Program notes by Vincent Osborn © 2019
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
BAPTIZED: December 17, 1770, in Bonn, Germany
DIED: March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
WORK COMPOSED: 1801-02 (Dedicated to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky)
WORLD PREMIERE: April 5, 1803, at Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Beethoven conducting
Losing one’s hearing must be a terrifying and frightening experience. For a musician it would be the death of their career. As I started to read more about Beethoven’s situation I thought of two bass playing colleagues of mine whose musical identities have changed due to deafness. Modern technology has afforded them the ability to have cochlear implants, which gives them the semblance of a normal, hearing life but, their identity as professional, performing musicians has changed. For Beethoven, without modern technology, his increasing deafness was a tragedy.
Beethoven kept his hearing problems to himself until June 1801 when he finally confessed to his friend, Dr. Franz Wegeler, “For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.” His first signs of relief came when he met Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt, a professor of general pathology and therapy. Dr. Schmidt seemed full of sympathy and optimism. He recommended that Beethoven leave Vienna and take a rest in the rural village of Heiligenstadt. Beethoven left for the pastoral village in late April of 1802. Six months later, and only days after finishing the Second Symphony, he would write the famous letter to his brothers, Carl and Johann, that would be forever known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In the document, which was never sent, Beethoven admitted to his hearing problems and his thoughts of suicide, “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.”
The first movement of the Second Symphony has moments that elicit thoughts of another of his symphonies, the Ninth. Indeed there are some striking similarities between the two symphonies, the Second in D major and the Ninth in D minor. One might think that Beethoven returned to his sketches for the Second when he was composing the Ninth.
Omitting the standard third-movement minuet, Beethoven replaced it with a scherzo, which increases the scope and energy of the composition. A scherzo is defined as a short, light and playful composition (the translation of the Italian word is ‘joke’ or ‘jest’). Although many composers used the scherzo for years it was Beethoven who made regular use of it and established it as part of the symphony.
Beethoven’s joking around in the third movement does not end there; the fourth movement is rife with jokes about belching, hiccups and flatulence followed by a groan of pain. As Robert Greenberg puts it, “Beethoven’s gastric problems, particularly in times of great stress – like the fall of 1802 – were legendary. … It has been understood almost since the day of its premiere that that is what this music is all about. Beethoven never refuted it; in fact, he must have encouraged it.” While it may have been shocking in 1803, today it is joyful and even hilarious.
The Second Symphony is filled with boundless humor and vitality, “… this Symphony is smiling throughout,” remarked Hector Berlioz. To fully appreciate the Second Symphony one has to consider it in context; this was a time when the public was listening to the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, and Beethoven’s First Symphony. What we now witness is Beethoven on the precipice of a new era, one that will define the next period of music. – Program notes by Vincent Osborn © 2019
HISTORY: This Symphony was performed by the DSSO most recently on a Chamber Concert in the Great Hall of the Depot (St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center). The performance was on May 10, 2016 and Dirk Meyer conducted. Prior to that there have been only two Masterworks Series performances: on September 30, 1989 with Taavo Virkhaus and on April 27, 1945 with Tauno Hannikainen.
INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.
JOHANNES BRAHMS Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54
BORN: May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany
DIED: April 3, 1897, in Vienna, Austria
WORK COMPOSED: 1868-71
WORLD PREMIERE: October 18, 1871, in Karlsruhe, Hermann Levi conducting
After finishing his Ein deutsches Requiem Brahms took a well-deserved rest in the summer of 1868 by visiting his friend Albert Dietrich in Wilhelmshaven. Dietrich would later recall that Brahms, who was “usually so cheery, was silent and serious” during their visit to the naval base on the North Sea. Brahms explained that early that morning he found a collection of Friedrich Hölderlin’s (1770-1843) poems in the bookcase and had been deeply moved by Hyperion’s Schicksalslied. The poem Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) comes from Hölderlin’s epistolary novel Hyperion or the Hermit in Greece, 1797-99, which idealizes the humanity and culture of Ancient Greece. Hyperion’s Schicksalslied considers the plight of mankind misplaced and lost within his social environment. Dietrich remembers that later in the day, after the group of friends had finished their exploring, they sat by the sea to rest. They noticed that Brahms was a great distance away, sitting alone and writing the first sketches for his Schicksalslied.
