PROGRAM NOTES: Beethoven’s Fifth, March 21, 2020

GUILLAUME CONNESSON Flammenschrift, (2012)

BORN: May 5, 1970, in Boulogne-Billancourt, France
WORK COMPOSED: 2012
WORLD PREMIERE: November 8, 2012, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris; Daniele Gatti conducting the Orchestre National de France

Guillaume Connesson is currently one of the most performed French composers in the world. His music has been performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony, the BBC Symphony and so many others. After his studies he has been active as a composer-in-residence with some of the most respected orchestras in Europe as well as professor of orchestration at the Conservatoire National d’Aubervilliers-la Courneuve (a conservatory focused on teaching the performing arts to students ages six and up).

Connesson cites a diverse list of influences such as Couperin, Wagner, Messiaen, Stravinsky, John Williams and James Brown. His music may seem to seamlessly shift from one historical reference to a modern genre, but it is all done without giving it the sense of being a parody. In 2012 Connesson completed two symphonic poems for orchestra: Flammenschrift, conceived as a tribute to Beethoven and Germany and Maslenitsa, which pays homage to the music and culture of Russia. These two works are the bookends to his musical trilogy with E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare (2015), which honors Italy, providing the central movement.

Conductor Daniele Gatti asked a number of contemporary composers to provide companion pieces for a Beethoven cycle that would be performed by the Orchestre National de France. Connesson planned a companion work to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that would also serve as a ‘psychological portrait’ of Beethoven. As the work took form it also was a tribute to Germany and there are references to Brahms and Richard Strauss.

The title of Connesson’s Flammenschrift (loosely translated as ‘letter of fire’ or ‘flame-writing’) comes from a passage in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem that displays his deep and intense passion. Goethe (1749-1832) fell in love with the 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow when he spent the summer of 1821 in Marienbad and two years later he returned to Marienbad and asked Ulrike, via a friend, to marry him. She declined (do the math) and he was completely devastated. He started writing one of his most personal and finest poems, Marienbad Elegy, on his return trip to Weimar and shared it only with his closest friends. By the way, Ulrike never married and died at the age of 95.

Beethoven was a deeply passionate man who celebrated ideas of brotherhood and peace, but also displayed a great, seething anger towards his close friends and colleagues. Connesson’s vision for Flammenschrift was to paint a ‘paradoxical musical portrait’ of the great composer by using direct rhythmic and developmental traits of Beethoven’s style with the fundamental basis being the most-famous Fifth Symphony.

Two violent and propulsive themes swirling around the orchestra open the work followed by a more relaxed third theme, featuring clarinets and bassoons, playing over a restless string accompaniment. Yet another more lyrical theme completes the exposition. Connesson’s musical vocabulary for the development section is right out of the Beethoven tradition of the 19th century. The dichotomy of restless, frenetic energy in contrast to sedate, melodic interludes provides for a psychological profile of both Beethoven and Goethe at their most intense and vulnerable moments. As the tempo increases there is a sudden change to a major key, a direct reference to the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth. Flammenschrift concludes with a fiery, joyful dance.  .” – Program notes by Vincent Osborn © 2019

HISTORY: No music by Guillaume Connesson has been previously played by the DSSO.

INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.


 

 

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488

BORN: January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791, in Vienna
WORK COMPOSED: Completed March 2, 1786
WORLD PREMIERE: Undocumented

The winter of 1785-86 was the most productive period of Mozart’s life. While working on The Marriage of Figaro he completed three piano concertos, a one-act comic opera (The Impresario), a violin sonata, and about eight other smaller works. These three piano concertos are the first occasion of Mozart’s use of the clarinet in that genre. He begins this A major concerto as if following the prescribed form of the classical concerto, but within a very short time he basically ignores all the precepts. This risky adventure is something only a genius like Mozart could successfully achieve. At times the first movement comes off more as a piano and orchestra duet than a piano solo with accompaniment, yet the tone is warm and lyrical with only hints of mischief.

If you only listen to one piece of music by Mozart it has to be the second movement of this concerto. The atmosphere he creates seems so tragically hopeless that it just plunges deeply into the heart. His choice of tempo and key (his only work in F-sharp minor, emotionally associated with gloom, discontent and lament) are very deliberate. And just when he has taken you to the depths of your emotions, only Mozart can make you forget all of that when he introduces the cheerful and lively rondo finale.

