On August 31, 1822, Beethoven began work on music for the opening of the new Josephstadt Theatre in Vienna. The commission came from the theater’s director, Carl Friedrich Hensler, who was a respected friend of Beethoven’s. The librettist, Carl Meisl, had written two theatrical pieces for the opening, scheduled for 3 October 1822, not coincidentally the name day of the Emperor. The first of these pieces (Die Weihe des Hauses, or “The Consecration of the House”) was a paraphrase of Die Ruinen von Athen by Kotzebue, for which Beethoven had composed music in 1811 and 1812.
Its duration alone—nearly twice the length of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony (with which we opened the 2004–05 season)—would earn the “Eroica” a prominent spot in the history of ideas. That combined with Beethoven’s keen sense of the implications pent up in his themes, the daring harmonic practices, the novel movement structures, and the extramusical connection with Napoleon and his legend, make the impact of the “Eroica” virtually unmatched in the literature.
D. Kern HolomanFrom "Evenings with the Orchestra" (W. W. Norton, 1992)
Beethoven returned to symphonic composition after a decade of intellectual crisis and challenge ending in the creative outburst of 1822–23 that produced the Diabelli Variations and the Missa solemnis as well as the Ninth. The hiatus meant that he would need to reconcile the evolution of his compositional technique with the certain public expectation of yet another in what had been a series of triumphs. In the years since the Eighth Symphony he had achieved a new lyricism and simplicity, even a certain intimacy of discourse.
Mature composers, having mastered their craft and proved their most pressing points, often revert to a certain classicism and restraint, as if to show that cool logic can be as convincing as the whitest of passions. That seems to be the case with the Eighth Symphony, “my little symphony in F,” as Beethoven fondly put it. Like the Sixth Symphony, it is in F major, which Beethoven considers a bright, untroubled key. Rhythmic ostinatos are nearly as ubiquitous as in the Seventh, but here have a more restful effect.
What happiness Beethoven enjoyed during his mostly horrible life he discovered during his long daily walk and frequent holidays in the country. The “Pastoral” Symphony speaks of these rustic delights: the simple, Breughel-esque joys of the countryfolk; first the beauty and then the untamed fury of Nature.
The Seventh Symphony comes about four years after the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and is roughly contemporaneous with the Eighth. Each of the movements is built over by a pervasive rhythmic ostinato pattern, such that the symphony taken as a whole becomes an essay in musical propulsion. Today we tend to sneer at Wagner’s summary of the work as the “apotheosis of the dance,” but to me there seems an underlying, if old-fashioned, aptness to the remark.
More than any other composer of chamber music with piano, it was Beethoven who gave the cello the prominence it has today. The 18th-century duo sonata was considered primarily to be a keyboard sonata with “accompanying” melody instrument; consequently Beethoven designated his five cello sonatas as “Sonata(s) for Pianoforte and Violoncello.” Yet even in the first two sonatas of Opus 5, this titular ordering was more a matter of convention than a meaningful description of the instruments’ relative importance.
Beethoven’s first published opus was a set of three trios for piano, violin, and cello, which appeared in Vienna in 1795. After a hiatus of more than a decade, the mature, established composer returned to the medium, upon finishing the “Pastoral” Symphony in the summer of 1808. In his op. 1 trios, Beethoven had experimented with featuring the two string instruments more prominently than in the keyboard-dominated trios of Mozart and Haydn. With the op.
Lamoral, Count Egmont (1522–68), was a historical figure immortalized in Goethe’s tragedy of 1788, the play for which Beethoven later provided incidental music. Egmont, a Dutch nobleman, was on the one hand a loyal subject of Philip II of Spain–he pled Philip’s troth before Mary I of England—and on the other a fervent opponent of the repressive measures visited on the Netherlands by the Spanish regime.
The Beethoven Triple is from the genre called the symphonie concertante: a concerto-like composition for multiple soloists and orchestra. The concertante is a step-child of the concerto grosso of fifty years and more previous, and it had enjoyed a great vogue in the 1770s in Paris and Mannheim—cities Mozart visited during his travels of 1777–78 . . . which is how this curious form got to Vienna to begin with.
What is most striking about the Emperor is its size. A good deal longer than the Fifth Symphony, it approaches in breadth of form and proportion the manner of the Eroica and is surely to be placed alongside that symphony and the Fifth as a member of triumvirate that virtually defines the period. As in the Fourth Concerto, the work begins with the soloist, but here with much more flamboyance, a tactic repeated at the recapitulation and to which Beethoven makes reference again at the point of cadenza.
Improvisation is dependent on two disciplines: composition and performance skill. Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were triply acclaimed as composers, keyboardists, and improvisers. It would have been almost impossible to rival their legacy, as perceived by Beethoven. But he was the perfect well deserving heir.