Bernstein and Beethoven
Saturday, October 6, 2012 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
SYMPHONY No. 8 in F, Op. 93
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1814
- Allegro vivace e con brio
- Allegretto scherzando
- Tempo di Menuetto
- Allegro vivace
Beethoven always referred to this, perhaps his least imposing symphony, as “my little symphony in F,” to distinguish it from the much longer Pastoral Symphony, which is also in F. The work is possibly the strongest argument against looking for evidence of a composer’s life in his music, as this merry work (not an expression often linked to Beethoven) was written in the midst of emotional chaos and turmoil.
Even by Beethoven’s daunting standards of (usually self-created) misery, 1812 was a bad year. His hero, Napoleon, finally hit the historical buffers in Russia; for a dyed-in-the-wool Jacobin like Beethoven, this was very bad news indeed. From this time on, his strident Republicanism became notably more muted, a good idea in the all-embracing police state that was Hapsburg Vienna. However, this was the least of the composer’s problems. The summer of 1812 saw him in Bohemia, scribbling the famous tear-stained “eternal beloved” letter, swearing perpetual love and adoration to an unnamed lady — and spawning an entire academic industry. Many PhDs, many commercial authors and several movie directors owe their livings to attempts to identify the object of Beethoven’s desire. The most likely candidate, Antonie Brentano, rewarded Beethoven’s ardour with a course of action familiar to songsters from Schubert to Elvis: she dumped him and married his best friend.
Beethoven fled from his sorrows to the home of his brother Johann in Linz, where he promptly set about giving his brother very unwelcome (not to say ironic) advice about his choice of wife, resulting in the composer being literally pitched into the street, clutching the manuscript of the Eighth Symphony. It was while straining to hear Johann’s strident views on his behavior that Beethoven became aware that he had finally become totally deaf.
And what evidence is there in the symphony of all this? None whatever. It is easily his cheeriest, most life-affirming symphony; it even lacks a proper slow movement. The extent to which Beethoven could insulate himself from his own emotional realities may be best shown by the fact that, at the time he was writing his symphony, he also composed Wellington’s Victory, an ethically ruthless (and musically appalling) celebration of Napoleon’s defeat that ironically became his most famous work in his lifetime (and most derided in ours). The two works were premiered at the same concert. The symphony was received politely; Wellington’s Victory had to be played three times.
When Carl Czerny (student pianists may care to pause to spit) asked Beethoven why the Eighth Symphony was so much less popular than the Seventh, he replied “because it’s better”. Whether this was the insight of genius or the father protecting his despised child is still a matter for heated debate.
The first movement is in Haydnesque sonata form. Very Haydnesque indeed, in fact, as the two subjects are related (sometimes, in Haydn, they are identical); there is also the very Haydn-like oddity that the first and last measures are exactly the same, which is not so much a neo-medieval my-end-is-my-beginning trick as an arcane compositional joke. Needless to say, Beethoven never acknowledged his debt to his teacher here or anywhere else, claiming never to have learned anything from the genial Sage of Esterháza.
There is another nod to Haydn in the second movement of the symphony, which strongly resembles Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony in its gentle ticking. Some have seen this as a tribute to Beethoven’s friend Johann Mälzel, who had just patented the metronome. The sudden burst of 64th notes in the second subject has even been interpreted as representing the spring breaking on the metronome - one of the problems with early models. But note that the movement is not actually slow.
The so-called Minuet of the third movement is actually anything but, with displaced accents that would scythe down anyone foolish enough to try to dance to it and a solo clarinet part in the Trio that was only just playable at the time. The instrument capable of playing the highest note of the solo came onto the market literally weeks before the premiere.
After all this mirth, Beethoven rebalances the symphony with a substantial, highly-organized sonata-rondo finale that goes to some very strange places indeed. A movement in F major in 1812 has no business visiting F# minor, and is even less likely to escape back to the home key by falling a semitone into F like a man tripping over a curb. It is startling tricks like this that made this symphony Stravinsky’s favourite among Beethoven’s works. There is also a good case for letting it become ours.
LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
SYMPHONY No. 1, JEREMIAH
Premiered: Pittsburg, PA, 1944
The rehearsals for the premiere of Bernstein’s Jeremiah symphony, in Pittsburgh’s oddly-named and entirely un-Islamic Syria Mosque, were frequently interrupted by men streaming cables across the stage and flashes of bright lights. The hall had been double-booked, and engineers from what would become WDTV were carrying out early experiments with TV lighting. The work stands not only at the start of Bernstein’s career as a composer, but at the threshold of modern America.
