Brilliance of Beethoven - March 10

Written by Ken Meltzer


Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58 (1806)

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827.  The first public performance took place in Vienna at the Theater-an-der-Wien on December 22, 1808, with the composer as soloist. 

Approximate performance time is thirty-four minutes.

Beethoven completed the score of his G-Major Concerto in 1806, and first performed the work during a March 1807 private concert at the palace of his patron, Prince Joseph Lobkowitz.  The first public performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto took place at the Vienna Theater-an-der-Wien on December 22, 1808.  In addition to the Fourth Piano Concerto, the concert, sponsored by Beethoven, included the world premieres of the composer’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and Choral Fantasy, as well as four movements from his Mass in C and the soprano aria, Ah! Perfido.

Still, the benefit concert (known as an Akademie) was far from a resounding success.  The meager rehearsal time was insufficient for a program of such length and difficulty (see, Choral Fantasy, below).  Further, the audience endured this taxing winter program in an unheated theater.

Perhaps the Fourth Piano Concerto fared as well as any piece on the December 22, 1808 program.  Beethoven was the soloist, and, according to German musician Johann Reichardt: “He played...with astounding cleverness and in the fastest possible tempi.  The (second movement), a masterly movement of beautifully developed song, he sang on this instrument with a profound melancholy that moved me.”

The Fourth Piano Concerto proved to be the last such work Beethoven composed for his own performance.  Increasing deafness finally made public appearances all but impossible for one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his time.

Beethoven completed his magnificent Fifth Piano Concerto (“Emperor”) in 1809.  The “Emperor,” Beethoven’s final Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, is certainly a fitting culmination of the composer’s efforts in this genre.  Still, there are many advocates for the G-Major Concerto as the composer’s finest.  It is a miraculous blend of haunting lyricism, expressive virtuosity, and formal innovation.  As British musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey observed: “Beethoven has now well and truly laid the foundations of his concerto form and is free to raise the edifice to heights undreamt of in earlier music.”

The Beethoven Concerto No. 4 is in three movements.  The first (Allegro moderato) is by far the longest.  Instead of the traditional purely orchestral introduction, the soloist immediately intones the first principal theme.  The brief second movement (Andante con moto) is in the form of a dialogue between the strings and piano. Franz Liszt compared this episode to “Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music.”  The finale (Rondo. Vivace) ensues without pause.  Beethoven presents a remarkable variety of moods and instrumental colors throughout.  After a cadenza and series of trills, there is a moment of repose before the soloist and orchestra dash headlong to a Presto finish.


Chichester Psalms (1965)

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, and died in New York on October 14, 1990.  The first performance of Chichester Psalms took place at Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in New York on July 15, 1965, with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic, the Camerata Singers, and John Bogart, alto. 

Approximate performance time is nineteen minutes.

During the 1964-5 season, Leonard Bernstein took a sabbatical from his duties as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, a post he assumed in 1958.  Bernstein hoped that the sabbatical would afford him a greater opportunity to devote his energies to composition.  Bernstein’s major venture was a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green—a musical based upon Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.  However, by January of 1965, it was clear that the project would not come to fruition.  During the sabbatical period, Bernstein also experimented with “12-tone music and even more experimental stuff.  I was happy that all these new sounds were coming out; but after about six months of work I threw it all away.  It just wasn’t my music.  It wasn’t honest.  The end result was the CHICHESTER PSALMS...”

In 1964, Bernstein received a commission from Dr. Walter Hussey, Dean of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, to compose a new work for its summer music festival.  Bernstein originally intended to call the work Psalms of Youth, but finally decided upon Chichester Psalms, because the piece “is far too difficult.”  Bernstein composed his Chichester Psalms in Manhattan during the spring of 1965, completing the work on May 7.  The Cathedral graciously allowed Bernstein to conduct the premiere not at Chichester, but at a July 15 New York Philharmonic concert.  That performance featured a mixed choir (male and female voices).  On July 31, the first performance of the composer’s preferred original version—with a male choir—took place in Chichester.

In describing the structure of the Chichester Psalms, the composer observed, “The work is in three movements, lasting about eighteen and a half minutes, and each movement contains one complete psalm plus one or more verses from another complementary psalm by way of contrast or amplification.”

Bernstein characterized his Chichester Psalms as “the most accessible, B-flat-majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.  If one is trying to find optimism versus pessimism in my music, the closest musical equivalent is tonality versus non-tonality.”  And in a poem written at the conclusion of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic sabbatical, he offered an affectionate tribute to his new work:

These psalms are a simple and modest affair,

Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,

Certain to sicken a stout John Cager

With its tonics and triads and E-flat major.

But there it stands—the result of my pondering,

Two long months of avant-garde wandering—

My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet,

And he stands on his own two tonal feet.


Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C Minor (Choral Fantasy), Opus 80 (1808)

Ludwig Van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827.  The first performance of the Choral Fantasy took place in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, with the composer as conductor and piano soloist. 

Approximate performance time is eighteen minutes.

The world premiere of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy took place as part of the same December 22, 1808 concert that featured the world premiere of the composer’s Fourth Piano Concerto (see, above), as well as several other masterworks.  It appears the quality of the December 22, 1808 performance did not match the lofty inspiration of featured works.  Beethoven, never the most technically adept of conductors, was unable to secure sufficient rehearsal time to assure competent performances of the new and difficult music.  By all accounts, orchestral execution during the concert was precarious at best.

The worst mishap may have occurred during the premiere of the Choral Fantasy.  Beethoven composed the work at lightning speed, commencing just a few weeks before the concert, and finishing barely in time for rehearsal.  During the performance, the orchestra was forced to stop in the middle of the work, and begin a section over again.  Beethoven later apologized to the orchestra, and made a point of publicly assuming the blame for the mishap.

Perhaps the Choral Fantasy was ill-fated from the start.  It would in time be eclipsed by a related work, but as Beethoven himself noted, one composed “on a far larger scale”, the epic Ninth Symphony (1824).  The similarities between the Choral Fantasy and the finale of the Ninth are readily apparent.  Both are structured as a series of variations on a theme.  In each work, the variations are first presented by the orchestra, then by the chorus.  The Ode To Joy is a clear descendent of the principal theme of the Choral Fantasy (actually first used in Beethoven’s 1794/5 song Gegenliebe (Mutual Love), WoO 118).  The Christian Kuffner text Beethoven set to music in the Choral Fantasy, while not as lofty as Schiller’s Ode To Joy, radiates a similar optimism about the human condition.

The Choral Fantasy is frequently presented on the same program as the Ninth Symphony.  It’s a natural pairing, given the works’ creator, musical similarities, and the ready presence of a chorus.  On rare occasions, as at this concert, the Choral Fantasy is allowed to stand on its own without the daunting presence of the Ninth.  Perhaps it is under such circumstances that the Choral Fantasy can best be appreciated for what it is—an engaging, vibrant, and moving work.

The Choral Fantasy opens with an extended improvisatory passage for solo piano (Adagio).  There is a brief dialogue between the orchestra and soloist (Finale. Allegro).  After some orchestral fanfares, the soloist introduces the principal theme (Meno allegro).  The flute begins the first of several variations on the theme involving the soloist and orchestra.  A brief transitional passage with cadenza-like flourishes for the soloist serves as a bridge to the entrance of vocal soloists and then the chorus for the triumphant final series of variations (Allegretto, ma non troppo, [quasi Andante con moto.]).