. Emotions and moods are trans¬parent, and there is no attempt to complicate things by abstraction.

In another innovation, Vask incorporates Latvian folk music and style into his compositions. His first concerto for violin and string orchestra, Tala gaisma (Distant Light), draws upon Latvian folk music for inspiration. In that piece, Vasks weaves a tapestry of contrasting sections and textures. A decade later, Vasks composed his second concerto for violin, Vientuļais Eņģelis (Lonely Angel), inspired by a vision Vasks had of an angel looking over the world. Vasks describes this idea: “the angel looks at the world’s condition with grieving eyes, but an almost imperceptible loving touch of the angel’s wings brings comfort and healing. This piece is my music after the pain.” The centerpiece of this work is an ever-unfolding melody in the violin. The orchestra gently supports this endless unfurling, interjecting minimal distraction over the course of the piece. The “voice” of the violin may well be the sonic stand-in for the lonely angel who ceaselessly observes the world. Although the violin doesn’t require breath to play, music for the instrument is often written in phrases. Here, however, Vasks is perhaps suggest¬ing that this angel needs neither rest nor air as the solo line climbs ever higher in range, very beautifully defying gravity with endlessly graceful lyricism.

John Adams composed Shaker Loops in 1978 for string septet. It had its origins in an earlier piece for string quartet called Wavemaker, which was an exploration of both Minimalist procedures and the ripples made in water when disturbed. Adams described “long sequences of oscillating melodic cells that created a rippling, shimmering complex of patterns like the surface of a slightly agitated pond or lake.” Adams’ first experiments with this idea fell short of his expectations so he reworked the piece for string septet and called it Shaker Loops, reasoning that a larger group of instruments and a new approach might convey the waveforms better. The term “loop” came from the idea of tape loops used in tape composition. In such compositions, a fragment of a sound that had been recorded on magnetic tape was looped so that the fragment would repeat continuously. This loop could also be manipulated to increase or decrease in speed, or it could be played in tandem with other loops. While the term “Shaker” brings to mind the religious sect whose worship included dancing and movement, Adams first envisioned it as a play on the shimmering tremolo string technique. The idea of Shaker worship, however, with its ecstatic movement and spiritual catharsis, was also interesting to Adams for this piece. LACO performs a version arranged for string orchestra, which adds a thickness to the texture and depth to the sound. The repeated musical ideas in each movement show gradual changes in focus. Sometimes, the waves seem to crash into each other, while in other parts many sounds become a single sound, like the ripples in water forming concentric circles.

Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major was com¬posed in September of 1816. The previous year, Schubert was incredibly prolific, writing four operas, two symphonies and about 145 lieder. He also made the acquaintance of Franz von Schober, the Austrian poet and actor. Schober not only introduced Schubert to important and influential people, but he provided lodgings in 1816, allowing the composer to focus on his craft, rather than teach. (Shortly after moving to these lodgings, he gave up teaching entirely.) He was just 19 years old, but his extraordinary talent was already apparent to his friends, who did everything in their power to help Schubert write and succeed.

In June of 1816, Schubert had rhapsodized in his diary about the work of Mozart, prompting many to see comparisons between Schubert’s Fifth and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. The two pieces share the same instrumentation—the smallest for any of Schubert’s symphonies—and a Classical sensibility that seems to suggest the mature works of Mozart. In perhaps mirroring this earlier style, Schubert omitted clarinets, timpani and trumpets from the scoring. (Mozart had done something similar in his 40th Symphony, although he did revise the score to include clarinets in a later version.) The first performance of Symphony No. 5 took place soon after its composition, in a private setting. (It was not publicly premiered until many years after Schubert’s death in 1828 and only published nearly 60 years later.)

In a departure from Schubert’s earlier efforts in the genre, the opening Allegro, does not begin with a slow introduction. Instead, it displays instant energy and a charming effervescence, epitomizing the Classical style. The second movement is an Andante con moto in a lilting meter. The theme is simple, yet engaging, and Schubert’s unique key choices are perhaps the only indication that this is a piece from the Romantic period. The third movement, a Menuetto, begins in a pensive G minor. The trio provides contrast with a G-major dance that suggests a waltz. There is some thematic similarity with the Minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, but Schubert puts his own stamp on the material. The brilliant final Allegro vivace speeds by quickly, with a merry pace that doesn’t let up until the last cadence. ↑ less ↑

beethoven piano concerto no. 3

Bringing together music that is both intriguing and colorful, tonight’s program opens with dramatic music from three French Baroque operas by the always surprising and inventive Jean- Philippe Rameau. The centerpiece of the concert is the Los Angeles premiere of the virtuosic and emotional Viola Concerto that Aaron Jay Kernis wrote for Paul Neubauer, an extraordinary performer whose talent has continued to blossom since he became the youngest principal violist for the New York Philharmonic at the age of 21. We close out the evening with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece at the heart of LACO’s repertoire and that of our illustrious music director Jeffrey Kahane.

read more →The dominant voice of opera in the Baroque period in France was Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose charming vocal and instrumen¬tal music made him a favorite of Louis XIV. After Lully’s untimely death due to gangrene after he accidentally stabbed himself in the foot with a conducting staff Jean-Philippe Rameau became the primary composer of French opera. He gained fame in this role late in his career, composing works like Dardanus when he was in his 50s and Zaïs when he was 65. His operas moved away from Lully’s style, and his innovations sometimes proved challenging to the French public, who might not have been ready for so many new ideas. For example, in the Overture to Zaïs Rameau attempted a musical depiction of the formation of the four elements—Earth, Air, Fire and Water—out of chaos. Rameau features a beating drum, moments of silence, rhythmic syncopation and musical figures that variously seem to represent flames, flowing water and thunder. But even with all of these depictions of chaos, Rameau gave us music that is both fascinating and charming from beginning to end.