After arriving in Vienna in 1781 Mozart was in steady demand for his works and performances. We have the image of a playful person, thanks to the movie Amadeus, and we can imagine how Mozart might have performed on the piano. A genius such as Mozart would not be satisfied playing a piece the same way over and over; I imagine him improvising a different cadenza with each performance. My favorite recording of Piano Concerto No. 23 is with Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra on a CD titled The Mozart Sessions. Corea’s interpretation is respectful to the score yet adds little things here and there that make it a very fresh and emotional performance. I think Mozart would have approved. – Program notes by Vincent Osborn © 2019

HISTORY: There have been only two previous performances of this Concerto by the Orchestra: on January 22, 2000 with pianist Andreas Haefliger (Yong-yan Hu conducting), and on January 17, 1981 with Daniel Adni (Taavo Virkhaus conducting).

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and strings.


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

BAPTIZED: December 17, 1770, in Bonn, Germany
DIED: March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
WORK COMPOSED: 1804-08 (Dedicated to Prince von Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky)
WORLD PREMIERE: December 22, 1808, at Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Beethoven conducting

Who remembers the old show, Name That Tune? Your clue is: This tune is one of the best-known compositions in the classical music world, one of the most frequently performed and considered one of the cornerstones of western music. Almost everyone can name that tune in four notes: Ta-ta-ta-tum. Unfortunately, as music education in the public schools is waning, there may come a day when a large segment of society will not recognize Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or for that matter, any number of great works that form the infrastructure of western music.

What makes greatness? Is it when something becomes such an ingrained part of our culture that we can hardly imagine it not being there? Consider the first ten words of Hamlet’s soliloquy, Mona Lisa’s smile, the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which represents greatness in music. Can you imagine the non-existence of any of these? It is why we go to concerts and get caught up in riveting performances. “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man,” E. M. Forster writes in Howard’s End. Robert Schumann wrote, “Let us be silent about this work! No matter how frequently heard, whether at home or in the concert hall, this symphony invariably wields its power over people of every age like those great phenomena of nature that fill us with fear and admiration at all times, no matter how frequently we may experience them.”

The very meaning of this work is found in the move from minor to major, dark to light, conflict to resolution. The four movements of the Fifth progress in a logical path from the ominous first four notes to the glorious finale. Eighteen months after the premiere E. T. A. Hoffmann praised the “indescribably profound, magnificent symphony in C minor”:

How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!… No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord—indeed, even in the moments that follow it—he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound….

… one of the most important works of the master whose stature as a first-rate instrumental composer probably no one will now dispute… the instrumental music of Beethoven open[s] the realm of the colossal and immeasurable for us.

Beethoven’s Fifth is groundbreaking in both its technical and emotional impact and has influenced the works of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler and Berlioz. Its first movement is on the phonograph record that was sent into outer space on the Voyager probe. During the Second World War the Allies used the phrase “V for Victory” and Beethoven’s Fifth became known as the Victory Symphony. The BBC prefaced its broadcasts to Europe with the first four notes played on drums and coincidentally, or not, the letter ‘V’ in Morse code is ‘dit dit dit dah’.

Beethoven admitted to his hearing loss and thoughts of suicide in his Heiligenstadt Testament written during some of the worst moments of his life. The Fifth Symphony conceivably represents Beethoven’s struggle to victory over this physical ailment. Beethoven wrote in a student’s notebook, “Many assert that every minor [tonality] piece must end in the minor. Nego! [I say no] on the contrary, I find that… the major [tonality] has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine – rain. It affects me as if I were looking to the silvery glistening of the evening star.” – Program notes by Vincent Osborn © 2019

HISTORY:  There have been twelve previous DSSO Masterworks Series performances of this Symphony: on January 8, 1936 and 1941 (Paul Lemay conducting),1 946 (Tauno Hannikainen),1951, 1960 and 1965 ( Hermann Herz), 1969 (Joseph Hawthorne), 1979 (Taavo Virkhaus), 1996 (Yong-yan Hu), 2002  (Markand Thakar),  2007 (Guest Conductor George Hanson), and  March 1, 2014  (with  Dirk Meyer on a Masterworks – Discovery concert at Duluth’s East High School Auditorium, and repeated the next day in Silver Bay, MN) .

The last movement has also been played on Young People’s Concerts; and on a series of three outdoor concerts in July, 2011 (with Markand Thakar).

INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.