Beethoven and Mendelssohn
Hymns of Praise
Beethoven, Leonore Overture No. 3
The best-known of four overtures Beethoven wrote to precede his opera Leonore, or the Triumph of Married Love, later renamed Fidelio to avoid confusion with other operas of a similar name, Leonore Overture No. 3 is somewhat of a musical synopsis of the opera plot. Written at the height of the Napoleonic occupation of Vienna, it begins in the depths of a prison cell where a political prisoner, Florestan, is held. Florestan’s wife, Leonore, insinuates herself onto the prison staff disguised as a man (Fidelio), intent on rescuing her husband from the cruel jailer Pizarro. A trumpet call heralding the arrival of a government inspector thwarts Pizarro’s intention to put Florestan to death, and instead he and his fellow prisoners are released in a blaze of humanitarian glory.
Played as an overture, it is a spoiler alert; played between scenes of the final act—a tradition begun in the nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth—it is a redundant recap of the dramatic action just completed. But standing alone, it encapsulates the progression from the depths of despair through the redemption of (married) love to the exultant triumph of good over evil.
Beyond the unfolding of this familiar scenario, however, this performance raises a more specific consideration: what do period instruments bring to listeners familiar with such a well-known symphonic warhorse? The unisons of the opening phrase, played without the haze of vibrato leads transparently into the depths of the prison. The choir of clarinets and bassoons harmonize with a tone color more individuated than their more homogenized modern equivalents. The delicacy of the solo flute in dialogue with staccato violins begins to dispel the darkness, and the brass and timpani enter with unapologetic brashness. In a word, it’s the auditory difference between gazpacho and V-8.
Beethoven’s rhythmic drive intensifies from half-notes in the opening measures to 64th notes (or, in our maestro’s native tongue, hemidemisemiquavers) an acceleration of 500% in 27 measures. The ensuing Allegro is propelled by the quickening pulse in the bass and a recurring four-note pattern of syncopations that climaxes with another full-blown tutti. The interplay of woodwind colors over the lyrical second theme is accompanied by energizing triplets that coalesce into series of syncopated cross-the-bar accents.
The offstage trumpet breaks in on an exuberant and optimistic orchestral passage, not as a Deus ex machina. The awed pianissimo passage which follows allows Beethoven to break the momentum, until the solo flute leads the charge once more into the recapitulation. The concluding coda is an invigorating Presto stretto that drives to the end on the double.
Beethoven, Elgischer Gesang (Elegaic Song)
Beethoven’s intimate Elgischer Gesang is a brief glimpse into the composer’s humanity that contrasts with his image as a brusque, rude, and mercurial genius. It was written in 1814 in commemoration of the third anniversary of the death of the second wife of his friend, patron, and landlord Baron Johann Baptiste Pasqualati von Osterberg. Beethoven must have personally shared in the family’s grief, as he was living in what is now known as the “Pasqualatihaus”–today a Beethoven museum– when Eleonore died in childbirth. Of the thirty places that he lived in Vienna, this one was his favorite, a fourth-floor flat he rented intermittently from 1804-1815 which afforded views of the Vienna Woods as well as the Prater gardens (through a window he had installed himself, to the dismay of his fellow tenants).
Originally written for vocal quartet and string quartet to be performed privately in the baron’s home, the elegy was later reworked for orchestra and chorus. The hymn-like entry of the voices follows a brief introduction by the sotto voce strings which rise expectantly before a sudden drop to a single bass note. The serene text from an unknown source (one could hope it was Beethoven himself) is reflected in the placid harmonies, broken only by an anguished outburst of “for the pain” (für das Pein!). A plaintive fugal passage in minor is dispelled by an emphatic affirmation in major as weeping eyes (kein Auge wein’) are consoled by thoughts of a heavenly homecoming (des himmlischen Geistes Heimkehr).
Beethoven, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage)
Despite striking up a brief friendship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe while on summer holiday in 1812 at the Bohemian spa of Teplitz (now in the Czech Republic), Beethoven’s admiration of the poet was not mutual. Goethe found the composer’s personality “untamed,” while Beethoven objected to the poet’s affinity for the courtly. Nonetheless, the following year found Beethoven sketching ideas for what would become a two-movement cantata based on the contrast of two Goethe poems. First performed on Christmas Day 1815 as a benefit for a Vienna hospital, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt was dedicated to the poet when it was published in 1822, though Goethe never acknowledged that he had received it; an entry in his diary, however, confirms that he did. An exasperated Beethoven, writing one of those awkward did-you-ever-receive-my-gift notes nine months later, finally broke the silence:
I am now faced with the fact that I too must remind you of my existence—I trust that you received the dedication to Your Excellency of Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt which I have set to music. It would afford me much pleasure to know whether I had united my harmony with yours in appropriate fashion.
Goethe never replied.
