This is part of Christoph Eschenbach's 2005-06 season Beethoven cycle with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was originally aired on NPR's Performance Today in a Beethoven "marathon" of consecutive symphonies, and has received wide public and critical acclaim. Of the three in the recorded history of The Philadelphia Orchestra, only the Eschenbach and the Muti are currently available.
Recorded live September 27 (Symphony No. 1) and November 22 (Symphony No. 2), 2005, Verizon Hall, The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
It seems fitting that Beethoven composed his First Symphony at the dawn of a new century, 1799-1800, for even contemporaries realized that his symphonies changed the conception of the genre. Beethoven’s orchestral legacy cast an imposing shadow that composers had to deal with in various ways for the remainder of the century—and beyond. Brahms long delayed writing his First Symphony and when he did it was immediately labeled “Beethoven’s Tenth.” (Brahms’s debts and allusions to Beethoven are evident throughout that work.) Some composers avoided writing symphonies entirely, or called them by other names. In some respects, Wagner, who never wrote a mature symphony, transferred Beethoven’s compositional devises to his massively orchestrated and symphonically conceived operas. An Emerging Master But it took even Beethoven some time to become BEETHOVEN, symphonic master and role model. The idea of dividing his career into three stages began during his lifetime and has never been abandoned. The First Symphony dates, of course, from his early, “Classical” era. More precisely, it comes from late in his first period, just a year or two before the personal crisis brought about by Beethoven’s gradual loss of hearing that is so powerfully reflected in the “Heiligenstadt Testament” and the “Eroica” Symphony. By the mid-1790s, Beethoven had essayed most of the important instrumental genres, but had held off tackling the symphony and string quartet, perhaps because these were the kinds of pieces in which his teacher Haydn had made his greatest mark and enjoyed his most significant successes. When he did finally write, perform, and publish his first two symphonies and his set of six string quartets, Op. 18, he had reached full artistic maturity. These works represent Beethoven at the height of his Classical powers, building on the achievements of Haydn and Mozart while not hiding his debt to them. What did Beethoven’s contemporaries make of the 29-year-old composer’s Grande Simphonie when it was first performed in April 1800 and published the following year? They listened to the work with fresh ears, knowing their Haydn and Mozart, but happily oblivious to how Beethoven would transform the genre within just a few years. They used the word “masterpiece” repeatedly and praised the work’s “originality.” After holding off writing a symphony for years, Beethoven had achieved his goal of a place alongside his most illustrious predecessors. A Viennese critic, writing in 1806, declared just that: The First Symphony is “a masterpiece that does equal honor to [Beethoven’s] inventiveness and his musical knowledge. Being just as beautiful and distinguished in its design as its execution, there prevails in it such a clear and lucid order, such a flow of the most pleasant melodies, and such a rich, but at the same time never wearisome, instrumentation that this symphony can justly be placed next to Mozart’s and Haydn’s.” A Closer Look The opening Adagio molto seems to begin in the wrong tonality, with a dominant chord resolving to the subdominant key. A critic at the time remarked: “No one will censure an ingenious artist like Beethoven for such liberties and peculiarities, but such a beginning is not suitable for the opening of a grand concert in a spacious opera house.” In other words, the actual sound is not so strange, but the context, at the beginning of a grand symphony, is unexpected and jarring. Today we find it wonderful. The vibrant Allegro con brio that follows is filled with playful energy. The second movement (Andante cantabile con moto) begins with the second violins presenting a courtly theme that is taken up fugally by other instruments; this theme alternates with a more light-hearted melody. Beethoven generally favored fast scherzos rather than the older minuet and trio for the “dance” movement of his symphonies, and here, although marked Menuetto (Allegro molto e vivace), the spirit and fast tempo preclude polite dancing and make it a scherzo in all but name. Unusually, the final movement also begins with an Adagio that mischievously leads to an Allegro molto e vivace. This opening finds Beethoven at his most playful: After a loud chord intoned by the full orchestra, the first violins slowly work their way up the notes of the scale, first three notes, then four, five, six, and seven, eventually tipping over into the energetic octave scale that initiates the fast tempo sustained for the rest of the movement. No wonder Beethoven’s audiences were delighted, as they have been ever since. —Christopher H. Gibbs Program note © 2005. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 Composed from 1801-02 In the summer of 1801, while composing his Second Symphony, Beethoven revealed the secret of his deteriorating hearing in a long and passionate letter to his childhood friend Franz Wegeler. After recounting assorted professional successes, he goes on to disclose that “that jealous demon, my wretched health, has put a nasty spoke in my wheel; and it amounts to this, that for the past three years my hearing has become weaker and weaker.” As his friend was a physician, still living in the composer’s native Bonn, Beethoven provides a detailed account of his symptoms and laments the constraints his increasing deafness places on his social life (“I have ceased to attend any social functions just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf”) and professional situation (“… if my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, were to hear about it, what would they say?”). A little more than a year later, and just as he was completing the Second Symphony, Beethoven penned his “Heiligenstadt Testament,” the famous unsent letter to his brothers in which he expressed utter despair over his loss of hearing. In this revealing confession he alludes to suicidal thoughts and states that on account of all of his torments “I would have ended my life. Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.” What if Beethoven had killed himself in the fall of 1802, at age 31? What had he accomplished at this point in his career and how would he have been remembered? The question assumes a special poignancy when one considers that Schubert died at the same point in his life, almost to the very day. Mozart had not lived much longer. Beethoven before the Myth The Beethoven who thought of killing himself at 31 is very different from the mythic figure who eventually came to redefine music and whose life in so many ways epitomizes that of the Romantic artist. During his 20s Beethoven was better known as a performer— a brilliant pianist and improviser—than as a composer. He had written a good many works in various genres, but nowhere near what Mozart, Schubert, and other masters accomplished by the age of 30. Beethoven was about to embark on a “new path,” as he told his student Carl Czerny. The “heroic” works of his middle period remain the best known and loved to this day, although in the early 1800s the public’s favorite works were tamer pieces like his song “Adelaide” and the Septet, Op. 20. For those who had the chance to hear him perform, the first two piano concertos displayed both his compositional brilliance and virtuoso keyboard technique. Although he had published more than a dozen piano sonatas and, more prominently and recently, his first six string quartets, Op. 18, Beethoven had yet to write an opera. The compositions most associated with his name were generally aimed at domestic consumption or, as with the concertos, for his own use in performance. The genre of the symphony, in which his idol Mozart had written some 50, and his teacher Haydn more than twice that, offered new challenges. A “Smiling” Symphony in Difficult Times Beethoven first ventured to write a symphony during his teenage years in his native Bonn, but did not get very far. A later attempt in Vienna, during the mid-1790s, likewise proved unsuccessful, although some of its musical ideas eventually made their way into his First Symphony at the end of the century. He began sketching the Second Symphony as early as 1800, but most of the work took place during the summer and early fall of 1802—exactly at the time of the crisis confronted in the Heiligenstadt Testament. The boundless humor and vitality of the Second Symphony—Hector Berlioz remarked that “this Symphony is smiling throughout”—challenge the simplistic connections so often made between the immediate events at a given time in Beethoven’s life and the music he created. Indeed, as with his witty Eighth Symphony, also written at a period of considerable personal distress in the aftermath of his affair with the “Immortal Beloved” in 1812, Beethoven may have sought refuge in musical “comedy” at times of personal “tragedy.” (Mahler did the opposite in his “Tragic” Sixth Symphony, which he composed at a time of great happiness.) Long, Difficult, and Bizarre “It is a noteworthy, colossal work, of a depth, power, and artistic knowledge like very few. It has a level of difficulty, both from the point of view of the composer and in regard to its performance by a large orchestra (which it certainly demands), quite certainly unlike any symphony that has ever been made known. It demands to be played again and yet again by even the most accomplished orchestra, until the astonishing number of original and sometimes very strangely arranged ideas becomes closely enough connected, rounded out, and emerges like a great unity, just as the composer had in mind.” The modern reader might assume this critic is talking of Beethoven’s monumental “Eroica” Symphony, or perhaps his Fifth or Ninth—almost any one but the Second. Yet this reaction, from 1804, is echoed by other contemporaries, who also found the Symphony long, difficult, and imposing. Early 19th-century listeners, of course, were hearing the piece in the context of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, and of Beethoven’s own first essay in the genre. In fact, Beethoven premiered the Second Symphony at a concert that also featured the First (as well as the premieres of the Third Piano Concerto, Op. 37, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives). Comparisons were therefore inevitable—and the First won, in part because “it was performed with unforced ease, while in the Second a striving for novel and striking effects is more visible.” The “striking effects” begin with the slow introduction to the first movement, which is far more imposing than what Beethoven had provided for the First Symphony. (That introduction is along the lines of Haydn’s, who usually included some slow introductory section in his late symphonies, whereas the Second Symphony looks to Mozart, who generally eschewed any throat clearing to begin, specifically to the one he created for the “Prague” Symphony, also in D major.) Other parts follow, especially in the third- movement scherzo and in the extraordinarily witty finale, elicited the word most often used to describe Beethoven’s music at the time: “bizarre.” A Closer Look: Berlioz on Beethoven Berlioz, who penned some of the greatest music criticism of the century, wrote extensively about Beethoven, especially about the symphonies. It is interesting to consider what Berlioz valued in Beethoven and how he heard his symphonies, especially as they so inspired