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Beethoven Unleashed
April 25-29, 2018

Bruce Lamott

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven, Mass in C Major, Op. 86

The role of the concerted Catholic Mass in the late eighteenth century, like that of the papacy, was devaluated by the secular rationalism of the Enlightenment. Once a vehicle for the delivery of dogma, the centuries’ old texts of the Ordinary chants of the Mass (Kyrie-Gloria-Credo-Sanctus-Agnus Dei) began to be loosed from their liturgical moorings to become the inspiration for large-scale musical compositions that outgrew the strictures of service music. A comparison of Beethoven’s two contributions to the genre, tonight’s Mass in C Major of 1807 and the monumental Mass in D Major (better known as the Missa solemnis) of 1819-23, underscore this transformation.

Beethoven admitted to stretching the envelope with the C Major Mass: “I do not like to talk about my mass…but I believe that I have treated the text as it has seldom been treated before.” Unfortunately, such novelty was not welcome from the commissioner, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, grandson of Haydn’s longtime patron, who annually commissioned a mass for the name day of his wife, Princess Maria von Liechtenstein. Beethoven’s mass followed in the train of the revered and elderly Joseph Haydn, whose last six masses were written for the same occasion. With expectations of something similar, the musically conservative Prince described Beethoven’s mass as “unbearably ridiculous and detestable.” To be sure, some of the fault lay in the performance: four of the five altos were sight-reading.

The new conception of the Mass text as a symphonic cycle is clearly emerging, and Beethoven takes a fresh look at the text more as a libretto than a rubric. Beginning the Kyrie with unaccompanied bass voices is already a departure from convention, as is ending the Agnus Dei with a reminiscence of the opening phrase of the Kyrie. The solo quartet sing the Qui tollis in the operatic style of bel canto, and the choir sings of “a holy catholic church” (unam sanctam catholicam ecclesiam) in quasi-plainchant. The Sanctus, traditionally an opportunity for musical power and glory, is hushed and funereal. There are moments, such as Qui locutus est, that remind us that the Mass was written while Beethoven was composing another work in C: his Fifth Symphony. While adhering to the tradition of ending the Gloria and Credo with fugues, he gets carried away with disproportionately large ones.

Luigi Cherubini

Cherubini, Chant sur la Mort de Joseph Haydn (Song on the Death of Joseph Haydn)

Beethoven would have considered it an honor to have his work programmed alongside Luigi Cherubini, of whom he said, “Among all living opera composers Cherubini is for me the most deserving of respect.” Regarded in his time in the same rank as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, Cherubini gradually faded into their shadow, perhaps to be revived in our time. Though born and musically trained in Italy, it was in France where his musical career flourished. First acclaimed by the musical circle of Marie Antoinette, he survived the Revolution to become a favorite of Napoleon and Louis XVIII and a founder of the Paris Conservatoire. His operas preceded him to Vienna, where Beethoven was already a big fan when he met Cherubini during his visit to the city in 1805. The admiration was not mutual, however, and after hearing Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, Cherubini likened him to an “unlicked bear cub.”

The previous year, a London magazine published the “fake news” that the eminent Joseph Haydn had died. In reality, Haydn lived another five years until his death on May 31, 1809. However, Cherubini had already circulated printed copies of his elegy on the composer’s premature death.  It must have been the source of some embarrassment when Cherubini presented the living Haydn with a medal and diploma from the Conservatoire. Respectfully, the first performance was not given until the beloved composer’s death was confirmed.

Cherubini’s Chant sur la Mort de Joseph Haydn was commissioned by the French Masonic lodge The Measure of Masonic Society for a text by the Masonic author Louis Guillemain de Saint-Victor. Like Haydn, Cherubini was a Freemason, and the work was dedicated to another fellow Mason, Prince Nikolas Esterházy II, the same who commissioned the Beethoven Mass. The text, which does not mention Haydn by name, is an allegory of the legendary “swan song,” in which the otherwise mute swan was believed to sing only prior to its death. Other than the specific reference to the Danube, the text could serve as an all-purpose elegy for any notable musician.

