Skip to main content

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)


Overture Leonora No.3, Op. 72b

Beethoven always wanted to call his only opera Leonora; the world always insisted on calling it Fidelio. "Of all my children this is the one that caused me the worst birth-pangs," he said to his biographer much later, "the one that brought me the most sorrow; and for that reason, it is the one most dear to me." It certainly cost him a lot of work; he revised it twice, and wrote four separate versions of the overture. The first, Leonora No.], was too lightweight, and was immediately discarded. The second, Leonora No. 2, was used at the premiere in 1805. For the first revision of the opera in 1806 he wrote Leonora No. 3, which we are playing tonight - but this has an impact so massive it tends to dwarf the opera itself. For the second revision of the opera in 1814 he wrote a fourth overture, known as the Fidelio Overture, which generally precedes the opera today. The plot of the opera involves the defiance of tyranny, and the devotion and triumph of love. Like the Eroica Symphony, it is Beethoven's celebration of the spirit of the French Revolution - an event very recent and still highly controversial.

The overture is substantial, and its music is dramatic. A slow introduction (descending the steps of the dungeon?) leads into a fast main section, which develops several themes from the opera to a grand climax. The trumpet call, which comes twice, is that which in the opera announces the hero's release from prison. The closing presto coda, ushered in by a whirlwind of violins, celebrates more than the victory of the opera's hero and heroine - it is a celebration of human joy in liberty, and a political statement of lasting meaning!

Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op. 58
I. Allegro moderato
II. Andante con moto
III. Rondo - Vivace

Beethoven's piano concertos (except for the fifth) were written initially for his own use, and were not published until after he had played them several times. This had two advantages - firstly he could prevent other pianists playing them, and thus preserve their novelty and interest; secondly, the fact that he had not written down the piano solo part in its final form did not matter - so all the early performances were probably quite different from one another! The fourth concerto was the first for which Beethoven had a new piano available; one with a greater compass. It reached the C three octaves above middle C, a fourth higher than before, and the piano writing exploits these upper registers frequently.

We are not certain when this concerto was first performed: there is some evidence that it was performed privately at the Vienna home of Beethoven's patron Prince Lobkowitz in 1807. We know for a fact, however, that it was included in a mammoth 4-hour concert of Beethoven's music given on 22nd December 1808, which also included the premieres of the fourth and fifth symphonies, the Choral Fantasy (for piano, orchestra and choir) and much else besides. The performances, under-rehearsed and given in a cold hall were, to say the least, variable. The Choral Fantasy fell apart altogether and had to be restarted, but the concerto was well received. One listener described "a new forte-piano concerto of monstrous difficulty, which Beethoven played astonishingly well at the fastest possible tempos".

To begin a classical concerto with the solo piano is unusual; even more unusual is the gentleness of it, as if we were eavesdropping on a private meditation. The orchestra then tries the same thought, in a totally different key, and decides something can be made of it - and the concerto is under way, as if by accident. The concerto is in the usual three movements; a substantial sonata form allegro, a short meditative slow movement, and a vigorous dance-like rondo to close. Within this normal overall shape, Beethoven brings a number of surprises:

  • As well as the entry of the strings at the very beginning, there are other entries in unexpected keys - such as the second piano solo entry part way throtigh the first movement.
  • The design of the slow movement is very unusual, alternating assertive string passages with soft, meditative piano entries, until the two become reconciled.
  • The opening of the rondo is another off-key entry. The main theme starts in C major and slips sideways to the home key of G major after a few bars.

Despite these innovative strokes, the concerto as a whole has a rounded perfection that has made it a favourite of Beethoven's concertos.

Piano Concerto No.5 in Eb major, Op. 73 "Emporer"
I. Allegro
II. Adagio un poco mosso
III. Rondo: allegro

Beethoven's fifth and last piano concerto was mostly composed in the difficult surroundings of Vienna in the summer of 1809. It was difficult because between May and October that year Napoleon defeated the Austrian army in battle, besieged Vienna, and then occupied the city for several months. Beethoven was losing the remains of his hearing rapidly, and he feared that the crash of artillery shells would hasten his total deafness. In an attempt to protect his hearing, he is said to have hidden in the cellar of his brother's house with a pillow over his head!

