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8.553262 - BEETHOVEN / BRAHMS: Favourite Overtures
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)Overtures
Fidelio, Opus 72
Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43
Coriolanus, Opus 62
Ruins of Athens, Opus 113
Egmont, Opus 84
Leonora No.3, Opus 72a
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
It was the theatre, as much as anything else, that held the cultural interests of the Viennese in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There was a demand for opera of all kinds, in which the principal composers were involved. Mozart's dissatisfaction with his native Salzburg resulted in part from a lack of opera there and a consequent lack of opportunity, a matter remedied when he moved to Vienna in 1781 to join composers of the stature of Salieri.
Beethoven settled in Vienna in 1792, making a name for himself as a pianist and as a composer of marked originality. He lacked the education of Mozart and of Gluck and was without their literacy, but read widely, if without discrimination, and shared something of the general interest in drama increasingly dominated by France.
As it turned out, Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, its final title the name assumed by the heroine Leonora, who disguises herself as a boy in order to rescue her husband Florestan from the dungeon into which his political enemies have cast him. The libretto was drawn from a French original, an example of the rescue opera that had become topical and popular in Paris in the aftermath of the Revolution, and in choosing such a subject Beethoven seems to attempt to emulate Cherubini, a composer who dominated Paris and had won great popularity in Vienna.
Fidelio, a Singspiel, a German opera, with some spoken dialogue, is not necessarily convincing on the stage, in spite of the greatness of conception of the music. It was first performed at the Theater-an-der-Wien in November, 1805, preceded by an alternative overture, Leonora No.2, which replaced Beethoven's first thoughts, embodied in Leonora No.1 and rejected after a private run-through.
The occasion of the first performance was unfortunate. The armies of Napoleon had occupied Vienna, and there were many French officers in the audience, while the second and third performances attracted very little attention. The piece was withdrawn and underwent considerable revision, to be staged again the following year, with the overture now known as Leonora No.3, which itself pre-empts the climax of the opera and is, in any case, rather too long for its purpose. Neither Cherubini nor Salieri, arbiters of operatic taste, approved of the work.
There was to be yet further revision for a revival in 1814, with an intended new overture. In the event this was not finished in time, thanks to the procrastination of the composer, who worked through the night before the opening to finish it, but failed to have it ready in time for rehearsal and performance. On the first night of the revival another overture was played, either Prometheus or The Ruins of Athens, to Beethoven's embarrassment. The new overture, however, was eventual1y finished for the numerous later performances of the opera that year. It bears the name of the opera itself, Fidelio.
If opera was important in Vienna, its popularity had long been shared by ballet. The eighteenth century had brought to the city the most distinguished choreographers and dancers, Noverre, Hilverding, Angiolini and others, and had employed composers of the stature of Gluck. Beethoven's first stage music in Vienna had been for Vigano's The Creatures of Prometheus, staged at the Burgtheater in March, 1801, its overture an effective example of the eighteenth century dramatic form.
In 1807 Beethoven wrote an overture to the play Coriolan, the work of the dramatist Heinrich von Collin, brother of the philosopher employed as tutor to Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt. Collin's verse plays on historical subjects enjoyed considerable popularity in Vienna, where their topical patriotism found a ready response. In Coriolan he treated the story of the Roman general Coriolanus, victorious in war, but contemptuous of the common people. Failing to win election to the consulship, he is dissuaded from attacking and destroying his own country by the pleading of his wife and his mother. The treatment of the same subject by Shakespeare is, of course, much better known than Heinrich von Collin's play, a work that achieved only ephemeral success.
The first performances of Coriolan in Vienna had been given in 1801, with music arranged by the Abbe Stadler from Mozart's Idomeneo. Beethoven's overture does not seem to have been used for the only recorded performance of the play in Vienna in 1807, but was certainly played in that year. Its first theme suggests Coriolanus himself, its second the pleading of his wife.
For Goethe's play Egmont Beethoven wrote an overture and incidental music, intended for performances in Vienna in May, 1810. The music was not ready for the opening, but was used the following month. Once again the subject of the play, the heroic rebellion of Count Egmont against Spanish domination in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, has a certain topical, political attraction, although Goethe's work had been written thirty years before. Egmont trust blindly in his own judgement, urged on by a passion that transcends reason in his conf1ict with a state that he has hitherto served loyally. His love for the bourgeoise Klärchen, who poisons herself when she cannot persuade the people to rise in Egmont's defence, is associated with notions of political freedom. The overture to Egmont is programmatic, and some have suggested a reference to the Duke of Alva, the Spanish Governor of the province, in the opening sarabande rhythm and allusion to the rebel cause in the first subject of the following Allegro. The closing section brings the death of Egmont and his consequent moral victory.
The overture and incidental music to August von Kotzebue's play The Ruins of Athens was written in 1811 for the opening of a new theatre in Pesth. The occasion was a patriotic one and Kotzebue's piece d'occasion showed the goddess Minerva regretting the ruins of Athens, from which art had departed, but cheered at seeing its revival in Pesth under the enlightened rule of the Habsburg emperor.