Also featured on the program are dances from two other Rameau operas, Dardanus and Les Boréades. Rameau composed Dardanus in 1739 and revised the work in 1744. The myth of Dardanus—son of Zeus and Electra—is the basis for the opera, but the libretto by Charles-Antoine Leclerc de La Bruère took some liberties with the story to add drama and conflict. Although there are some dramatic differences between the original version and the revision, Rameau’s genius particularly shines in the instrumental interludes and dances of both. The same is true of Les Boréades, a five-act opera by Rameau, and the last of his tragédies en musique. This piece was not premiered in Rameau’s lifetime, receiving its first performance nearly five years after the composer’s death. There are many whimsical and mythological elements and characters in the story including the Graces, a nymph, Cupid, the muse Polyhymnia, and of course, the gods Apollo and Boreas. The music is rhythmic, with lively accents and shifts of mood. The percussion and brass lend a ceremonial touch, and Rameau devises many orchestral effects, including the rushing of the wind, with his melodious music.

Born in Philadelphia, Aaron Jay Kernis studied with such illustrious teachers as John Adams, Morton Subotnik and Charles Wuorinen. He gained international acclaim in 1983 with Dream of the Morning Sky, an orchestral work premiered by the New York Philharmonic, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his Second String Quartet. Throughout his career, Kernis’ style has been somewhat eclectic, influenced by American popular music on one hand and the use of limited compositional means on the other. By turns, his music has been dissonant and lyrical, angular and gracefully melodic. His earlier works are written in a strict compositional language with pitch groupings as formal constructs while his more recent efforts show a freer and more emotionally expressive musical language.

Tonight, LACO presents the Los Angeles premiere of Kernis’ latest endeavor, a Viola Concerto for soloist Paul Neubauer. Neubauer’s sense of color and expression first intrigued and inspired the Kernis Concerto, but there are other fascinating influences as well. Kernis named the first movement of the concerto “Braid” to call to mind a construct of many woven layers that increases in density. For contrast, the second movement is, as Kernis describes it: “lyrical, expansive, and a bit sad.” Neubauer’s beautiful sense of line and phrasing, and indeed color, are particularly suited to bringing this movement to life. The final movement bears the title “A Song My Mother Taught Me,” and features a Russian Jewish folk¬song called “Tumbalalaika” in which the Yiddish words speak of a conversation between a young man and a young woman about questions of life. A piano piece by Robert Schumann provides another musical theme that intertwines with the folksong. In this movement, Kernis creates what he calls a set of “backward variations,” wherein the soloist and orchestra play the variations first and find their way eventually back to the melody at its heart. The movement then embarks on a tumultuous emotional journey, and Kernis, with the heroic efforts of the soloist and orchestra, covers the spectrum of emotions from joyful to melancholy, from bright hopefulness to dark despair.

As a composer, Beethoven experienced some encouraging success at the turn of the 19th century. He wrote his first two symphonies, his first set of string quartets, the famous “Moonlight” Sonata, and the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, among other works. Beethoven’s encroaching deafness meant that his days as a performer were coming to an end, but in 1800, when he wrote the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, he was still able to play, acting as the soloist at the premiere in 1803. It’s a good thing, too, because a friend, Ignaz von Seyfried, who turned pages at the premiere of the concerto, said that Beethoven hadn’t completely written down the solo part and played much of it from memory. Beethoven dedicated the concerto to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a soldier, nobleman and composer, whose considerable skills as a pianist gained him the respect of his musical peers.

Piano Concerto No. 3 is Beethoven’s first in a minor key. It follows the standard three-movement format of the Classical concerto, although there are aspects of it that show the composer already leaving Classical conventions behind. The first movement opens with an exposition of a powerful theme played solely by the orchestra. The second exposition features the soloist playing the same compelling theme, followed by a contrasting second theme, much softer in character. The mood of both the opening and development of the movement remains somewhat subdued, suggesting that Beethoven is saving the drama for later. The dramatic moment arrives at the end of the movement, in both the recapitulation and the cadenza. In the Classical era, cadenzas were typically improvised during performance, but some composers published versions of their cadenzas. Beethoven’s is particularly stormy.

The second movement, which is in a major key, provides a respite from Beethoven’s turbulent first movement and cadenza. There is a lyricism and even a sense of longing that hints at the mature Beethoven. The conversation between orchestra and soloist is not emotionally complex, but it is not overly simple either. In the center of the movement, Beethoven achieves a wonderful sense of color with the woodwinds, pizzicato strings and a flowing line in the piano that is achingly beautiful. The final movement has a rondo structure with a lively theme that returns periodically both in the piano and in the ensemble. The key is once again in C minor, interrupted by a very sweet section in A major. Beethoven’s grasp of the dramatic is evident as the main theme and the sweet theme vie for prominence. Near the end, the soloist has a final moment in the spotlight before the piano and ensemble play the lyrical major key theme, ending the work on a bright note. ↑ less ↑

what i did on my summer vacation

Everyone remembers those “What I did on my summer vacation” assignments teachers would dole out at the beginning of September. Back in the analog days, we might have passed around some pictures or postcards, and perhaps we even had a souvenir or two for show and tell. These days we can post an album of pictures on Facebook instantly, Instagram every vacation meal, and tweet about the wonders of nature. And while the craftiest among us still scrapbook on actual paper, the opportunity to reflect on our travels and adventures seems to be something of a lost art. We take our trip, write and comment on it in real time, and when we return, it’s immediately back to business-as-usual. When I was a child, it was always so fun to relive the vacation a few weeks later when our rolls of film finally got developed. But that feeling of reminiscence, of looking back at those travels, those adventures, is leaving us. Back before cable and Netflix and the Internet, I remember making popcorn and sitting down with the family to look at slides of vacations past. I suppose I can still look back at my own recent travels, but that means me heading back to Facebook or Twitter and scrolling through pictures on my phone. Doesn’t quite have the same romanticism, does it?

read more →Camille Saint-Saëns became a great fan of travel on his first visit to Italy when he was in his early twenties. Because he didn’t have our modern conveniences, he commemorated some of his more fascinating journeys by writing music inspired by the places he visited along the way. We have one such piece on LACO’s opening concert this season. The Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed “Egyptian” because Saint-Saëns composed the work while in Luxor. (He often spent winters in Egypt.) Not only was he inspired by the landscapes and the grand monuments, he wove music that he heard into the new composition. In the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, we hear a song that Saint-Saëns heard while sailing on the Nile. What a wonderful way to reflect on that experience. Much better than flipping through a photo album!

