beethoven “eroica”

A composer’s inspiration can truly come from anywhere, and the first and last pieces on tonight’s program are proof of this. Contemporary composer Albert Schnelzer found the inspiration for his work A Freak in Burbank in both the past (in composer Joseph Haydn) and the present (in filmmaker Tim Burton). Beethoven found the inspiration for his Third Symphony in a political leader whom he admired for (purportedly) championing the disenfranchised: Napoleon Bonaparte. The inspiration for Jean Sibelius’ Six Humoresques, which fall in between these two bombastic bookends, is not quite as interesting. However, the work reveals the composer’s profound love of the violin, the crux of Sibelius’ musical experience.

When the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra commissioned Albert Schnelzer to write A Freak in Burbank in 2008, the Swedish composer had the films of Tim Burton and the music of Joseph Haydn on the brain. He admired the playful and humorous elements of Haydn’s music, qualities that seemed to Schnelzer infused in Burton’s work as well. Films like Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and the Batman series (1989–97) evidence Burton’s humorous yet macabre style. These qualities appeared during Burton’s childhood; when he wasn’t watching horror films in the theaters of Burbank, he was spreading rumors of an alien invasion to the kid next door.

Schnelzer’s orchestra is “Haydn-sized,” in the words of the composer, with little more than woodwinds, horns, trumpets and strings. Timpani, wind chimes, and bass drum round out the percussion section. He endeavored to imitate Haydn’s festive transparency, but in a modern context. As Schnelzer himself asks in the score, “Will the spirit of Haydn survive in an American suburb?”

A Freak in Burbank begins mysteriously. A dissonant sting pierces the silence, and tremors in the woodwinds and strings follow shortly. The music is a bit unsettling and makes one feel as though he or she is in a horror film, being chased by some unseen, sinister enemy. Sustained notes in the high strings give way to lower instruments, which rise up out of the sound to play hauntingly beautiful solo lines. There are some passages one might almost consider cheerful, but the orchestra provides sporadic, dissonant punctuations to keep the listener on edge. As the piece nears its end we are thrust violently back into the chase, fleeing for our lives. Tension continues to build until a startlingly abrupt ending. Did something catch us? Or did we just wake up from a dream?

Jean Sibelius began violin lessons at the age of ten, and he wanted nothing more than to become a virtuosic soloist. Despite being denied this dream, he wrote a few yearning love letters to the instrument, including his Violin Concerto and Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra. The latter are categorized in two opus numbers, the first two in Op. 87 and the final four in Op. 89, despite Sibelius’ intention to present them as a single suite. The years leading up to the completion of the work were a tumultuous time for Sibelius. He was dealing not only with domestic troubles fueled by his alcoholism, but also the tragedy of World War I and its devastating political effects on Finland. These problems were just the beginning. Before long Sibelius would give up composing altogether. Although he would live to be 92, Sibelius wrote very little in the last three decades of his life. Despite this, he completed the work in 1917 and it premiered two years later, performed by soloist Paul Cherkassky and the Helsinki City Orchestra under the baton of Sibelius himself. On the same program that evening was the premiere of Sibelius’ revised Symphony No. 5.

The entire set of Six Humoresques is brief, about 20 minutes in total, but Sibelius packed them with a multitude of musical ideas, intending to compile them into a collection of dances. Indeed, the mazurka (a lively Polish dance) strongly influences the first Humoresque, while the third draws upon the Baroque gavotte. Sibelius gave the violinist rapid, virtuosic lines evoking the passagework of Paganini. The second and fifth Humoresques contain similarly spectacular passages. The Humoresques are not solely about fireworks, however. The fourth movement especially contains beautiful moments of repose and thoughtfulness. The final Humoresque flirts briefly with the virtuosity of the earlier movements but settles on a lighter, more jovial tone. The set ends not with a bang, but with a wink, perhaps entreating us to not take the whole endeavor too seriously.

At first, Beethoven dedicated Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon Bonaparte out of respect. He felt the man represented the ideals of the revolutionaries in France. The symphony was to be a grand gesture for a grand man, but when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French Beethoven was sorely disappointed, and in protest he renamed the work “Eroica” rather than “Bonaparte.”

The symphony marks the beginning of Beethoven’s middle, or “Heroic,” period. During this time he began to leave behind the Classically influenced simplicity of his early style in favor of large scale, structurally complex, meaningfully deep compositions. Musically speaking, Symphony No. 3 is a tour de force. The first movement alone, with the exposition repeat, is as long as the typical symphony of the day. Several programmatic aspects of the Symphony suggest an intended narrative, notably the funeral march in the second movement and the reference to a ballet in the last. There is certainly no dearth of emotional content in this Symphony, and when one considers his concurrent attempts to come to grips with his encroaching hearing loss, the work’s violently dramatic outbursts make a lot more sense.

It begins with two signal chords, a musical gesture that was common in the very earliest symphonies. From there, Beethoven offers an appropriately heroic theme. He showcases different moods through frequent dynamic shifts, sometimes bigger than life, sometimes dark and pensive. There is enough emotion and struggle in the first movement to tell an entire story in and of itself, but it is only the beginning.

The second movement is a funeral march, a solemn dirge that every so often gives way to sweeter, even optimistic musical interludes. One such interlude culminates near the center of the movement in a triumphant moment, until the original dirge reasserts itself. This movement in particular has a life separate from the Symphony as a ceremonial work for occasions of mourning (it was played at FDR’s funeral, for example). The third movement is a quickly-moving scherzo that crackles with energy. The rhythm in this section is especially inventive. Three French horns playing in counterpoint are featured in the Trio section of the scherzo. Their warm timbre might bring to mind hunting calls or military ceremonies.

Beethoven based the final movement on one of the main themes of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. The ballet details the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to his fellow humans, an act for which he was severely punished. The theme begins haltingly, but soon gains momentum. We are subsequently treated to ever-more-complex variations, including fugal sections. The coda is suitably grand, with a triumphantly bombastic ending. The reference to the Prometheus myth might suggest an allegory for the artist’s creativity, with Beethoven as Prometheus and his music as the life-giving fire. Indeed, in the 200 or so years since his death, Beethoven’s stature as an artist has grown to near demi-god status. Nothing could put out his flame, not deafness, chronic illness, despair, or loneliness. His Third Symphony is when that first spark catches fire, and it is truly brilliant to behold.

 

– Christine Lee Gengaro PhD © LACO