It’s safe to say that Beethoven united his harmony with Goethe’s in more than appropriate fashion, approaching the text with vivid pictorial and psychological imagery. While contemplation of a calm sea may inspire us to reveries of Romantic serenity, to a becalmed sailor of the early 19th century without recourse to engine power it could conjure apprehensions of “deathly, terrible stillness”– Goethe’s words–or physical and financial hardship at the least. Passengers and crew sweltered in the breezeless heat, conscious of their helplessness at the mercy of uncertain weather and their insignificance in the vast emptiness around them. Beethoven depicts the ominous depths of the water with low, static harmonies while deathly stillness (Todesstille) is fractured into gasping single syllables. Twice exclamations of vastness (ungeheuern Weite) burst out from the depths of despair, underscored by the otherwise silent woodwinds.
A breeze of eighth-note scales through the strings and into the winds, and a jubilant chorus–a full octave above their first entry in the previous movement—announces the winds in a lilting 6/8. The “fearful bond” (Das ängstliche Band) of the stillness is recalled by a sustained chord by the chorus, now animated with undulations in the violas and cellos. The playful winds murmur in duets and the vessel is urged on by cries of “swiftly!” (Geschwinde!). Land is sighted by each part in turn (das Land), and the jubilant sailors hove into port.
Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 52, “Lobgesang” (Hymn of Praise)
It is very appropriate that our season culminates with a major work of Felix Mendelssohn, the ultimate fusion of Romantic imagination with the forms of Bach and Handel and inspiration from Beethoven. In the process, he created a new hybrid, the Symphoniekantate (symphony-cantata), reconciling the Romantics’ belief in the superiority of instrumental over vocal music and the apotheosis of choral music in the Baroque period.
Mendelssohn wrote the Hymn of Praise for the Leipzig festival commemorating the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing from movable type, a development of great import for a city historically known for its annual book fair. Although Gutenberg predated Luther by almost a century, the composer’s selection of texts from Luther’s German translation of the Old Testament and the incorporation of a well-known Lutheran hymn also confirms the work’s close association with the Reformation. In the eyes of his Protestant audience, both events reflect the theme of the light of knowledge dispelling the darkness of ignorance. Luther’s ideas would more likely have been contained within the borders of Saxony and suppressed by agents of the papacy, were it not for the power of Gutenberg’s press.
Because Mendelssohn’s five mature symphonies are numbered according to their date of publication and not their composition, this Second Symphony was actually the latest in conception, though his Scottish Symphony (No. 3) was completed thereafter. The Second (Lobgesang) received its first performance in Leipzig on June 25, 1840 at the Thomaskirche, where J.S. Bach had served as cantor a century earlier. Later that year, Mendelssohn expanded and revised it, adding the more operatic “Watchman aria” and the soprano and tenor duet.
Despite its outer resemblance to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a symphonic work with a choral final movement, it was not Mendelssohn’s intent to write Beethoven’s Tenth, though many critics weighed it against this standard and found it wanting. While Beethoven begins the finale of the Ninth (“Ode to Joy”) with a bass soloist who rejects the recap of the preceding three movements (“O friends, not these sounds…”), Mendelssohn embraces the unifying melodic motto, proclaiming it instrumentally at the outset by the trombones, and vocally in the opening chorus of the cantata with the text: “All that has life and breath, sing to the Lord.” [As this performance is sung in English, further references here will refer to the text as you will hear it, not a literal translation of the original German.]
Unlike Berlioz or Wagner, Mendelssohn does not transform this unifying “praise” motto through development as an idée fixe or leitmotif, nor does it recur in all movements of the symphony. However, the martial fanfare with its signature dotted rhythm–still identified with the French overture–recurs prominently and recognizably, whether in the fugue subject of the chorus opening the cantata, or as a waltz-like accompaniment to the chorale-like passage in the center of the symphonic second movement. The pervasive four-note dotted rhythm that ends the motto (“Sing to the Lord”) also becomes a motive that gives rhythmic coherence to both halves of the work.
Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for the music of Bach and Handel never waned since he jump-started the “Bach revival” with the 1829 performance of a truncated St. Matthew Passion, and it is the presence of Bach—not Beethoven—that is felt the cantata portion of the “Hymn of Praise.” The drama of Handel’s oratorios infuses the recitatives and chordal declamation in the choruses. The spirit of Bach is most clearly felt in Mendelssohn’s setting of the 17th century Lutheran hymn (chorale), “Now Thank We All Our God” [Nun danket alle Gott], first in an a cappella harmonization, as a “gapped chorale” with instrumental interludes (as in Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”). Fugues, especially the one following the operatic “Watchman” sequence (“Let us gird on the armor of light”) are worked out thoroughly with textbook precision and dramatic intensity. The solo arias in St. Matthew are evoked by the canonic duet with harmonized choral interjections, “I waited for the Lord; ” this was the “greatest hit” of the symphony then as now. Robert Schumann, calling the symphony one of Mendelssohn’s “freshest and most charming creations,” singled out the response of the listeners to the duet: “There broke forth in the audience a whispering which counts for more in the church than loud applause in the concert-hall. It was like a glimpse into a heaven of Raphael’s madonnas’ eyes.”
The Romantic efflorescence of Baroque and Classical styles in the works of Mendelssohn was more than quaint antiquarianism. Just as he discovered that their expressive power to move his audiences was far from exhausted, so Philharmonia finds in the past a neglected repertoire ready to be revitalized and its audiences eager to receive it.