MOZART + BEETHOVEN
SATURdAY, NOVEMBER 13 AT 8 P.M., royce hall
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Eroica
When last LACO played at Royce Hall, it was February 2020, and none of us could have predicted that it would be nearly two years until we would return. But return we have, and what better way to celebrate than by honoring LACO’s past and future? Conductor Laureate Jeffrey Kahane will open the concert as soloist, and LACO’s current Music Director, Jaime Martín, will be on the podium.
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482
In the 1780s, Mozart sought to bolster his reputation as a composing pianist in Vienna. The piano concerto was the perfect vehicle to display his talents, and he wrote more than a dozen between 1782 and 1786. The subscription concerts featuring these works provided much-needed income, and they did help build Mozart’s popularity—to a point. By the second half of the decade, the tastes of the Viennese audiences were beginning to change, and Mozart’s concertos no longer drew big enough crowds to warrant the yearly composition of three or more. Mozart’s efforts turned to opera, specifically a collaboration with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. In fact, Mozart composed his Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major in late 1785, around the same time he was working on Le Nozze di Figaro, which would premiere the following year.
The scoring for this concerto is unique in that it marks the first time Mozart used clarinets in the orchestra of a piano concerto. He seems especially concerned with issues of color and timbre, and uses all of the instruments very thoughtfully and to great effect. Mozart composed the piece in the customary three-movement structure, with two livelier movements bookending a slower movement in the middle. The first movement opens with a strong flourish but continues with themes that show off Mozart’s brilliant gift for melody. The interaction between soloist and orchestra is, as in all of Mozart’s works, delicate and never combative. An andante movement, this time a theme and variations, forms the centerpiece of Mozart’s work. The theme in C minor is song-like, almost an instrumental aria, and Mozart’s successive variations draw upon rhythmic and coloristic differences. The transformations were so striking to the listeners at the piece’s premiere that the audience demanded an encore, something exceedingly unusual for a middle movement. The finale is a rondo, a form which allows Mozart—as in the previous movement—to return again and again to a theme. There is so much energy and momentum in this movement that it is truly startling when Mozart interrupts the forward motion for a lovely minuet-like interlude. The main theme returns, and movement works its way to the end, with another final commentary from the soloist before the work wraps up with a bravura finish.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Eroica
Although there are many ways to analyze the development and artistic journey of a composer, historians of Western art music have often found that a three-period model works well to broadly distinguish early, middle, and late phases of artistic expression. Beethoven’s work is commonly described in these terms, although there is surely more subtlety than these broad categories can convey. However, there is no denying that Symphony No. 3 is a dramatic departure from what came before. In terms of the three-period schema, this work marks the beginning of what is known as his middle, or “Heroic” period. Beethoven was dealing with a very personal issue during this time. The reality of his worsening deafness caused something of a crisis. It is in this period of turmoil that the works of the “Heroic” period came to be.
Beethoven composed this piece from 1803 to 1804, and the first time it was played for privately for Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz in the summer of 1804. A public premiere followed a few months later to mixed reactions. One surprising element was its length. The first movement alone, with repeats, is itself as long as a typical contemporary symphony. In addition, Beethoven had the idea to suggest some sort of meaning or “program” in the music. Beethoven planned to dedicate the work to Napoleon, who he felt was a symbol of revolutionary ideals, and the symphony—at first called Bonaparte—was to be a grand gesture for a grand man. But Beethoven’s lofty hero fell to earth when he crowned himself Emperor, and Bonaparte became Eroica.
As forward-looking as the Eroica is, traditional symphonic elements remain. Beethoven kept the traditional four-movement structure but imposed and developed a large amount of musical material within these structures. The Third Symphony begins with two signal chords, ironically a nod to a musical gesture that was common in the very earliest symphonies. From there, Beethoven offers an appropriately heroic theme. The constant dynamic shifts show different moods, 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. There are glimpses of great drama and struggle in this movement. This section in particular has a life separate from the Symphony, as a ceremonial work for occasions of mourning. (It was played at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral.) The third movement shifts the mood entirely with a quickly-moving scherzo that crackles with energy. The play of 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 suggesting hunting calls or military ceremonies.
Betthoven indulged in a little self-borrowing for the last movement. A few years earlier, he composed his only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, based on the myth of the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. The main theme of the ballet’s final movement forms the musical idea on which the last movement of the Eroica is based. The theme begins haltingly, but soon gains momentum and grace. It is subsequently treated to ever-more-complex variations including fugal sections. The coda is suitably grand, with a triumphant ending. We may interpret the reference to the Prometheus myth as an allegory for the artist, and creativity the flame. “Promethean” is an adjective we sometimes ascribe to the larger-than-life myth of Beethoven. The truth is he was just a person, but an extraordinary one, whose personal inspiration and artistic innovations lit the way for those who followed.
—Christine Lee Gengaro, Ph.D.
Dr. Christine Lee Gengaro has been program annotator for LACO since 2007. She is a Professor of Music at Los Angeles City College and the author of two books.