At this time he had the support of several rich and influential patrons, and in particular a new patron to whom Beethoven was also giving piano & composition lessons, the Archduke Rudolph. Rudolph became one of Beethoven's best and constant friends, to whom Beethoven in gratitude dedicated many works - several piano sonatas including the Hammerclavier, chamber music including the Grosse Fugue, the fourth and fifth piano concertos, his opera Fidelio and the Missa Solemnis.

Perhaps because of the war, the concerto had to wait until late in 1811 for its premiere, which took place not in Vienna but in Leipzig, on 28th November. It was very successful; one German critic wrote "It is without doubt one of the most original, imaginative, most effective but also one of the most difficult of all existing concertos". The first performance in Vienna three months later was much less successful, the audience finding it difficult to understand. It is not known who gave it the nickname "Emperor", but the name has stuck.

The first movement begins with three bold chords from the orchestra, separated by dramatic cadenza-like flourishes from the soloist. This impulsive opening gives way to the orchestra announcing the main themes of the work in traditional style. The principal theme branches out into a number of subsidiary subjects, of which the most important is played first very quietly and staccato by strings in the minor key, and is immediately repeated, warmly & smoothly, by the horns in the major key. Both themes are developed at some length before the piano rejoins to present its own version of the same substance. There is a dramatic and carefully worked out development before the main themes are repeated, including the opening chords and flourishes on the piano. At the point where a cadenza would be expected, Beethoven writes in the score "Do not play a cadenza; play this instead" - and proceeds to carefully write out a cadenza. He didn't want his concerto ruined by the showmanship of tasteless soloists! This substantial movement is then wrapped up by a bold and triumphant coda.

After the power and dramatic contrasts of the first movement, the adagio could hardly present a greater contrast. A simple song of great beauty and tenderness, the piano decorates the theme first presented on strings alone with subtlety and restraint. At the end, the tonality slips gently down by a semi-tone, and the piano picks out the shape of a new tune … ... which, without a break, becomes the rondo finale. The main tune, which leaps upward in powerful syncopated rhythms, reappears several times, each time separated by music which seems unrelated, but is in fact closely derived from the principal theme. Much of the energy comes from the dotted triple rhythms which underpin the movement, and drive the music to its triumphant conclusion.

Symphony No. 9 in D minor "Choral", Op. 125
I. Allegro ma non troppo
II. Scherzo and Trio - Molto vivace alternating with Presto
III. Adagio molto alternating with Andante moderato
IV. Finale - setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" for chorus, soloists and orchestra

Beethoven's ninth and last symphony is judged by most musicians and music lovers to be among the greatest of all compositions for orchestra.

The symphony's genesis
Beethoven's first eight symphonies occupied him over a twelve year period, but it was twelve years more before the ninth appeared. Its roots can be found in two separate sources: a commission from the London Philharmonic Society in 1816 for a new symphony, and a wish first expressed as far back as 1793 to set Schiller's ode An die Freude ("To Joy"). The symphony was far advanced, as was the setting of the ode, before Beethoven decided that they should be one and the same.

It is possible to trace its genesis through Beethoven's surviving sketchbooks, and recognisable fragments can be found in sketchbooks from 1815, 1816 and 1818. At this time he was planning two symphonies, one in D minor with an instrumental finale, and the other with choir. Work was interrupted for a few years while he worked on other compositions (including the Mass in D and the late piano sonatas) and he picked up the threads again in 1822, when he formally accepted the commission from the London Philharmonic Society. Considerable progress was made on the first and second movements, but he still planned an instrumental finale. It was only in 1823 that he rejected this (he eventually used the theme in the finale of his A minor string quartet) and finally decided on the choral setting of Schiller's ode.

Beethoven's circumstances
During all this period Beethoven was to all intents stone deaf, and his personal life frankly chaotic. His illnesses were becoming more frequent and debilitating, and were not helped by the "remedies" his doctors proposed. His incompetence in financial matters, including such vital ones as accepting commissions and negotiating with his publishers, was astonishing. He tried to play off publishers against each other, and was surprised when they turned him down. He was eccentric and irregular in his domestic habits; he changed lodgings frequently and domestic servants could rarely cope with his behaviour for longer than a few weeks. At one point he was paying rent for three lodgings at the same time!