In 1875, more than twenty years before he composed that Fifth Piano Concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns, then almost forty, married nineteen-year-old Marie Truffot. His mother, Clemence, did not approve of the union. The marriage produced two sons, however, both died—one from a childhood illness, one from an accident—within six weeks of each other. Six years after the wedding, Saint-Saëns simply left his wife while they were on holiday, and never saw her again. He did not remarry, but instead found a surrogate family with fellow composer Gabriel Fauré, to whom he was something of a father figure or “benevolent uncle,” as some have described him. Saint-Saëns was deeply devoted to his mother Clemence, who became a widow just three months after the birth of Camille. Clemence and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, raised the young boy by themselves. In fact, it was Masson who gave young Camille his first piano lessons at the age of two and a half. Masson died in 1872, and Clemence in 1888. Once they were gone, Camille perhaps felt that he had no reason to stay in one place anymore. His travel increased, and his writing slowed down a bit. Saint-Saëns became a mostly solitary traveler. Only his manservant Gabriel and his beloved dogs accompanied him on his trips.

In addition to spending time in Egypt, Saint-Saëns was quite fond of Algeria. It was a French colony at the time, and a popular travel spot for Europeans. When Saint-Saëns was devastated over the death of his mother, it was to Algeria that he fled, to help him find the strength to return to his life. He was comfortable there, and indeed, this place filled him with life and ideas. The Suite algerienne (1880) was written on the occasion of Algeria becoming a Department of Metropolitan France. He also composed a fantasy for piano and orchestra called Africa in 1891.

In addition to lengthy stays in North Africa, Saint-Saëns traveled through Europe and South America. He composed a patriotic hymn called Partido Colorado for Uruguay’s national holiday. He undertook many concert tours, playing series of concerts everywhere from the Canary Islands to Scandinavia to Russia. He became friends with Tchaikovsky. He came to the United States after the turn of the century. His popularity in his native France was waning, but the Americans revered him as France’s greatest living composer. He performed in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In 1915, he composed an orchestral piece called “Hail! California.” He was also a favorite in Great Britain, where he studied the works of Handel and played for Queen Victoria. The Philharmonic Society commissioned his Third Symphony, and he was made a Commander of the Victorian Order.

Saint-Saëns’ travels gave him a unique perspective on composition, and allowed him to see the value in music that was familiar and that which was exotic. This does not mean that he liked everything. Far from it. His thorny attitudes towards some of the composers around the turn of the century made him some enemies. He spoke out against Debussy’s Impressionism and, during the First World War, he called for a ban on German music (especially Wagner). His controversial views aside, it is interesting to hear the music of a person so well traveled, and so curious about other cultures. His experience of the world certainly enriched his own art, and helped make him the important historical figure we know today. It almost makes me want to write music to commemorate my summer vacation…or I could just go back and read my tweets. ↑ less ↑

mozart serenade

This evening’s concert features four beautiful pieces of music that were inspired by vastly different circumstances. George Benjamin’s At First Light draws inspiration from a 19th-century painting that depicts the dawn. Haydn completed the Cello Concerto No. 2 for one of the players in the Esterházy court orchestra. Mozart composed the “Haffner” March and Serenade for a wedding. The works by Mozart and Haydn display the best the Classical period has to offer, while Benjamin’s composition from the 1980s shows off some of the unique inventiveness that made the late 20th century such an exciting time for music.

read more →George Benjamin, British composer of the recent opera Written on Skin, composed At First Light for a chamber orchestra of 14 players. Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and premiered in 1982 under the baton of Simon Rattle, At First Light features violin, viola, cello, double bass, woodwinds and brass. In addition, a percussionist plays a variety of both traditional and non-traditional instruments.

In his own description of this work, Benjamin references a painting in London’s Tate Gallery called Norham Castle, Sunrise. The sun’s presence in the painting—so intense and overpowering— casts a haze over everything, making the shapes, lines, and even colors, indistinct. The artist, Joseph Mallard William Turner, painted and sketched Norham Castle numerous times in his career. He saw the castle for the first time in 1797, but Norham Castle, Sunrise is one of Turner’s late works. The sunrise of the painting has inspired Benjamin to portray the dawn in three movements. Benjamin notes that everything in the painting seems to have “melted under the intense sunlight. It is as if the paint is still wet.” Benjamin’s observation is key to understanding this piece. It is as if he has “melted” down the clear musical phrase into what he calls “a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound.” The work shows the interplay between the clear phrase and the deconstructed phrase. The piece begins with a high, sustained note in the violin and hits from the array of percussion instruments. The trumpet and trombone offer notes and then repeat the same notes with mutes. These are what Benjamin describes as “superimposed fanfares.” The music walks the line between organized sound and cacophony with the greatest care, although the small chamber group seems to erupt with dissonance now and then.

The second movement is made up of short sections, each of which contradicts the others in mood. Benjamin seems very interested in extremes, highs and lows, loud and soft. The piccolo brings a flourish up to the high frequencies, while the trombone, bassoon and piano fire away at the other end of the spectrum. In the different sections, the sound may seem to grow out of nothing so gradually you wonder if you are hearing anything at all, or they might jump out and startle. The final movement begins without pause, providing a nearly unbroken line of sound that is continually augmented with intricate harmony. This grand, slow crescendo culminates in a fantastic earth-shaking fortissimo. A moment of quiet follows, but we end with another outburst; Benjamin’s depiction of this dawn maintains its intensity until the very last moment of the piece.