This work reveals many of the features that made Cherubini’s operas so popular, bringing together the melodious Italian style with the dramatic orchestration and harmonic complexity characteristic of Gluck’s French operas.  The orchestral Introduction is a brooding dialogue of solitary rising figures, introduced by solemn “Masonic” chords in the horns. A muted cello quartet contributes to the elegiac quality, answered by a quartet of muted violins and violas. Shifting harmonies are suspended into one continuous fabric until broken by short, sighing appoggiaturas. There is a cumulative intensity as the melody rises over agitated string tremolos and the funereal roll of muted timpani.

The voices of the solo trio, two tenors and soprano, are identified only as the leaders of the chorus in Greek drama (Coryphée) and “a woman” (une femme). The three solo recitatives demonstrate Cherubini’s dramatic use of orchestral accompaniment to underscore the text and to characterize each soloist, each more passionate than the previous. The gloom disperses with the final trio in a cheerful C major, as the melodious music of the swan—and by analogy, Haydn—rises from earth to delight the children of heaven.

Beethoven, Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra (“Choral Fantasy”), Op. 80

If you can imagine sitting through our program tonight—minus the Cherubini and Kyrie and Agnus Dei of the Mass, but augmented by the premieres of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies as well as his Fourth Piano Concerto and a concert aria—you can begin to appreciate the fatigue of an audience heading towards the fourth hour and faced with yet another premiere, a Fantasy for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra. This monster concert was a benefit (for Beethoven) called an Akademie, performed in the unheated Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808. Beethoven wanted to bring together all of the forces who played the symphonies and concerto and performed the Gloria and Sanctus of the C Major Mass in a grand finale featuring himself as piano soloist.

Witnesses confirm that the hastily composed and under-rehearsed finale was a disaster. Ignaz von Seyfried, Kapellmeister of the theater, writes:

When the master brought out his orchestral Fantasia with choruses, he arranged with me at the somewhat hurried rehearsal, with wet [ink] voice-parts as usual, that the second variation should be played without the repeat. In the evening, however, absorbed in his creation, he forgot all about the instructions which he had given, repeated the first part while the orchestra accompanied the second…. A trifle too late, the Concertmaster, Unrath, noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out drily: ‘Again!’

This work, completely original in concept, has been devalued both by its unfortunate debut and by unfair comparisons with the Ninth Symphony, composed some sixteen years later. Thoroughly rehearsed and passionately performed, however, the Choral Fantasy can evoke much of the spirit of the later work, a sort of Ode to Joy Lite. First, it gives us a rare glimpse of Beethoven freely improvising at the piano; though we have no record of what he might have actually played in the premiere, he wrote down the introductory fantasia some years later.

The opening Adagio tests the limits of the performer and the instrument; the score blackens, first with 32nd notes, then 64th, and even 128th notes! Like the second movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto, which premiered before intermission in the 1808 concert, the Finale begins with a dialogue between ominous martial strings and a conciliatory piano response. Like the Ode to Joy, the heart of the work is a series of variations on a simple stepwise theme. (Why this catchy tune didn’t find its way into hymnals and Suzuki violin methods is beyond me.)

A three-note fanfare precedes the introduction of the theme, played in the simplest Classic style. Beethoven had used the same melody in 1794 for his lied entitled Gegenliebe. Delicate variations follow for flute, two oboes in parallel thirds, a trio of clarinets and bassoon, and string quartet before the full orchestra takes up the theme. The piano leads into new territory: a gruff C minor episode evocative of “Turkism” and an offbeat march in C major. Some of the celestial modulations Beethoven will use in the Ninth Symphony are also tested here.

The chorus enters in the final quarter with an exuberant paean to the harmony of life, the power of music, and the gift of art. (Because their poetic scansions are identical, you may catch your subconscious singing along to Schiller’s Ode to Joy). The poet is uncertain—either Christoph Kuffner (1780-1846) or perhaps Georg Friedrich Treitschke, reviser of the libretto of Fidelio—but Beethoven is likely to have also contributed. Beethoven’s intention to conclude his unfortunate marathon with an audience with a thrilling and accessible finale can now be realized in a well-heated room after a program of reasonable length. Its message is a fitting choice for a composer who once said that “only art and science can raise men to the level of gods.”