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Beethoven: “Choral Fantasy”

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.And like Bach and Mozart, he devoted a significant part of his work to the composition of keyboard concertos.In December of 1808, Beethoven hurriedly composed the Choral Fantasy to conclude a very long concert given at the Theater an der Wien, which included the premiere of three movements from the Mass in C, the scene and aria Ah! Perfido, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and a freely improvised fantasy for piano, performed by the composer. In his preparations for the marathon event, Beethoven sought to write a closing piece, employing all the performers involved. His song Gegenliebe, composed in 1794 or 1795, would serve as the basic material, upon which he would compose variations. But this would be preceded by another keyboard fantasy, which Beethoven would improvise at the concert. Only much later did he write it down.

It is difficult, even impossible for the human mind to selectively forget sentient experiences. We have heard the Ninth Symphony, that magnificently eloquent song of mankind, and we are compelled to compare it to the Choral Fantasy. The earlier work is doomed to pale by this comparison; indeed, it seems like a little sibling considering to the scope and texture of the symphony. But if we remember that the Choral Fantasy came first—by about sixteen years—we realize not only what a completely satisfying work it is, but also that it is truly the model upon which the Ninth is based. The similarities are obvious to the listener, but scratching beneath the surface reveals a plethora of identical idiomatic idiosyncrasies and compositional rhetoric. In particular, his use of relative keys in the two works is the same: the Ninth’s third movement and the Adagio ma non troppo section of the Choral Fantasy are both a third below the overall tonality, and episodes in both choral finales make dramatic use of a sudden modulation up a minor third in an otherwise relentlessly major tonality. In the Choral Fantasy, though, it is the pianist that emerges as hero. The piano plays almost continuously throughout the whole work, and, like the cellos in the Ninth Symphony, presents the Finale’s melodic material first as a healing reward following the tortured passages of the opening Adagio fantasy (which is just five minutes in length compared to the forty or so minutes of the Ninth’s first three movements).

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