Before the 1780s, Franz Joseph Haydn spent most of his time writing music that would be performed almost exclusively at the court of the Esterházy family. He occasionally took commissions from outside sources, but the majority of his musical efforts stayed close to home. In 1779, however, Haydn had made a connection with the Artaria publishing firm in Vienna. When Haydn renewed his contract with the Esterházy family that year, a provision that gave the Prince exclusive rights to Haydn’s music something in the contract from nearly two decades earlier was left out. Haydn could now happily sell his music to the public and profit from it. Although he was still employed by the Esterházys, and continued to write a great deal of music for the family, he could begin to broaden his horizons.

In this more liberal atmosphere Haydn composed the Cello Concerto in D major. After its debut, the piece went missing, only to be found but misattributed to Anton Kraft, the Esterházy court principal cellist for whom the piece was written. But an auto-graphed manuscript found in the mid-20th century proved once and for all that Haydn was the composer.

Haydn used the traditional three-movement structure found in most Classical-era concertos, wherein two energetic movements bookend a slower middle section. In each one of these movements, Haydn calls upon the intricate skills of the soloist often, and we may deduce that Kraft was a fine and impressive musician. The first movement opens, in typical fashion, with the strings taking the lead, but there is a wealth of color from the woodwind section. After the orchestral exposition, the cello soloist presents similar material to which Haydn adds flourishes and variation. The movement unfolds like a civil conversation between cellist and orchestra, neither talking over the other, but still displaying passion and charm. The cadenza at the end of the first movement gives the soloist the opportunity to provide a short heartfelt monologue in the middle of this conversation. The slow movement provides the barest change of mood and tempo. There is a gentle but insistent pulse urging us forward, and the cello gets some lovely melodic material, while the orchestra offers its firm, but not overpowering support. A moment of despair creeps into the orchestral part, but the cello reassures, and the movement ends peacefully. The finale features a pleasant tune that returns again and again in this effervescent rondo. The soloist must save some energy for the moments of complex passagework in this movement, as Haydn ends this Concerto with a stylish flourish.

The serenade is a multiple-movement work for orchestra, usually reserved for light entertainment. Any number of movements might be included and dance forms were commonly used. Mozart sometimes preceded his serenades with a March, giving the players who often stood during the performance music that would allow them to take their position. The March was often played at the end as well. Seldom performed in a concert setting, serenades were party-pieces perhaps even outdoor parties—favoring those instruments whose timbres carried best in the open air. Mozart’s March in D major, “Haffner” is assumed to be the brief ceremonial opening to his Serenade No. 7 in D major, “Haffner.” Both works were composed in the 1770s and premiered in July of 1776, before the wedding between Marie Elisabeth Haffner and Franz Xavier Spaeth.

There are eight movements in the Serenade proper, beginning with an Allegro maestoso which might very well have been used as entrance music for honored guests or the happy couple. This particular serenade is almost like a concerto because there are extended passages featuring the solo violin, played tonight by LACO concert¬master Margaret Batjer. The second movement is a stately Andante, while the third movement provides a touch of drama with a pensive Menuetto. The fourth movement is a quick and light-hearted Allegro that shows off the solo violinist’s considerable skills. The Menuetto galante that follows returns to the majestic charm of the first movement. Mozart brings the energy back with another lovely Andante, and continues with one final Menuetto. Mozart ends the proceedings with a movement that begins with a slow opening section, but closes with a fiery Allegro assai. Once again, the virtuosic skills of the instrumentalists—especially the solo violinist are on full display. There is a sense of joy and excitement here, perfect for a wedding celebration. Some of these movements were likely played while people were talking and socializing, and Mozart masterfully balances interesting musical phrases and melodies with the requirement that this be entertaining, but not overbearing. As usual, Mozart shows his mastery of any musical situation.  ↑ less ↑

beethoven 5

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s new season gets off to an energetic start with a program of drama and pathos, but one that ends with triumph. Tonight LACO features a brand new commis¬sion from violinist and film composer Cameron Patrick, a piano concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns, and one of classical music’s most well known and powerful compositions.

read more →Cameron Patrick, a native of Brisbane, Australia, began his musical journey as a violinist. After graduating from the University of Queensland, he played professionally in Brisbane before moving to the US to further his studies at USC. Active as a violinist and violist in Los Angeles, Patrick has also carved out a career as a composer. After hearing Impressions of Erin, a recent concert work commissioned by the Camerata of St. John’s Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane invited Patrick to compose a work for strings and percussion. In this new work for LACO, Patrick has developed themes that explore the spirituality of the Australian landscape and draw upon a musical tradition called the songline, which is an oral map that describes geographical features. The work is an emotional journey through three specific regions travelled by the composer, expressing the mystery, wonder, joy and even pain that Australia holds. It is also a celebration of the inseparable connection between the continent’s Indigenous peoples and the land itself. Tonight is the world premiere of Lines of the Southern Cross.

Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy, penning his first compositions at the tender age of three. At age 11, in 1846, he made his debut as a pianist at the Salle Pleyel. He impressed the crowd there by playing whatever sonata by Beethoven the audience suggested, and he continued his career for many decades after that, writing music and performing. With the exception of a few pieces, much of his enormous output has been unjustly neglected.

Saint-Saëns composed five piano concertos in his career, but there was a gap of two decades between the Fourth (1874) and Fifth (1896) concertos. Saint-Saëns found a good reason to revisit the genre in 1896: he composed Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, “Egyptian” to play at the 50th anniversary of his debut. This concerto was given the nickname “Egyptian,” because Saint-Saëns composed the work while in Luxor, as he often wintered in Egypt. As a conductor, Saint-Saëns’ work took him to many places, but outside of that, he also had a deep passion for travel and vacationed as much as he could. He was able to indulge this passion because of a large bequest from the director of the French Post Office. The years of travel injected musical ideas into his compositions that can be classified as “exoticism,” musical depictions of cultures that are not native to the composer. In a way, exoticism is the flip side of nationalism, in which a composer pays tribute to his or her own culture in music. Exoticism, on the other hand, represents a composer’s idea of another culture, an appropriation. For Saint-Saëns, the Fifth Piano Concerto painted the picture of a cruise to various places, including of course Egypt, but also Spain and Java.

