Beethoven's Triple - October 7 @ 8pm

Prepared by Ken Meltzer

The School for Scandal, Overture, Opus 5 (1931)

Samuel Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 9, 1910, and died in New York on January 23, 1981. 

The first performance of The School for Scandal, Overture took place at the Robin Hood Dell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 30, 1933, with Alexander Smallens conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Approximate performance time is eight minutes.

Samuel Barber was a 21-year-old student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when he composed his Overture to The School for Scandal.  The title refers to English author Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comic play.  Barber noted that the Overture was not intended as a curtain raiser for performances of Sheridan’s work.  Rather, Barber composed the piece “as a musical reflection of the play’s spirit.”

In April of 1933, Barber’s The School for Scandal, Overture won Columbia University’s Joseph H. Bearns Prize.  That August 30, the work premiered as part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s final 1933 summer concert at the Robin Hood Dell, conducted by Alexander Smallens.  The work was well received by an audience of almost eight thousand.

In the spring of 1938, both the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra included Barber’s The School for Scandal, Overture as part of New York concerts.  On November 5 in New York, Arturo Toscanini conducted the N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra in the world premieres of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and First Essay for Orchestra.  That concert, broadcast nationwide, solidified Barber’s reputation as one of America’s most gifted young composers.

Although composed at the very outset of Samuel Barber’s career, The School for Scandal, Overture features the melodic inspiration, colorful orchestration, and unerring momentum that remained hallmarks of the American composer’s work.  These qualities have assured The School for Scandal, Overture’s continued presence in the concert repertoire.

The School for Scandal, Overture (Allegro molto e vivace) opens with a bracing introduction.  The first violins’ presentation of the tripping, initial theme soon follows.  The music’s irrepressible energy finally abates, as the oboe introduces the work’s lovely second principal theme.  A brief development section leads to the strings’ fortissimo recapitulation of the opening theme.  The English horn now sings the oboe melody.  The playful atmosphere pauses for a moment.  An orchestral fanfare heralds the Overture’s brilliant conclusion.


Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra in C Major, Opus 56 (“Triple”) (1804)

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna, Austria on March 26, 1827. 

Approximate performance time is thirty-three minutes.

By the turn of the 18th century, Ludwig van Beethoven had firmly established himself as one of Vienna’s most prominent musicians—a virtuoso pianist and composer of the first rank.  It appeared as if nothing could stand in the way of Beethoven’s continued rise to greatness.  But then, tragedy struck.  In 1800, Beethoven, not yet thirty, began to realize that his hearing was deteriorating.  Beethoven sensed that the onset of deafness was only a matter of time.

The irony was not lost on Beethoven—soon, he would be a composer unable to hear his own musical creations.  Quite naturally, this turn of events engendered a supreme crisis in Beethoven’s life.  On October 6, 1802, Beethoven penned the immortal letter to his brothers that is known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.  There, Beethoven confessed that the onset of his deafness:

almost made me despair, and I was on the point of putting an end to my life—The only thing that held me back was my art.  For indeed it seemed to me impossible to leave this world before I had produced all the works I felt the urge to compose; and thus I have dragged on this miserable existence—a truly miserable existence.

And, indeed, Beethoven responded to his adversity by composing at a furious pace.  Beethoven masterpieces from the first decade of the 19th century include the Symphonies, Nos. 2-6, the “Razumovsky” String Quartets, the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” Piano Sonatas, and the composer’s only opera, Fidelio.

Beethoven began composition of his Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra in late 1803, completing the work in the summer of 1804.  Beethoven composed the piano part of the “Triple” Concerto for Archduke Rudolph (1788-1831), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II.  Rudolph, a longtime pupil, friend and patron of Beethoven, was the dedicatee of such pieces as the Fourth and “Emperor” Piano Concerto, the “Archduke” Piano Trio, the Piano Sonatas Opus 90 (“Les Adieux”), 106 (“Hammerklavier”), and 111, the great choral work, the Missa solemnis, and the Grosse Fugue for string quartet.

The fact that Beethoven composed the keyboard parts of both the Triple Concerto and the “Archduke” Trio for Rudolph is testament to his considerable talents as a pianist.  Beethoven dedicated the “Triple” Concerto to another of his patrons, Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz.  The first performance of the “Triple” Concerto took place in Vienna, in May of 1808.

The Triple Concerto is scored for a trio of soloists (violin, cello, and piano) and orchestra.  Beethoven composed the Triple Concerto around the same time as his path-breaking “Eroica” Symphony.  However, the Concerto’s three movements (Allegro, Largo, and Rondo alla Polacca) present a far more genial and lyrical side of Beethoven’s craft.  The opening Allegro is the most expansive of the work’s three movements.  A hushed Largo leads without pause to the finale, a Rondo based upon a polonaise, a sparkling Polish dance.


Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68 (1876)

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna, Austria, on April 3, 1897. 

The first performance of the Symphony No. 1 took place in Karlsruhe, Germany, on November 4, 1876, with Otto Dessoff conducting. 

Approximate performance time is forty-five minutes.

As early as 1853, prominent musicians, Robert Schumann included, urged the young Johannes Brahms to try his hand at symphonic composition.  Brahms, however, resisted the call.  In 1870, Brahms wrote to conductor Hermann Levi: “I shall never write a symphony.  You have no idea the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him beside us.”  Here, Brahms referred to the great shadow cast by Ludwig van Beethoven and his epochal Nine Symphonies.  And it was not until 1876, when Brahms was forty-three years old, that he completed his First Symphony.  The November 4, 1876, premiere took place in Karlsruhe, under the direction of Otto Dessoff.

Although Beethoven had been dead nearly half a century when the C-minor Symphony premiered, comparisons with the man Brahms called a “giant” were inevitable.  The Brahms First presents a dramatic journey from C minor to C Major, as does Beethoven’s Fifth.  A four-note motif, also reminiscent of the famous opening theme of the Beethoven Fifth, plays a prominent role the first movement.  A friend of Brahms noted the similarity of the finale’s principal theme to the Ode “To Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth.  To this observation, Brahms responded, “any ass can see that!”  The eminent conductor, Hans von Bülow, dubbed the work “Beethoven’s Tenth.”  Although Bülow certainly meant that as a compliment, it provided Brahms no great satisfaction.

For Brahms’s part, it seems that the completion of his First Symphony liberated him from the paralyzing specter of Beethoven’s imposing legacy.  Three more Brahms Symphonies followed over the ensuing decade—each, like the first, a monument of the late 19th-century orchestral repertoire.  In time, it became abundantly clear that in his Four Symphonies, Brahms, a musical descendent of Beethoven, spoke very much in his own voice—a voice of Romantic lyricism, passion, and grandeur.

The Symphony’s opening movement begins with a dramatic, slow-tempo introduction (Un poco sostenuto), featuring the timpani’s relentless hammer-blows and hints of the ensuing Allegro’s thematic material.  Another brusque chord launches the Allegro proper and the strings’ forte presentation of the ascending and descending theme that forms the nucleus for the movement’s thematic material.  Two relatively brief movements follow.  The beautiful second movement (Andante sostenuto) concludes with a shimmering violin solo.  The third movement (Un poco Allegretto e grazioso) is a graceful intermezzo.  As with the opening movement, the finale begins with an extended, broad introduction (Adagio).  The principal section of the finale (Allegro non troppo, ma con brio) opens with a majestic theme that bears a kinship to Beethoven’s Ode “To Joy.”  Storm and stress finally resolve to the triumphant closing measures.