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Berlioz, Beethoven, Bruckner

Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9
Hector Berlioz
b. La Côte-Saint-André, France / December 11, 1803
d. Paris, France / March 8, 1869

Berlioz not only wrote Romantic music, he lived the Romantic life, as well, crammed with tempestuous love affairs, lively feuds with musical conservatives, and the creation of music brimming over with imagination and vitality.

As soon as he read the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini—the spirited, unconventional sixteenth-century Italian goldsmith, artist, and adventurer—he sensed such a deep personal affinity with him that he decided to compose an opera based on Cellini’s life. Its debut in Paris in 1838, alas, proved a total fiasco.

Six years later, Berlioz salvaged some of the score by fashioning a concert overture from two of the principal melodies: a love song (memorably transcribed for solo English horn), and an example of the vigorous Italian folk dance, the saltarello. He christened the result Roman Carnival, referring to the festive scene in the opera where the saltarello is performed. The overture won immediate and lasting success, since it is one of the most dazzling showpieces in the entire orchestral repertoire.

 

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

Beethoven arrived in Vienna at the end of 1792. He established his reputation through his piano playing, and by composing solo works for his own performance. He also revised several existing creations, including this concerto. The earliest version may date back as far as 1788. He prepared a new edition in 1793, perhaps with the prospect of a performance, but the opportunity failed to materialize. Things came together two years later, at a charity concert in aid of the Society of Musicians. He played this work, but not before composing a new finale and revising the second movement. The great success he won that day placed him firmly in the spotlight.

Still harboring doubts about the concerto, he drafted a further version of the second movement, only to put it aside. In 1798, he revised the first and third movements, thus creating the final version that was published in 1801. Because it came into print nine months after the Concerto “No. 1” in C Major that he had composed in 1795, it is known as “No. 2.”

It is a very appealing and well-crafted work. It opens with an arresting call to attention, followed by a vigorous first theme and a relaxed second. The slow movement is rather formal but still expressive, with a particularly poetic concluding section. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny likened it to a dramatic vocal scene. The finale is a bright, witty romp, with a cuckoo-like falling interval in the main rondo theme. The intervening episodes include a zesty minor-key excursion into Hungarian/Gypsy territory.

 

Symphony No. 6 in A Major
Anton Bruckner
b. Ansfelden, Austria / September 4, 1824
d. Vienna, Austria / October 11, 1896

There were two sharply contrasted sides to Bruckner: the timid, unsophisticated man from the countryside, and the composer of symphonies and masses of exalting breadth and grandeur. One, uncomplicated fact bridges this vast gap: his deep and abiding faith in God. It kept him naïve and self effacing, at the same time as it helped him create a unique and magnificent set of symphonies. They are mighty cathedrals in sound, praising the Lord with reverence, craft, and joy. Bruckner’s faith also gave him the inner strength to persevere in the face of lengthy, widespread misunderstanding and critical disfavor, through to his eventual acceptance as one of the last great representatives of the Austro German school of symphonic composition.

He drew upon a range of models in his quest to expand the scope and meaning of the symphony. In terms of its previous history, his primary inspirations flowed from the broadly scaled, emotionally rich Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert. The operas of Wagner were another source. Their influence, on a composer who had no interest in writing for the theatre, has been misunderstood or exaggerated. He did not seek to duplicate them in symphonic terms, but rather to incorporate their depth of emotion and sound into a symphonic context.

Bruckner moved to Vienna in 1868. During his early years there, his compositions drew generally positive reviews from the press, whose most powerful figure was the arch conservative critic Eduard Hanslick. But once Bruckner dedicated his Third Symphony to Wagner, Hanslick’s most detested adversary in the “tradition vs. innovation” musical debate which was then in full flower, Hanslick’s wrath descended upon Bruckner harshly and repeatedly.

“Like every one of Bruckner’s works,” Hanslick wrote of Symphony No. 7, “it contains ingenious inspirations, interesting and even pleasant details – but in between the lightnings there are interminable stretches of darkness, leaden boredom, and feverish over-excitement.” These and many other similar attacks might have broken the spirit of an artist with less faith in his God and his own abilities than Bruckner, but his beliefs kept him steadfast. During the final 15 years of his life, numerous performances and honors finally came his way. He died a contented, vindicated man.

He composed Symphony No. 6 between 1879 and 1881. In all the years that remained to him, he never had the opportunity to hear a complete performance. Only the second and third movements were played during his lifetime, on February 11, 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic under Wilhelm Jahn. Johannes Brahms, other musical luminaries, and the orchestra applauded the performance. According to an eyewitness, Hanslick “sat there, frigid and immobile, like a Sphinx.” It was only in 1899, three years after Bruckner’s death, that Gustav Mahler conducted the first complete performance, albeit in his own abbreviated and re-orchestrated edition.

It is one of the most genial of Bruckner’s symphonies. This may reflect to some degree his circumstances at the time: his music was gaining increasing respect; his finances had become secure, thanks to a high-level teaching post and several private pupils; and he had recently received honorary memberships in several prestigious musical associations. The Sixth Symphony’s nature may also help explain its relative neglect. The majority of listeners seem to prefer his more dramatic works. At the same time, its gentler, Schubert like qualities may well help endear him to many who resist the more Wagnerian side of his musical personality.

The first movement opens in an air of mystery but soon breaks forth into animation. As always with Bruckner, the overall impression is one of majesty, drama, and the workings of vast, superhuman forces. The second movement, adagio, is an intense lament, sublimely beautiful and filled with great yearning. “Listen to it with reverence,” the eminent Scottish musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey wrote, “for the composer meant what he said, and he is speaking of sacred things.”

The outer portions of the following scherzo are filled with buoyant energy, as Bruckner embarks on a gallop through a rougher and more physically elevated region of the Austrian countryside than Beethoven visited in his Pastoral Symphony. The relaxing central trio section makes captivating use of pizzicato strings. The finale contrasts march like energy with sweet, consoling lyricism. Bruckner crowns the symphony with a grand restatement of the theme which began the entire work.

© 2014 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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