The opening movement is an Allegro animato, which begins with two contrasting themes. The first provides the subject for a set of energetic variations, each one more technically brilliant than the last. The counterbalance to this energy is a slower theme of bittersweet quality. Saint-Saëns gives the soloist many moments of brilliant passagework, with the orchestra providing lush support, full of rich and colorful harmony. The dynamics are especially unpredictable and the mood shifts from pleasant to stormy and back again. The coda settles everything down and provides a calm and sweet ending.

The second movement of a concerto usually provides a peaceful contrast to the energetic first movement, so the lively opening of this section might surprise the listener. After the initial burst, Saint-Saëns arrives at his main musical idea, a lush setting of a song he heard while sailing on the Nile. In addition to giving us full, complex Romantic harmonies, Saint-Saëns brings out individual orchestral colors, especially in the woodwinds. The movement has some wonderful orchestral effects, some of which evoke wonder and some, the exotic.

The finale, Molto allegro, begins with the low rumbles of what might be a motor, urging us on to the next travel destination. The piano part is quick and effervescent, with the orchestra keeping up at every turn. One can imagine the 61-year-old Saint-Saëns dis¬playing skills at the piano that had only sharpened with age. The ending of the Concerto is breathtaking. Saint-Saëns shows that his travels left him feeling both energized and inspired.

The opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor is one of music’s most recognizable four-note motifs, and the ensuing movement is one of the world’s best-known pieces of music. But it took a while for Beethoven’s Fifth to achieve its status in music history. The problem was not with the Symphony itself; the prob¬lem was one of programming. In December of 1808, Beethoven planned a massive concert for the Theater an der Wien featuring over four hours of his music. Critics and contemporary reviewers might understandably have lost the Fifth Symphony in the midst of these other works.

It wasn’t until more than a year later that famed German Romantic writer ETA Hoffman anonymously sang the work’s praises. It is in his account that the “narrative” idea of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony appears: tragedy becomes triumph; tumult becomes exultation. At the time the piece was being written, Europe was in the throes of political upheaval, as a result of the Napoleonic wars, while in his private life, Beethoven was dealing with a personal crisis of his own. In the first years of the century, Beethoven had come to full realization that his increasing deafness was inevitable, and that his time as a performer was coming to an end. In the face of this challenge, Beethoven ultimately resolved to write music for as long as it was possible. He certainly did not suffer from a lack of ideas.

Beethoven ruminated over the musical material for his Fifth Symphony for quite some time. He started sketching out ideas in 1804, soon after finishing the Third Symphony, but he wrote a lot of other pieces while those sketches were simmering. He finally completed the work in 1808, and dedicated it to his patrons, Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is remarkable for many reasons, and not just because of its attention-grabbing opening. Beethoven employs the traditional first movement structure of the symphony—called sonata form—that Mozart and Haydn perfected in the Classical period. He was not content to play by all the rules, however, and the first movement shows flashes of inventiveness: the sequential development of the theme (chains of the short-short-short-long idea), a short and unexpected oboe solo in the recapitulation of the main theme and a brilliant coda. The section ends with a sense of finality, but without a sense of rest.

The second movement offers a theme and variations with two themes, one sweet and melodic, and the other grand and noble. Beethoven’s skill in building on these themes proves that he can command the listener’s attention with lyricism and hope just as he can with turmoil and bluster.

The third movement brings back the short-short-short-long rhythm in the scherzo, and it seems to be everywhere. The contrasting trio theme shows Beethoven’s ability to write dynamic counterpoint. When the scherzo theme returns, it is played quietly, with pizzicato strings creating mystery and setting up a grand transition to the fourth movement. Instead of pausing between the movements, as was common, the fourth movement emerges— without a break—from the ending of the third. If we can glean anything from Beethoven’s sketches for this Symphony, it is that he spent a lot of time deciding how best to proceed. In another surprising twist, Beethoven brings back part of the scherzo in the final movement.

The final movement affirms the key of C major rather than C minor, and in the intervening years many listeners have read into this simple gesture the triumph of hope over despair. In the end, the music in the final movement suggests victory, pageantry, even nobility. There is a long coda in which the bright sonority of C major seems to obliterate the memory of the C minor of the first movement, providing a feeling of finality and of satisfaction. Perhaps Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony should have been the finale on the fateful concert in 1808. Had that been the case, it seems likely that the critics and the public would have immediately embraced this work as a classic.  ↑ less ↑

beethoven the pianist

LACO’s upcoming concert features “double concertos” by Mozart and Bach and a selection of Etudes for Piano by György Ligeti. The finale of the evening will be Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played by the incomparable Jeremy Denk and the talented musicians of LACO. Beethoven’s piano music is fascinating to me because I know he wrote most of it to show off his own talent as a pianist. To closely study these concertos, sonatas, and piano trios is to understand Beethoven the performer. And one cannot help but feel a little melancholy in looking at these pieces because we know that Beethoven had to give up his performing career sooner than he wanted to because of his hearing loss.

read more →Beethoven (1770-1827) lived almost to the age of 57. His made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of seven, although his father—wanting to tout his very own musical prodigy—advertised him as a six-year-old. Music was his career from these early days, and he grew in fits and starts as a performer and a composer through a difficult childhood and early adulthood. He studied with local teachers and some relatives as well. Around the time Beethoven was about ten years old, he became the assistant to the new court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe. In a write-up in the Magazin der Musik in 1783 Beethoven is described as:

“a boy of eleven years and a most promising talent. He plays the piano very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well….[Neefe] is now training him in composition and for his encouragement has nine variations for the piano, written by him on a march, engraved at Mannheim. This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.”

When Beethoven was 18, he took it upon himself to become the head of the family when his mother’s death and his father’s subsequent alcoholism caused a shift in family dynamics. Beethoven petitioned for half of his father’s salary (his father was let go from his singing job) to support his younger brothers. In return, Beethoven sometimes played viola in the court and theater orchestras. This experience would be invaluable to him as a composer. His orchestral works show sensitivity to the roles of the instruments in the orchestra, something he witnessed firsthand from the string section.