Only two months earlier, Bruno Walter had taken sick just before a Sunday afternoon concert by the New York Philharmonic, and the 25-year-old Bernstein took over at literally hours’ notice — and catapulted himself into instant fame. In February 1944, Leonard Bernstein was what was happening; anything he did triggered instant media attention. He could not go wrong. And he did not go wrong with this Symphony, which also effectively launched the career of the mezzo soloist, Jenny Tourel, who remained in an extremely complicated on-off relationship with Bernstein for the rest of her life. Some of those complications may well lurk beneath the surface of this symphony.
Though Bernstein was never a religious man in any conventional sense, the Jeremiah symphony draws heavily on Jewish liturgical music. The first movement is based largely on the Amidah for festival mornings — in effect a summoning to prayer — followed by the K'rovoh, the cantor’s response to the celebrant’s “Eighteen Blessings”. This material will return in both of the other two movements.
The second movement again draws on cantorial music — this time, the cantillation of the Prophets, which is assaulted by the “profanation” of jazz in what appears to be the composer presenting his own nature — both at one with and fiercely at odds with his religious background. The idea of religious music being mocked and attacked in this way would return, far more explicitly, in the very controversial Mass that opened the Kennedy Center in 1971.
The mezzo-soprano soloist joins the orchestra for the final Lamentation, based on the cantillation — specifically the Ashkenazi cantillation, with which Bernstein was familiar from childhood — of the Jeremiad. The composer never explained the exact meaning of the music — who, exactly, has sinned here, as he understands it? Jerusalem is clearly a metaphor for the world at large, not merely the Jewish world — but also for the composer himself and (a far more complex matter) the city of New York, which had brought little Louis Bernstein (his real name) from a bookstore in Lawrence Massachusetts to world fame. His next symphony would be based on a poem by W. H. Auden, whom he met in a house in Brooklyn that became a byword for cultural collision. Living together were Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden, Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers — and Gypsy Rose Lee.
This music — often angry, even despairing, reaching desperately for reconciliation, but unsure what to reconcile with — is the perfect evocation of a time, a world, a city and an individual at a time of ultimate, desperate crisis. We should look at the calendar, and listen.
ENRICO CHAPELA (born 1974)
Premiered: Mexico City, 2003
It is very difficult to explain (and impossible to exaggerate) to an American audience the cultural and even religious significance of soccer in Europe and Latin America. The writer of these notes comes from Scotland, where football (as it is known outside the US) is quite simply the Church of National Identity. When Jock Stein, the national team’s manager, was asked if it was true that soccer was a matter of life and death, he replied, deadly serious, “It’s far more important than that.” The soccer stadium is a cathedral of the national soul, and the teams are its priests.
Enrico Chapela is a proud, patriotic Mexican, and it was entirely appropriate that when he was asked to write a piece of nationalistic music as a homage to Mexico’s national composer, Carlos Chavez, he should think of writing a tone poem evoking Mexico’s defeat of Brazil at the FIFA Confederation Cup Final in Mexico City in 1999. Defeating Brazil at soccer is like defeating Russia at chess or Canada at hockey — only massively less likely. It was a cause not merely for celebration, but for near-disbelief, and a detonation of national pride on the we-won-the-war level.
The piece has very specific soccer connotations for all of its aspects. Over to our sports correspondent, Enrico Chapela:
I assigned the woodwinds as the Mexican players, the brass as the Brazilians, the percussion as the bench, the strings as the audience, the harp and piano as the coaches, and the conductor as the referee. Afterwards I drew a chart containing the most relevant moments of the game, such as the scoring of the goals, the replacement of players, the drawing of yellow cards, and of course the fouled-out Brazilian defender played by the bass trombone, whom the conductor is supposed to warn with the yellow card before throwing him off stage with the red card, near the end of the match.
In the tone poem, the bass trombonist merely leaves the stage. At the game, the Brazilian full-back had to be escorted to the airport for his own safety, in genuine danger of losing his life to enraged Mexican supporters.
The music is a riotous mixture of Mexican and Brazilian folk elements, strewn with fragments of the soccer chants — by turns loud, taunting, encouraging and staggeringly obscene — familiar to anyone who has attended a game anywhere in the world were Football — (or Futbol, or Fussball, never “soccer”) — is king.
And, while we’re cheering Mexico to victory, we might even notice the 12-note series that holds the rest of the music together. As explained earlier, this is as serious business. Those who would like a translation of the title should ask a citizen of Mexico City and stand well back. Very well back.
And the score is 4-3 to Mexico!
About the Concert
Two of music’s most towering giants kick off our 35th season. Beethoven’s Eighth is filled with joy and wit, while Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” - featuring Cantor Tracey Scher - mines the territory of faith and the human condition. First, Mexican composer Enrico Chapela starts the concert off with a nationalistic thrill-ride: a musical depiction of Mexico’s victory over Brazil to win soccer’s 1999 FIFA Confederation Cup.