In 1853 Robert Schumann detected in the young Brahms "a man singled out to make articulate an ideal way of the highest expression of our time". Here indeed was the long awaited successor to Beethoven, and Schumann was prepared, like some St John the Baptist, to declare the fact. The "veiled symphonies in sound" that Schumann had heard were not transformed into real symphonies until relatively late in Brahms's life. Much, after all, had been expected of him, and this may explain in some measure his relative diffidence, his distrust of his own abilities.
Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. His father was a musician; a double bass player, and his mother a seamstress some seventeen years older than her husband. The family was poor, and as a boy Brahms earned money by playing the piano in dockside taverns for the entertainment of sailors. Nevertheless his talent brought him support, and teaching from Eduard Marxsen, to whom he later dedicated his B Flat Piano Concerto, although claiming to have learned nothing from him.
After a period earning a living in Hamburg as a teacher and as a dance saloon pianist, Brahms first emerged as a pianist and as a composer in 1853, when he went on a brief tour with the refugee Hungarian violinist Ede Remenyi, later to be appointed solo violinist to Queen Victoria. In Hanover he met the already famous young virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim and with the latter's introduction visited Liszt in Weimar; The later visit to Schumann in Düsseldorf, again brought about through Joachim, had more far-reaching results. Schumann was soon to suffer a mental break-down, leading to his death in 1856 in an asylum. Brahms became a firm friend of Clara Schumann and remained so until her death in 1896.
The greater part of Brahms's career was to be spent in Vienna, where, he finally settled in 1863, after earlier seasonal employment at the small court of Detmold and intermittent periods spent in Hamburg. In Vienna he established a pattern of life that was to continue until his death in 1897. He appeared as a pianist, principally in his own compositions, played with more insight than accuracy, and impressed the public with a series of compositions of strength, originality and technical perfection. Here was a demonstration that, contrary to the view of Wagner or Liszt, there was still much to be said in the traditional forms of music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was not the last word. Critics, indeed, hailed Brahms's First Symphony in 1876 as Beethoven's Tenth. Brahms came to occupy a unique position in Vienna, his eccentricities and gruff tactlessness tolerated as Beethoven's had been, his musical achievement unquestioned, except by the fanatical Supporters of Wagner.
In 1877 Brahms had refused the honorary doctorate offered him by the University of Cambridge, since he had no wish to travel to England to receive it. Two years later, on 11th March, 1879, the University of Breslau offered him the same honour, a proposal he acknowledged with a post-card, until it was pointed out by the Music Director of the University that some musical token of gratitude was required of him. In response to the citation that had declared him the chief composer of serious music in Germany, Brahms wrote what he was to describe as a cheerful medley of student songs in the manner of Suppé, an unflattering summary of a work that has much more to be said for it, the Academic Festival Overture.
For his new Overture Brahms made use of four well known songs, Wir hatten gebauet, Der Landesvater, Was kommt dort von der Hoeh', and Gaudeamus igitur. The first performance at Breslau University in 1881, with the composer conducting, was received with great enthusiasm by the students, for whose enjoyment it seems to have been intended. The title seemed to Brahms too heavy, and he himself was to refer to the piece as his Janissary Overture, alluding to the use of triangle, cymbals and bass drum, a traditional feature of supposedly Turkish music. In spite of his reservations, it was to remain with its first title, but in mood more Festive than Academic.
The Tragic Overture seems to have been intended as a companion piece to the Academic Festival Overture. It was written in 1880, its sombre colours belied by the apparent contentment of the composer, who had composed the work during his idyllic summer holiday at Bad IschI. Material for the Overture was not new, dating from some ten years earlier, the period of the Liebeslieder Waltzes and the Alto Rhapsody, sketches for which survive in the same notebook. Its immediate purpose, in 1880, was probably to serve as a prelude to a new production of Goethe's Faust at the Burgtheater in Vienna.
Brahms wrote much of his music during summer holidays spent outside Vienna. In 1884 and 1.885 he spent the summer months at Mürzzuschlag, a pleasant little town within easy reach of the capital. Here he was visited by many friends and enjoyed the society of the industrialist Richard Fellinger and his wife. The latter mothered the bachelor composer, knitting his stockings and making sure that he had his favourite dishes when he visited her house, while Fellinger himself had electric light installed in the rooms that Brahms had rented.
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels
In 1978 the Radio Symphony Orchestra was dissolved and both the Flemish and the French Radio divisions set up their own symphony orchestras. The Flemish network soon had a new orchestra, the BRT Philharmonic, with some ninety musicians and Fernand Terby became its principal conductor from 1978 to 1988. Since 1988, Alexander Rahbari has been the principal conductor and musical director of the new BRT Philharmonic Orchestra.
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