Beethoven left Bonn behind for Vienna in 1792. He studied with Haydn for a time, but more importantly he was intent on establishing himself as a pianist and composer in the new city. His connections from Bonn helped him greatly in these endeavors. Also, the members of the Viennese aristocracy who recognized Beethoven’s talent were more than happy to provide him with accommodations and commissions. Beethoven excelled at displays of virtuosity in the salons and private performances held in the houses of these aristocrats. By 1795, he was showing off his talents in public concerts, playing his own piano trios, piano sonatas, and his first piano concertos.

Beethoven was about 26 when he began have troubles with his hearing. He continued to play throughout these struggles, and to compose as well. By 1801 he was finally ready to share the news of his infirmity, which he had kept secret for some time, with his close friends and his brothers. The enormity of this problem caused a crisis for Beethoven, who wondered what effect his encroaching deafness would have on both his professional life and his personal relationships. To his old friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, he wrote the following in a letter:

“For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. As for my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, what would they say?”

Beethoven’s skills would have to shift, and he would eventually concern himself entirely with composing because he could not continue as a performer. By 1814, when Beethoven was in his forties, he was almost totally deaf. It was in April of this year that Beethoven last appeared in public as a soloist. The concert was a benefit for the military, and it was organized by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, violinist and friend of Beethoven. Beethoven’s last public performance was of the Archduke Trio, op. 97. Louis Spohr, the composer and violinist, gave an ungenerous account of the rehearsals, saying, “on account of [Beethoven’s] deafness there was scarcely anything of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.” In truth, Spohr hadn’t heard Beethoven play in his prime and had no firsthand experience of this virtuosity. Friend and fellow pianist Ignaz Moscheles was far kinder, explaining that the piece was wonderful and new, and that the playing, although not as clear and precise as it could have been, still contained “traces of the grand style of playing which I had long recognized in his compositions.”

In addition to writing the large-scale works of his middle and late periods, Beethoven attempted to compose one final Piano Concerto, a sixth. We think he began sketches for it in 1814 or 1815. About seventy pages of music exist for the first movement, but the scoring peters out, and Beethoven left this work unfinished. Perhaps it was put on the back-burner as Beethoven knew he could not himself perform it. In 1987, Nicholas Cook reconstructed the work and provided a completion for this movement.

We can look at Beethoven’s deafness and consequent retirement from performance as a tragedy. It is possible, however, that we can think of this circumstance as nudging Beethoven into his maturity as a composer. One wonders what his output would have been like had he been able to play into his fifties. On the occasion of hearing Piano Concerto No. 1, it is an opportunity to look back at Beethoven at the beginning of his career in Vienna: full of hope, full of talent, and showing unlimited potential. No doubt his career didn’t end up as he planned, but his legacy as one of the greatest composers that ever lived was already in place before his death in 1827. That’s no small feat, considering that some of the most important composers in music history died in obscurity. Catch a glimpse of the young Beethoven in Piano Concerto No. 1, and see that limitless potential for yourself.

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chopin and haydn share the stage

LACO’s upcoming concert features a Piano Concerto written at the beginning of Chopin’s career and a symphony composed near the end of Haydn’s career. In some ways, their professional lives were the inverse of each other. Chopin started out writing symphonic works to introduce himself to the musical public, and eventually all but gave up public performance in his later years. On the other hand, Haydn spent 30 years working for a single family and didn’t really have the opportunity to work in the public sphere until he was in his late forties.

read more →Haydn was born in 1732, Chopin in 1810. Haydn’s piece on the program—Symphony No. 102—dates from 1794. Haydn was sixty-two years old when the piece premiered in early 1795. Chopin was just nineteen years old when he composed the Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1829. (This piece was actually his first work in the genre, but the two works were published in reverse order.) Haydn’s symphony is the work of a mature composer writing for a modern, sophisticated audience. Chopin’s Piano Concerto was premiered at a concert at Warsaw’s National Theater in 1830, and the hometown crowd was immediately smitten with the composer’s use of national dance rhythms and folksongs. Let’s take a closer look at the contexts of these two works.

It was at the beginning of January 1779 that Haydn was finally permitted to write music for people other than his patron. After this date, Haydn undertook two journeys to London and composed a dozen symphonies for this audience. These are among his most famous pieces, and many of them have nicknames you might recognize: “Surprise,” “Clock,” and “Military.” Haydn was fortunate enough to live three decades after being freed from his contract, and he made excellent use of that time, composing piano trios, string quartets, and other instrumental works. It is in this wonderful, fruitful time in Haydn’s life that Symphony No. 102 was written. The London audience was enthusiastic about Haydn’s work, and he had a creative resurgence at a time when other composers might have thought about winding down.

In his final years, which were spent in Vienna, Haydn concentrated on vocal music, including six masses and the oratorio, The Creation. One of his late masses is a favorite of mine, the Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of war), which is also known as the “Paukenmesse” or the Kettledrum mass. I sang it with the College Choir when I was an undergraduate at Hunter College, and I think the Agnus Dei from that mass is still one of the prettiest pieces I’ve ever heard. The Creation is a stunning work as well, and must be heard to be believed. Who would have thought Haydn’s career would end so spectacularly? I’m sure he himself was pleasantly surprised by his successful second act.

Chopin was not so lucky to enjoy a long life. He struggled with health issues for years and finally succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis in October of 1849, a few months shy of his fortieth birthday. Both Piano Concertos, however, date from two decades earlier, at a time when Chopin’s professional career was just at its beginning. At nineteen years old, Chopin was finishing up his education at the Warsaw Conservatory, and looking for ways to travel abroad and play his music for new audiences. He was able to take short trips to Berlin and Vienna, and on those journeys, he found that audiences were especially charmed by works with Polish characteristics. When he got back to Warsaw after these trips, he set out to write a piano concerto, likely knowing it was the best way to show off both his compositional skill and his talent as a performer. In both of his piano concertos, Chopin chose to base the final movements on Polish dance forms.

