Beethoven and Brahms

Saturday, January 27, 2018 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

Michael Sheppard Shodekeh

Pieces

Ludwig van Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 3
Program Notes

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

PIANO CONCERTO No.3 in C MINOR, Op. 37

COMPOSED: 1800
PREMIERED: Vienna, Austria, 1804

  • I - Allegro con brio
  • II - Largo
  • III - Rondo - Allegro

The scene at the first performance of this concerto is highly reminiscent of another premiere – that of Rhapsody in Blue in 1927. Beethoven was the soloist. His friend Ignaz von Seyfried turned the pages – only there was nothing to turn, as most of the pages were blank. Like Gershwin a hundred years later, Beethoven saw no huge virtue in writing down all of the piano part; weirdly, Beethoven would give the page-turner the occasional nod to turn the blank page, revealing the next expanse of nothing. Gershwin would need to cue the terrified Paul Whiteman in the same way. Beethoven’s orchestra had just played all of Haydn’s Creation, and played, as the composer recalled, “like donkeys”. It would be another year before he bothered to write in a piano part. Interestingly, this is stranger to us than it was to the original audience. There will have been people old enough to remember “concerti” that consisted simply of moving the continuo harpsichord to the front of the orchestra; the player would simply improvise, as usual. The soloist-as-hero is a modern, post-Romantic idea.

There is a story that tells of Beethoven walking through Vienna with his friend Johann Cramer in about 1797. They were startled to hear someone in a nearby house practicing the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24; Beethoven erupted “We shall never be able to do anything like that!” Leaving the “royal we” aside for a moment, it has to be said that Beethoven certainly tried to do something like it. The ghost of Mozart’s work hovers unmistakably around Beethoven’s third concerto. The first musical idea we hear is very, very nearly Mozart’s.

By the time the piano enters the opening movement, the first theme has already been quite seriously developed, and the violins have introduced the lyrical, E-flat major second subject. The movement proceeds very much along the standard sonata rails, albeit in the Haydn-on-steroids mode that distinguishes Beethoven’s music of this period.

The slow movement is in the alarming key of E major, which provoked much discussion in 1804, and quite a lot to this day. A daring leap into the dominant of the dominant of the dominant of the dominant? Or an already completed piece called into service in the face of a looming deadline? Whichever, it was convincing enough for Brahms to do the same thing in his first symphony. The presence of instructions for using the sustain pedal (then a new-fangled addition to the instrument) points to this being an extended piano piece, as (for arcane acoustic reasons) does the key.

The slow movement’s veer into tonal outer space recurs in the closing Rondo, in the middle of a sustained canter through Mozart’s idea of sonata-rondo. The work ends, like most of Beethoven’s C minor music, in a rush of C major – the Baroque “Picardy third” run riot.

Johannes Brahms - Symphony No. 2
Program Notes

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)

SYMPHONY No.2 in D, Op. 73

COMPOSED: 1877
PREMIERED: Vienna, Austria, 1877

  • I Allegro non troppo
  • II Adagio non troppo
  • III Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
  • IV Allegro con spirito

Following the extremely successful premiere of his Second Symphony, Brahms did two things that changed his historical image irrevocably: he finally gave up wanting to be a conductor, and he grew a beard. His running rivalry with Richard Wagner finally hit the buffers of absurdity when Brahms’s new Symphony had to be delayed because the orchestra needed extra time to rehearse Wagner’s Das Rheingold; Brahms was now the unwitting symbol of a conservatism he never actually espoused. Sleek, modern-looking Wagner would forever peer across the ring at Bach-meets-Santa-Claus Brahms for most of the next hundred years, with theorists like Nietzsche and Hanslick wielding the towels (in Nietzsche’s case, for both sides).

This supremely genial symphony is no-one’s idea of an act of war. The first movement is in a clear, calm sonata form with both themes in the “correct” keys after a short but well-intentioned veer into the startling F# major for a few measures before the second theme appears. As if to underscore the music’s good intentions, the famous Wiegenlied (Cradle Song) appears halfway through, and quietly influences the rest of the movement.

The slow movement, in a theoretically-mysterious B major (a genial three dominants away, compared with Beethoven’s heroic four), combines variation technique with sonata form, with both themes elaborating slowly through the movement. Those (there are many) who accuse Brahms of poor orchestration should look closely at the third movement, which achieves most of its (vital) contrast with the rest of the work by thinning out the instrumental texture, not to mention the changes of time signature that point to an entirely different world – the folk music of Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, which held a special (personal?) fascination for Brahms.

After two movements in sonata form, it’s surprising to find that the finale is a third example, but by now we’re starting to get the message. The tranquillo section that leads to the huge Recapitulation is carefully knitted from earlier material, at a place where Beethoven would have simply stomped down a staircase of diminished chords over a growling pedal point. For Beethoven, sonata form was mainly a system of contrasting structural blocks; for Brahms, it was a process, as ideas morphed and twisted into each other – a procedure that led Schoenberg to pronounce Brahms the greatest composer of his century. Ironically, the other composer who maintained that composition was “the art of transition” was … Wagner.

Ruby Fulton - Deadlock
Program Notes

RUBY FULTON (born 1981)

DEADLOCK

Composed: 2012
Premiered: Boulder, CO, 2012

Ruby Fulton is a Baltimore-based composer who has combined elements of popular music with “composed” music to evoke areas of experience less explored by “classical” music: Buddhism, drug addiction, mental illness – and chess, which plays a vital role in Deadlock. Deadlock is essentially a “concerto” for beatboxer – an artist who creates percussive sounds with the amplified human voice, usually in the context of hip-hop. Written for the Baltimore beatboxer Shodekeh, Deadlock is literally a chess game between the beatboxer and the orchestra; as the piece is based on real chess moves, it is actually possible to observe a real game in progress – and who wins. Astonishingly, the beatboxer’s part is fully notated; virtuosity is by no means entirely confined to the concert hall.

About the Concert

If ever there was a perfect partner to Beethoven’s moody and dramatic C Minor Piano Concerto, it’s Brahms’ sunny D Major Symphony! And we have selected a very special new work to round out a program of two historic masterpieces: Ruby Fulton’s Deadlock is a virtual chess match in music! Two amazing guest artists join us for this special event. Known for his dazzling virtuosity and penetrating musicianship, Michael Sheppard returns to our stage. And Shodekeh, the virtuoso beatboxer for whom Fulton’s work was written is creating a new version for our concert.