Meet the Heroes

February 20 & 21, 2016

Program notes by Paul Hyde

Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827)

Violin Concerto, Op. 61, D major

The Violin Concerto spotlights Beethoven’s genius for lyricism. The music is not heroic but rather noble and mellifluous. This is a concerto that sings.

The piece is often grouped among the greatest violin concertos ever composed. Yet Beethoven wrote it in haste, on a tight deadline. The finale was finished a mere two days before the premiere on Dec. 23, 1806. The solo violinist Franz Clement, for whom the concerto was written, may have sight-read the third movement at the performance.

Clement was known for his elegant playing and sureness in the high register, and Beethoven fashioned a concerto that would highlight those skills. Clement also enjoyed a good musical stunt and on the night of the premiere he featured one of his trademark tricks. Pausing between the first and second movements of the concerto, Clement played a set of variations he had composed on a single string with the violin held upside-down.

  1. From the beginning, the Violin Concerto is conspicuously unique, with five soft timpani beats ushering in the woodwind choir that intones a quietly soaring theme marked “dolce” (“sweet”). That timpani rhythm will play an important background role throughout the expansive first movement. The orchestral introduction unveils the movement’s three main themes. All are similar in style: simple, direct and eloquent, often moving by one step up and down the scale. (Beethoven created a similar scale-like tunefulness in composing his familiar “Ode to Joy” for his Ninth Symphony.) The solo violinist enters with a flourish that ends in the stratosphere. Actually, the soloist will spend considerable time playing in the upper reaches of the instrument. Throughout the long first movement, the soloist reflects extensively and expressively on the three main themes of the introduction.
  2. The slow second movement is tender and introspective, though it retains the nobility of the first. It is a series of variations in which the violin traces a delicate embroidery around the main theme, introduced by the muted violins. A pensive coda leads directly into the finale.
  3. After the melting lyricism of the preceding material, the third movement bursts forth as a jaunty rondo with the soloist leading the revels. The music is both robust and jolly, at times suggesting a rustic folk dance or perhaps evoking the hunting style so beloved of Haydn and Mozart. An intermediate episode takes us into the minor key for more singing lyricism. But the main refrain returns in joyful exuberance. Beethoven throws in some bravura passages – sparkling runs, trills and arpeggios — to challenge the violin soloist’s technique, and a dazzling cadenza paves the way to a triumphant conclusion.


Ludwig von Beethoven (1770 -1827)

Symphony No. 3, Op. 55, E-flat major (“Eroica”)

This was a revolutionary work, as implied by its subtitle “Eroica” (“Heroic”). In the Third Symphony, Beethoven breaks free from classical restraint and takes a decisive stand for the style of bold expression that would come to be known as Romanticism.

Early audiences were awestruck – or confused – by the great length of the symphony as well as its complexity, innovative form and dramatic content. Particularly startling was the work’s unique second movement, a funeral march. The occasional striking dissonance throughout the symphony offended some listeners while enthralling others.

Following the first public performance in 1805, one critic called it a “tremendously expanded, daring and wild fantasia” with “startling and beautiful passages,” though “lawless.”

The work can be seen as a musical meditation on heroic struggle and triumph. “What Beethoven explores in the ‘Eroica,’” musicologist William Kinderman has written, “are universal aspects of heroism centering on the idea of confrontation with adversity leading ultimately to a renewal of creative possibilities.”

The original inspiration for the symphony was Napoleon Bonaparte, who Beethoven had seen as a hero destined to bring about the French Revolution’s ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” So strong was Beethoven’s admiration that he intended to name the symphony simply “Bonaparte.”

But when Beethoven heard that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, the German composer flew into a rage, crying out, “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will become a tyrant!” Beethoven seized the manuscript of his “Bonaparte” symphony and ripped the title page in two and threw it to the floor. On another copy of the score, Beethoven scratched out the name “Bonaparte” with such passion that he ripped a hole in the page. Shortly afterward, Beethoven gave the work a new title: “Sinfonia Eroica, Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.”

The myth of Prometheus was yet another inspiration. Prometheus, the rebellious Titan, was an important symbol for iconoclastic romantics like Beethoven. In the version of the myth favored by Beethoven, Prometheus is put to death for giving art, science and enlightenment to mankind. But he is later brought back to life and celebrated for his benevolence. Beethoven was so taken by the myth that he used elements of it in at least four of his works. The main theme of the symphony’s finale was taken from “The Creatures of Prometheus,” a ballet that had been one of Beethoven’s first major successes.

Beethoven saw himself as engaged in a Prometheus-like struggle against the onslaught of deafness, which must have seemed like a fatal disability for a composer. In despair, Beethoven contemplated suicide. Only his art kept him from ending his life. Vowing to “seize fate by the throat,” Beethoven resolved to devote himself completely to realizing his high musical goals. It’s not hard to see the Third Symphony as Beethoven’s testament of defiance.

Kinderman, the musicologist, describes the four movements of the work in Promethean terms: struggle, death, rebirth, apotheosis.

  1. Two abrupt chords introduce the first movement’s flowing main melody. It’s a simple theme, played first by low strings and woodwinds and then grandly proclaimed by the brass. Six other melodies will follow, with each seeming to grow naturally out of the other. Exuberance holds sway but occasionally succumbs to dramatic tension and striking dissonance.
  2. In the expansive funeral march, Beethoven uses a simple ABA form to create a consummate piece of musical drama. The strings intone the slow, solemn main theme. The “B” section is in C major, suggesting some hope in the midst of despair. For a few measures, hope becomes triumphal even. But the music from the opening of the movement returns in increasingly dissonant harmonies. The march builds until it becomes a lamentation of tragic grandeur and epic proportion. The main theme then gradually dissolves into somber fragments.
  3. The relatively short scherzo, following in the footsteps of the somber funeral march, catapults us back into swirling life. The suggestion of rebirth is conveyed through musical episodes full of energy and vitality. There’s a dancing, spring-like joy present that seems giddy at times. In the contrasting middle section, three French horns evoke rustic jollity. The opening theme returns to conclude the movement in a rush of exuberance.
  4. Now comes the apotheosis. After an initial orchestral flourish, the music suddenly drops in volume. Beethoven is merely creating suspense. The main theme, taken from Beethoven’s “Prometheus” ballet, eventually will burst forth and soar. The composer subjects the melody to 11 vigorous variations, a symbol of the creative passion of the heroic spirit. Toward the end of the finale, the revels come to a complete halt. Beethoven introduces, softly at first, a triumphal march based on the movement’s main theme – a heroic response to the second movement’s funeral march. Some darkness and doubt creep into the musical texture but all somber thought is completely extinguished by the triumphant coda.


Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville News and a founding editor of the website Classical Voice North America. For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.