One might be forgiven if one thought that Chopin’s career would consist of more of these types of pieces and their subsequent performances, but that’s not how things went. His unpredictable health and the physical strain of public performance encouraged Chopin to focus on teaching and composing. In fact, his orchestral works after the two piano concertos were few and far between. And you know what? That’s all right by me, because he spent the lion’s share of his career writing the most beautiful, most sublime music for his beloved instrument, the piano. In fact, there isn’t a work in his entire output that doesn’t feature the piano. It was truly and in so many ways, his voice.

I’m very interested to hear Haydn’s 102nd Symphony and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 side by side. It will be an interesting juxtaposition: one work from a composer just starting out, and the other from an established and successful composer in the prime of his creative life. Also, let’s not forget that Haydn’s work comes from 1794, just after the wave of Classicism had crested, and was beginning to move towards the first glimpses of Romanticism. Chopin’s work comes from early in this Romantic period, hinting at the chromatic style, rhythmic freedom, and improvisatory flavor that would color his mature work. It should be an interesting evening with these two men, one who died in 1809 and the other who was born just ten months later, destined never to meet, except on the concert stage.

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the comeback kid

So it’s JS Bach’s birthday again. LACO will be celebrating with the composer’s music, of course. This time it’s the exquisite Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. In addition to being a fine example of the Baroque concerto, the work will also showcase the talents of Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh.

read more →It might seem a little funny to continue celebrating a birthday so long after someone has died (Bach’s final year was 1750), but I think it’s truly worth noting the day when a particular talent entered the world (March 31st). Bach would be 329 years old this year, and it’s an amazing wonder that we celebrate him at all. He died mostly unknown, a dinosaur whose ornate musical style was quickly falling out of favor and giving way to the clarity and symmetry of the Classical period. It is largely through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn—whose overture “The Fair Melusina” also appears on LACO’s next program—and a few others, that Bach’s music became known to a wider public.

In 1829 Mendelssohn gave a concert in which Bach’s masterpiece the St. Matthew Passion was performed. Mendelssohn was just 20 years old at the time, and this concert not only bolstered his own reputation, but brought Bach’s music to a new audience. It’s a wonderful story of a lost masterpiece coming to life, and of a forgotten artist making a posthumous comeback. For most people in the audience, Bach must have seemed like a miraculous talent who came from nowhere. But that isn’t the whole story.

Manuscripts of some of Bach’s works were entrusted to his children after his death. Bach had fathered twenty children in total, ten of whom reached adulthood. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was a successful composer in the first generation of the Classical period. Mozart even called him “The Father of Classicism.” With CPE Bach traveling around, memories and manuscripts of “Old Bach” (as he was known by some) must have traveled with him. Composers in the know circulated JS Bach’s manuscripts among them, valuing those works as pedagogical tools. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a patron and musician, came into possession of some of Bach’s manuscripts, which he brought to Vienna in the 1780s. He would invite musicians to his home and they’d play through Old Bach’s works. Mozart was known to have attended some of these gatherings. In England, composer and publisher Muzio Clementi dedicated himself to practicing Bach’s harpsichord pieces. So Bach was never entirely gone, he was just that amazing composer that only the chosen few had ever heard of. These connoisseurs knew Bach “before he was cool,” as they say.

And although it would be wonderful to give all the credit for the Bach revival to Mendelssohn, he couldn’t have done it alone. Right at the turn of the nineteenth century, German musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote a biography about the then mostly-unknown JS Bach. Forkel dedicated the book to van Swieten. Meanwhile, German composer and conductor Carl Friedrich Zelter was quietly amassing a sizeable collection of Bach’s works. More than a dozen years earlier than Mendelssohn’s triumphant concert, Zelter was thinking about putting Bach’s massive B Minor Mass on a public concert. He decided against it for some reason. Zelter was one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, and it was at his behest that the young composer and prodigy learn the music of Old Bach.

When Mendelssohn undertook the task of reviving the St. Matthew Passion, it was Zelter’s copy he used as reference. Mendelssohn arranged the piece and rehearsed it with quite large forces over two years. The Berlin Singakademie premiere took place on March 11, 1829. Following its grand success, more works of Bach were performed. Publishers began to put out Bach’s works, and his reputation as a genius—and the quintessential composer of late Baroque instrumental works—was set. In 1850, 100 years after Bach’s death, musicologists began collecting works for the Bachgesellschaft, a monumental, multi-volume edition of all of Bach’s surviving works.

The idea of using Bach’s works as pedagogical tools is one that survives until today. Every school year, every semester or quarter, students in music theory classes analyze Bach’s keyboard works to discover their harmonic language. Teachers assign counterpoint lessons based on the rules that are evident in Bach’s compositional style. Now, these lessons are often quite difficult, and prove to be a challenge for even the most enthusiastic students. I often field questions from my own students who ask, “Why do we have to learn this antiquated style?” Or “How does knowing Bach’s music help me write my own music?”

To these students I explain that Bach’s music achieves a very particular kind of perfection. Sure, our modern ears don’t hear music the same way Bach did, and there’s no reason that a young songwriter has to write fugues into his or her tunes. But that isn’t the point of studying Bach, or studying counterpoint, for that matter. The point is to give students a model to work within, to impose strict limits on composition, because, let’s face it, composers are faced with a wealth of choices whose stunning variety might seem paralyzing. Bach not only worked within these limits, but created art in a set of rules that today seem arcane and even mathematical. I think educators are still thinking about how beneficial it was for Mozart and Mendelssohn to learn from Bach. Why should our students get anything less? To be honest, I don’t think we’ve come up with anything better.

