There is a great temptation for us to imagine we know exactly what a composer had in mind when he or she created a piece of music. In looking at the context of composition, it may seem so easy to connect the dots and assume that a musical work has something to do with a particular event that had just happened, or a state of mind, or an emotion. Musicologists are trained to avoid this trap—for the most part, anyway. Sometimes evidence seems compelling, but oftentimes we lack a “smoking gun” that would seal our case. Nevertheless, these are the kinds of things that keep us thinking, debating, questioning. The truth is, we often don’t really know why something gets written. Sure, there are the facts we do know for sure (Mozart wrote his Requiem in response to a commission), and the ones that are very likely (Bach presented the Brandenburg concertos to possibly get a job), but what these men were feeling when they wrote — what they were thinking — is something that remains hidden.
LACO’s latest Discover concert features a work that has been the subject of much speculation. Here’s what we know for sure. Beethoven completed his Piano Concerto No. 4 between 1805 and 1806, and he dedicated it to his friend and patron, Archduke Rudolph. After its premiere, it had few performances until finding a second life when Felix Mendelssohn brought it back in the 1830s. These are the facts backed up by evidence.
One particular part of the concerto, however, the second movement, grabbed the attention — and the imaginations — of composers and critics. The strings in the orchestra begin the movement with a harsh-sounding unison passage. The piano responds with a soft, totally contrasting thematic idea. The orchestra, participating in what we now interpret as some sort of conversation, returns with its harshness intact. The interaction between the soloist and orchestra continues until the responses overlap, and then the orchestra seems to fade in power, while the soloist continues. Then there comes a moment where the soloist begins a lyrical theme, and the orchestra —which at first had seemed at odds with the soloist — begins to accompany the line with pizzicato accents. The soloist plays an almost magical passage with trills, and by the end of the movement, the soloist and orchestra have achieved a sort of peace between them.
The Romantics saw in this few minutes of music not just contrasting themes and phrases, but instead a musical representation of Orpheus calming the Furies on his way to find Eurydice in the Underworld. A similar musical device, albeit with voices, was used by Christoph Willibald Gluck in his 1762 opera, Orfeo ed Euridice. At the beginning of Act Two, Orpheus attempts to enter the Underworld only to be repeatedly denied entrance by a chorus of Furies. The singing of Orpheus weakens their resolve, and their harsh cries of “No!” soften.
There is no evidence to suggest that Beethoven was thinking of this narrative. There is no note in the score to suggest that the orchestra represented the Furies, or that the piano represented Orpheus. Yet it is so easy to hear this narrative in the music, and so easy to see why this idea continues even in the face of no evidence. We may have no “smoking gun,” but it sure is a great story! The Romantic composers who followed Beethoven, particularly Liszt, were fond of the Orpheus theory. After all, some composers in the Romantic period extensively experimented with program music: instrumental music that took narratives, poems, even paintings, as inspiration. If Beethoven had written part of the Orpheus story into one of his concertos, the Romantics could claim to be his musical descendants. And in those days, that was a pretty big deal.
Orpheus was said to be able to charm all living things, and even rocks, with his music. Composers have often been drawn to this legend for obvious reasons, and certainly Beethoven understood this power. It was music that saved him when he despaired, and it’s the power of music that comes through in this Piano Concerto regardless of what Beethoven was really writing about.