He was well aware that much of this chaos was of his own making: "Everything I do apart from music is badly done and stupid" he is reported as saying. And in a touching letter which survives he admitted that ".. Beethoven can compose, thank God, though he can do nothing else in this world."

To add to his difficulties, his brother had died in 1815, leaving his widow and Beethoven joint guardians of his son Karl. The following five years were taken up with a law-suit to oust his sister-in-law and gain sole responsibility for his nephew, and then to form some kind of stable environment for him.

Performance and publication
The symphony was finally completed in February 1824, and Beethoven emerged from the stresses and creative whirlwind of the previous few years. He had both the Mass in D (the Missa Solemnis) and the Symphony completed, and sought performances of both.

The original plan was to perform both for the first time in a single concert. [What an event that would have been!! - and what a length!!!] In the event, the programme comprised a new overture - The Consecration of the House, three movements of the mass - the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei, and the new symphony. It was held on 7th May 1824 in the Karntnerthor Theatre in Vienna, and while it was a huge success with the public, did not generate as much profit for the composer as he had hoped.

He offered both mass and symphony to three publishers (simultaneously!) for a total of 1,600 florins - about £2,000 at today's prices. This was despite having offered the London Philharmonic Society "exclusive rights" for 18 months! It was a further year before this tangle was unravelled with publication of both works by Schotts of Mainz.

The symphony
The symphony is unprecedented in its scale and its huge breadth of scope. It takes about twenty minutes longer than the previous longest symphony - Beethoven's own Eroica. And it was to be fifty years before anyone wrote a major symphony of equal length (Anton Bruckner). The comprehensiveness was also new, with its effects such as juxtaposing the sublime chorus with military band music in the finale - much criticised during the 19th century, until Mahler went even further in reflecting every aspect of life in his vast symphonies eighty years later.

The first movement is almost relentlessly in D minor and on a large scale. Paradoxically, it is also dense and concise, without a wasted note or phrase. The themes are almost mere motives, a few bars long only, and yet rich in potential for development.

The opening was unique and novel in its day (though much imitated by later composers, Bruckner especially) - a shimmer of strings above which a theme based on a falling arpeggio emerges. The main theme is presented twice and followed by a number of other ideas. The development of them becomes gradually more complex, particularly in a fugal section with three simultaneous themes woven together. The climax is unmistakable and colossal, forcing the main theme through several keys above a constant battering D in the timpani. The coda which ends the movement has its own surprises, with a new theme and a tragic mood like a funeral march. The closing bars are intense and brutal.

The second movement, though again on a large scale, is more straightforward. The scherzo is fast, highly charged and dramatic, and is dominated by the dotted rhythm of the opening bars. These eight introductory bars, a late addition judging by Beethoven's sketchbooks, are a stroke of genius - bold and arresting, like a bolt of lightning. The Viennese audience loved it. Indeed Beethoven's use of the timpani in this movement, as in the first, is almost deliberately shocking. The trio is just as fast, but is smoother and more flowing. The scherzo is repeated in full.

We've had the intellectual power and drama of the first movement, and the massive energy of the second - the third movement offers the human emotions of love and tenderness. This is a glorious unfolding of pure song, in the form of alternating variations on two themes. The first is hymn-like, calm and detached, while the second is tender, compassionate and involving.

Variations of the first theme take the form of concerto-like passages for the first violins and, for the big horn solo, Beethoven unusually specifies that it is the fourth horn who should play it. The variations on the second theme mostly feature the wind section. A fanfare like climax results in a surprise modulation (down a third - F to D-flat), which anticipates a similar modulation in the finale. There, it is on the word "God" - significant, perhaps? The movement ends in tranquil calm.

The fourth movement is Beethoven's enormous setting of Schiller's Ode To Joy. After a discordant summons, a recitative on cellos and basses guides us through a review of the themes of the previous three movements. Each is rejected; the wind offer the idea for a new tune - and it is accepted. The main "Joy" theme is given us on cellos and basses alone, followed by three variations: first on violas & cellos with a wonderful bassoon counter melody, secondly on the full string section, and thirdly on the full orchestra. The music holds back, as if struck by a thought ....