He would not complete the work until May 1871, largely due to his indecision on how it should conclude. Hermann Levi (who conducted the premiere later that year) suggested that in lieu of a full return of the first section Brahms should only reintroduce the orchestral prelude to conclude the piece. Convinced by Levi’s idea, Brahms composed the third section as a copy of the orchestral prelude transposed into C major and with a richer instrumentation. This conclusion has been seen by some as Brahms’ desire to “relieve the gloom of the concluding idea of the text by shedding a ray of light over the whole, and leaving a more hopeful impression.”
Schicksalslied is one of the earliest settings of Hölderlin’s poetry. Largely unknown in his lifetime it wasn’t until 1913, when Norbert von Hellingrath (1888-1916) published the first two of eventually six volumes of Hölderlin’s works, that he would be recognized as one of the greatest poets ever to write in the German language. Other composers inspired by Hölderlin include Richard Strauss, Reger, Schumann, Hindemith, Britten, Henze and Orff. Although it is rarely performed Schicksalslied is considered to be one of Brahms’ best choral works along with his masterpiece Ein deutsches Requiem. Indeed, Josef Sittard writes in his book on Brahms, “Had Brahms never written anything but this one work, it would alone have sufficed to rank him with the best masters.” – Program notes by Vincent Osborn © 2019
HISTORY: Tonight’s performance of this work is the first by the Orchestra and the DSSO Chorus.
INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, strings and chorus
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Choral Fantasy, Op. 80
BAPTIZED: December 17, 1770, in Bonn, Germany
DIED: March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
WORK COMPOSED: 1808
WORLD PREMIERE: December 22, 1808, at Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Beethoven conducting
An advertisement, taken out by Beethoven himself near the end of 1808, in the Wiener Zeitung read: “On Thursday, December 22, Ludwig van Beethoven will have the honor to give a musical Akademie in the R. I. Priv. Theater-an-der-Wien. All the pieces are of his composition, entirely new, and not yet heard in public…” To serve as a finale to this benefit concert, Beethoven wanted a brilliant work that would unite all the different elements featured earlier in the concert: the orchestra, chorus and solo piano. The Choral Fantasy was composed expressly for this concert with Beethoven conducting from the piano.
Beethoven, in financial difficulties, organized this benefit concert for himself. Those who attended witnessed the premieres of not only the Choral Fantasy, but also his Fourth Piano Concerto and the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, two excerpts from his in-progress Mass in C major, an aria and a solo piano improvisation! Now if you are starting to think you might be jealous of those fortunate audience members… it was December in 1808, there was a problem with the heating system making it a very cold venue, the concert lasted from 6:30 to 10:30, and nearly all of the music was sight-read at the concert and being under rehearsed, the orchestra was in a foul and surly mood. Ferdinand Ries, a piano pupil of Beethoven, wrote: “We experienced the fact that one could easily have too much of a good – and even more, a powerful – thing. I… would not have thought of leaving the box before the end of the concert, although several faulty performances tried our patience to the utmost.”
There are numerous reports regarding the fiasco of the Choral Fantasy starting with the short rehearsal before the concert – the ink had yet to dry on the vocal parts! Beethoven gave instructions that the second variation should be played without a repeat, but at the performance and performing without any notes in front of him, he forgot all about that. He repeated the first part while the orchestra accompanied the second part resulting in what musicians will sometimes refer to as a ‘train-wreck’. Ignaz von Seyfried described the situation, “A trifle too late, the Concertmaster, Unrath, noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out dryly: ‘Again!’” There are also accounts of the clarinetist being verbally abused by Beethoven for playing a few too many notes when the choral theme was introduced. After the concert a chosen group from the orchestra informed Beethoven that they would never play for him again. Well, musicians can be overreactive at times and of course they played for him again, Beethoven was a genius, a superstar.
Unfortunately the chroniclers of this premiere concert focused more on the negative aspects of the evening and very little on the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies or the Fourth Piano Concerto. However, with all the mishaps and disasters of that premiere performance, the Choral Fantasy serves as a harbinger of greater things to come, notably the great Ninth Symphony. – Program notes by Vincent Osborn © 2019
HISTORY: Tonight marks the third performance of this work by the DSSO and Symphony Chorus. It was heard first on April 27, 1990 with Beth Gilbert, the Orchestra’s Principal Keyboard player as piano soloist, with Assistant Conductor Andrew D. Johnson. Most recently it was given on May 16, 2009 with Shai Wosner, piano, and Markand Thakar conducting. (Vocal soloists in that performance were sopranos Rachel Inselman and Regina Zona, mezzo -soprano Christine Hawkins, tenors Marcus McConico and William Bastian, and baritone Greg Dokken.)
INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings, chorus and solo piano.