I was once one of those students laboring to figure out how to write a fugue that sounded like actual music rather than some school assignment. I didn’t want to be a composer, but I learned from Bach, just as Mendelssohn and Mozart did, just as students have been doing for the last century and a half. Although I’m sure there’s a theory student right now lamenting the rediscovery of Bach, I for one feel grateful for Mendelssohn, Zelter, van Swieten, and of course Bach’s children, for keeping the legacy alive and giving us something amazing to celebrate every March. Happy birthday to the master.

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prometheus unbound

Prometheus is a fascinating mythological figure. His story has been told in numerous versions, with some variations among them, of course. The first known mention of the Titan Prometheus was in an eighth-century B.C. epic poem by Hesiod called, Theogony. The section of the poem dealing with Prometheus lasts only about a hundred lines, but it hits upon a couple of the myth’s main points, namely: 1) Prometheus gives fire to the mortal creatures on earth in defiance of Zeus and the gods; 2) for this transgression, Prometheus is chained to a rock and must daily endure having his liver eaten by an eagle. (This is a daily occurrence because Prometheus is immortal and his liver apparently regenerates every night.) In later versions of the story, it is Prometheus who creates the humans out of clay, with Athena literally breathing life into them. This third aspect of the myth is one that brings new meaning to Prometheus’ theft of fire; if Prometheus brings fire to the humans because he wants to anger Zeus, that’s one thing, but if he gives fire to protect and empower his creations, that’s something else. The gift of fire becomes more poignant in light of Prometheus’ sense of responsibility towards his creations and in terms of his punishment: the hero sacrifices his life and endures torture for the good of his creations.

read more →(In case you’re wondering if that eagle thing happened for eternity, note that in some versions of the story, Heracles—Hercules, as we know him—kills the eagle and rescues Prometheus.)

The story of Prometheus has been explored in art for hundreds of years. The different aspects of his story have appeared in painting, sculpture, music, and literature. Depictions of Prometheus showed up on painted vases after the eighth century B.C. There’s a beautiful eighteenth-century sculpture in the Louvre by Nicolas-Sébastien depicting the eagle attacking the bound Prometheus. Mary Shelley’s story, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, mentions the myth in its title. In this case, Frankenstein refers to the scientist (not the monster) who made a creature and gave it life. Prometheus even makes an appearance in science. There’s an element on the Periodic Table called Promethium, a radioactive lanthanide. Although in the process of its discovery many names were suggested, Promethium was chosen because, as the discoverers explained, it crystallized “both the daring and possible misuse of the human intellect.” Prometheus has made appearances in music as well. Franz Liszt composed an eponymous symphonic poem about the titan in 1850, and more than half a century later, Scriabin composed the orchestral piece Prometheus: Poem of Fire. Stage versions include Fauré’s opera Promethée from 1910. But predating all of these works is an 1801 ballet called Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (_The Creatures of Prometheus_) by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus is one of the little-celebrated works of Beethoven’s early career, although it was popular at the time of its premiere. There’s a practical reason why Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus didn’t enter the repertoire: after the first run of the ballet—about twenty performances—the choreography was lost. The piece was also overshadowed by Beethoven’s next great triumph, theEroica Symphony, which is musically linked to the ballet: the main theme from the final section of the ballet also appears in the final movement of Beethoven’s EroicaSymphony. LACO will be presenting the “Eroica” on February 22nd as part of the “Discover” series.

The aspect of the Prometheus story that Beethoven (and collaborator Salvatore Viganò) seemed most interested in was, according to Beethoven scholar William Kinderman, “the defiant champion of humanity in a manner compatible with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Prometheus ennobled humankind through his gifts of knowledge and art fashioned from fire that he stole from the gods.” Beethoven and Viganò took some liberties with the story, making the creatures a man and a woman instead of just man as the original myth described. Beethoven also omitted the hero’s punishment of being bound to the rock, instead opting for Prometheus to be put to death and then reborn.

That the music of The Creatures of Prometheus forms such an important part of the “Eroica” Symphony is interesting, and it suggests that we might be able to read a bit more into the latter work. Beethoven had originally intended to name the “Eroica” Symphony, Bonaparte, but changed his mind when he learned that Napoleon crowned himself emperor. The narrative progression of the four movements of the symphony may suggest a heroic portrait of Napoleon, charting the hero’s journey from struggle (movement 1), through death (the second movement’s funeral march), and finally rebirth and ascension to the status of legend (represented in the scherzo and finale). As you can see, the theme of death and rebirth—taken up in _The Creatures of Prometheus_—appears in the EroicaSymphony. (And it would be an idea he would revisit in theEgmont Overture in 1809.) The characterization of Beethoven’s version of Prometheus, whom Beethoven represented as a benevolent creator, brings up the ideals of the Enlightenment, and humanity’s gifts of knowledge, creativity, and free will. Perhaps Beethoven once thought Napoleon was an enlightened ruler, worthy of honor, but he certainly changed his mind.

And if we dig a little deeper, and think about Beethoven’s increasing struggle with deafness at the time of the Eroica’s composition, we can see Beethoven as the triumphant hero. We can envision the tumult of the first movement as the composer’s inner turmoil at the loss of his hearing, and the lingering doubts he must have had about his future. If seen in this interpretation, the funeral march might be the descent into despair. Beethoven captured these thoughts in a letter known as the Heiligenstadt Testament that he wrote to his brothers around this time. On the one hand Beethoven talks about his creative ideals, but on the other hand he wonders if he can even continue living with his deafness. But that’s not the end of the story. If I may stretch this interpretation just a little further, the funeral march can be seen as the end of one Beethoven, while the scherzo and finale represent the birth of a new one. This is the beginning of the composer’s “heroic” period, wherein his music gets more complex, and his ideas are more creatively explored and developed. When we remember Beethoven, we think of his incredible struggles and, like Prometheus, his ultimate heroic apotheosis. This symphony stands in for this moment of truth when Beethoven had to decide to continue composing no matter what happened.

Although Beethoven did not literally steal fire from the gods, he demonstrated Promethean ingenuity and innovation, and like the hero of his ballet, gave us mere mortals the gifts of his art, his creativity, and his will.

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