... and the discordant introduction starts the movement again! This time the bass soloist sings the recitative (to Beethoven's own words), and then we hear the first three full verses of the ode. The first is sung by the bass solo, the second and third by all four soloists, with the second half of each verse repeated by the chorus. The end of the third verse results in a huge climax, (".. stand before God") and a startling drop of tonality down a third (from A to F this time).

Silence ... out of which emerges a grotesque march, banal and bouncy. The tenor soloist sings the short fourth verse, with the men of the chorus. When this ends, the orchestra bursts in with a complex and energetic development of the same material. This is hugely energetic, and every bit as difficult as it sounds! It works its way through obscure keys to massive repeated notes in unison, which drop away leaving the horns hanging ... and then lead us back to the main theme; a massive restatement of the first verses, accompanied by storming unison quavers for the entire string section.

A sudden stop, another key change bring us to the emotional heart of the movement. A new theme, serious and solemn, but with a note of awe and humility, too - "above the heavens, a loving father must surely live" - "he must live above the stars." The music is left suspended, as if it too were "above the stars", and on the brink of a great revelation.

Revelation comes as an ecstatic and jubilant double fugue, on the previous theme and the "Joy" theme together. This culminates in a huge climax (with 12 bars of top A's for the sopranos - cruel!). The chorus ask again "Do you fall down before him?", and end on a quiet pause ...

... which leads into the closing sections. This is an increasingly excited jubilation, three times checked but only to break out again with an impetus that sweeps everything before it. The soloists begin it, and the chorus takes over; the first check is very brief; the second hold up is almost a cadenza for the solo quartet. The pace accelerates again; the third brief check is almost like a Handel oratorio in its pomp, but nothing can prevent the final ecstatic headlong rush.

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
I. Allegro ma non troppo
II. Larghetto
III. Rondo

Beethoven's only surviving violin concerto was written by the 35 year old composer specifically for Franz Clement, 26 year old principal violinist and conductor at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. The spur was a pre-Christmas concert planned for 23rd December 1806. Beethoven completed the work in a rush, as witnessed by his pupil Czerny, who noted that the work was completed only two days before the first performance, a fact supported by the surviving autograph score which is a mass of crossings out, corrections and alternative versions.

Clement certainly had little time to learn the work, and even less to rehearse it with the orchestra. It must have been a curious concert - as well as the new and under-rehearsed concerto, Clement played a piece of his own composition, on one string with the violin upside-down! The concerto was not a great success, and the press noted that "Beethoven could put his undoubtedly great talents to better uses".

As a result of the poor reception, Beethoven was persuaded by his publisher to arrange the concerto for piano and orchestra, a version which has survived, though never performed nowadays. Public indifference to the concerto continued through occasional performances for the next 30 years, and it was only Joachim's championing of the work in the 1840s, often with Mendelssohn conducting, that established the concerto's current place in the heart of the repertoire.

There is an element of mystery still about the solo part of the concerto. Beethoven's manuscript contains two different versions of the solo part - one seems to be his original thoughts, and the other is a technically simpler but more violinistic version which presumably reflects Clement's ideas (and perhaps reflects the lack of time for Clement to learn the harder version). Neither agrees with the published score, which includes aspects of both versions. But quite how far Beethoven was happy with this compromise is unclear, and likely to remain so!

An orchestral introduction presents the main themes of the first movement, whose opening five repeated notes permeate the whole movement, in a variety of guises. The overall mood is not showy, but serene and reflective, at times shot with a deep sadness. The movement is substantial (as long as an entire Mozart violin concerto) and allows the soloist to include a cadenza towards the end.

The second movement is shorter, and its design is simple: in essence a series of variations on a theme first stated by muted strings, above which the soloist weaves a delicate tracery of sound. An orchestral summons, and a brief solo cadenza lead directly into the finale.

The finale is based on one of the happiest tunes Beethoven ever wrote. The soloist plays it first, before the orchestra is allowed a turn. A number of other themes are interspersed among the reappearance of the main tune, most notable a minor key tune which is quickly passed to the bassoon, who allows the soloist to decorate it. After a short cadenza, the soloist and orchestra together bring the first of the great violin concertos to its positive conclusion.

Back to programme notes index