his own orchestral music, such as the Symphonie fantastique. Here is his discussion of the Second Symphony: In this Symphony everything is noble, energetic, proud. The Introduction [Adagio molto] is a masterpiece. The most beautiful effects follow one another without confusion and always in an unexpected manner. The song is of a touching solemnity, and it at once commands respect and puts the hearer in an emotional mood. The rhythm is already bolder, the instrumentation is richer, more sonorous, more varied. An Allegro con brio of enchanting dash is joined to this admirable introduction. The fast motive which begins the theme, given at first to the violas and cellos in unison, is taken up again in an isolated form, to establish either progressions in a crescendo or imitative passages between wind instruments and the strings. All these forms have a new and animated physiognomy. A melody enters, the first section of which is played by the clarinets, horns, and bassoons. It is completed by the full orchestra, and the manly energy is enhanced by the happy choice of accompanying chords. [The second-movement Larghetto] is not treated after the manner of that of the First Symphony: it is not composed of a theme worked out in canonic imitations, but it is a pure and simple song, which is first stated sweetly by the strings, and then embroidered with a rare elegance by means of light and fluent figures whose character is never far removed from the sentiment of tenderness which forms the distinctive character of the principal idea. It is a ravishing picture of innocent pleasure which is scarcely shadowed by a few melancholy accents. The Scherzo is as frankly gay in its fantastic capriciousness as the previous movement has been wholly and serenely happy; for this symphony is smiling throughout; the warlike bursts of the first Allegro are entirely free from violence; there is only the youthful ardor of the noble heart in which the most beautiful illusions of life are preserved untainted. The composer still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion. What abandon in his gaiety! What wit! What sallies! Hearing these various instruments disputing over fragments of a theme which no one of them plays in its entirety, hearing each fragment thus colored with a thousand nuances as it passes from one to the other, it is as though you were watching the fairy sports of Oberon’s graceful spirits. The finale [Allegro molto] is of like genius. It is a second scherzo in duple meter, and its playfulness has perhaps something still more delicate, more piquant. —Christopher H. Gibbs Program note © 2005. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. ABOUT THE ARTIST One of today’s leading international conductors, at the time of this recording Christoph Eschenbach was in his third season as music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra. Held in highest esteem by the world’s foremost orchestras and opera houses for his commanding presence, versatility, and consummate musicianship, Mr. Eschenbach has been acclaimed for his creative insight and dynamic energy as a conductor, a collaborator, and ardent champion of young musicians. Highlights of his current Philadelphia Orchestra season include performances of all nine Beethoven symphonies paired with music of our time, with works by Dutilleux, Higdon, Lindberg, and Rouse. His 2006-07 Orchestra season will feature tributes to Mozart and Shostakovich, and the continuation of the Orchestra’s five-season long, first-ever Mahler cycle. Mr. Eschenbach made his Philadelphia Orchestra debut as a pianist in 1973; his Philadelphia conducting debut was in 1989. In addition to his work with The Philadelphia Orchestra, Mr. Eschenbach continues as music director of the Orchestra de Paris. This season he also leads the Vienna Philharmonic and the Hamburg NDR Symphony. A prolific recording artist, Mr. Eschenbach has made numerous recordings, as conductor, pianist, or both. His discography includes works of Adams, Berg, Berio, Berlioz, Brahms, Bruckner, Glass, Lourié, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Mozart, Picker, Pintscher, Rouse, Schnittke, Schoenberg, Schumann, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Webern. Before turning to conducting, Mr. Eschenbach had earned a distinguished reputation as a concert pianist. He began winning major competitions at age 11, and made his United States debut in 1969 with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Mr. Eschenbach learned the art of conducting under, among others, Mr. Szell, who personally took him as his protégé, and with whom he worked for over three years. In addition, Herbert von Karajan was his mentor for nearly 25 years, and Mr. Eschenbach credits him as having had a tremendous influence on his development as a conductor. Mr. Eschenbach made his conducting debut in Hamburg in 1972. In 1981 he was named principal guest conductor of Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, and was chief conductor from 1982 to 1986. Additional posts include music director of the Houston Symphony (1988-99); chief conductor of the Hamburg NDR Symphony (1998-2004); music director of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival (1999-2002); and music director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony (1994-2003). Among Mr. Eschenbach’s most recent awards are the Légion d’Honneur of France and the Officer’s Cross with Star and Ribbon of the German Order of Merit. In 1993 he received the Leonard Bernstein Award, presented to him by the Pacific Music Festival, where he served as co-artistic director from 1992 to 1998. Additional information about Mr. Eschenbach can be found at his website, www.christoph-eschenbach.com. 9/2005 PRODUCTION CREDITS Producer: Charles Gagnon Balance Engineer: Charles Gagnon Recording Engineer: Charles Gagnon Editor: Charles Gagnon Christoph Eschenbach Bio Photo: Jessica Griffin