This week’s Audio Flashback is the Serenade for Strings by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was born 181 years ago this week. TŌN performed the work with conductor Leon Botstein on September 19, 2020 as part of the “Out of the Silence” festival, presented with the Bard Music Festival (BMF) and the Fisher Center at Bard. In his concert notes on the Serenade, BMF Artistic Codirector Christopher H. Gibbs notes that Tchaikovsky was writing this piece at the same time as his famous 1812 Overture, and wrote in a letter to his patron, “The overture will be very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth or enthusiasm; therefore it has no great artistic value. The Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from an inward impulse; I felt it, and venture to hope that this work is not without artistic qualities.” You can read the full notes on the Serenade by clicking here.
Notes by TŌN oboist JJ Silvey
“As a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with great vehemence asunder . . . at the entrance of a forte he jumped into the air.”
So Louis Spohr, the renowned German composer and violinist, described Beethoven’s tempestuous conducting at the premiere of the Seventh Symphony. The occasion was a patriotic one. On December 8, 1813, Spohr, along with a starry group of musicians including Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Antonio Salieri, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, gathered to play in an orchestra led by Beethoven as part of a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. For this event the composer, by then an emphatic critic of the megalomaniacal Napoleon, debuted his Seventh Symphony alongside another new work, Wellington’s Victory, written to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Joseph Bonaparte’s forces in the Battle of Vitoria.
Though the Seventh Symphony does not share the explicit political immediacy of Wellington’s Victory, it is impossible to dissociate it from Beethoven’s resolute idealism. Even at a time in his career plagued by worsening deafness and dire financial hardship, Beethoven was able to suffuse the work with a palpable sense of revolutionary zeal. As a whole, the symphony is exuberant, grand, and unbridled in its dual capacities for jubilance and sincerity. The first movement begins with a gracefully unfolding oboe solo punctuated by chordal “hits” from the full orchestra. The rest of the poco sostenuto introduction alternates between poised, lilting wind passages and stentorian iterations from the orchestra which, before long, give way to a cheerful vivace permeated by lively dotted rhythms.
Triumph Over Tyranny
The second movement, though marked allegretto, is the work’s dramatic zenith. A simple, serious rhythmic theme is introduced by low strings and is soon interwoven with a grave countermelody. These two ideas compete in increasing force as more instruments take them up, building steadily to an intense, climactic scene. This gives way to a dreamlike, yearning middle section, soon interrupted by a re-introduction of the theme. Another climax results, this time texturally enriched by deeper layers of Beethoven’s characteristically masterful counterpoint. In the third movement, a rollicking presto, fleet, playful wind solos are heard among bombastic, high-spirited dance episodes. The spectacle is occasionally curtailed by the emergence of an unhurried, stately theme. Finally, the fourth movement arrives to declare victory. Beethoven, the revolutionary, has had an ecstatic vision of mankind’s final triumph over tyranny.
Notes by TŌN trumpet player Maggie Tsan-Jung Wei
Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56, is more similar to a piano trio than a concerto, with the whole orchestra acting as an accompanist to build up texture and add different colors. Most of the time, it is a competition or cooperation among three soloists. The three of them may play against each other, or support each other in different phrases. What makes this piece unique is the instrumentation. Beethoven was successful not only at putting these three solo instruments together in front of a whole orchestra, but also at keeping them balanced. Acting more as partners, the three instruments do not dominate over each other. Even now, it is probably the only well-known triple sonata for these three instruments. However, the work was not as successful as it is now when Beethoven first composed it around the year 1804. It was not officially performed until about four years after it was published. Surprisingly, it did not receive great critiques during the nineteenth century. However, the fact that people are still performing the concerto nowadays proves the value of this piece.
I certainly cannot choose my favorite movement in this concerto. The three movements have their own unique texture and musical language. The first movement is in sonata form, which is one of the most common forms for first movements in symphonies or concertos. It can be separated into three parts based on the motive. In this movement I really enjoy the beginning, when the piece opens with the lower string section, and the rest of the orchestra slowly builds up and introduces the three soloists. The second movement instills a sacred and peaceful feeling in me, almost as if I was standing by myself in the middle of an empty cathedral. The last movement, just like other traditional concertos, is a fast movement. It is joyful and delightful, and also brings back the tension and the cooperation between the three soloists.
Notes by TŌN bassoonist Philip McNaughton
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, also known as the “Fate Symphony,” is arguably one of the most iconic pieces of classical music in the canon. Its four-note opening motif evokes an immediate reaction from not only the most avid classical music appreciator, but also from someone who has never stepped foot into a concert hall before. It has been played by world-class orchestras in almost every city around the world, and has even been heard in McDonald’s commercials. The work was composed from 1804 to 1808 and was based off of three of Beethoven’s original sketches. The piece premiered in Vienna in 1808 at a momentous all-Beethoven program that is said to have lasted four hours, at which the composer himself conducted and performed on the piano. The work was one of several premieres on the program, including Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.
Symphony V for Victory
The nickname of the symphony, “Fate,” which was not given by Beethoven himself, comes from the four note opening of the piece. The most recognizable portion, “short-short-short-long,” was thought to resemble fate knocking at a subject’s door, and is used as a motif throughout each movement of the work. Because of the symphony’s popularity, the theme was commonly used during the second World War as a way to mark a victory over the radio systems. In Morse code, “short-short-short-long” spelled out the letter “V” for victory. The theme would be played whenever the Allied forces found success in their endeavors. It became a powerful symbol of hope.
A Gateway Work
Whether or not Beethoven himself thought of this opening motif as fate knocking on the door remains unclear. What does ring true is that it was fate for this piece to live on forever. I think of this work as a gateway to classical music for the average person. The opening four notes are recognized by practically everyone around the world, but it’s what follows those notes that makes the symphony magical. The opening hooks the audience, but the rest of the piece keeps listeners planted in their seats, amazed at what contemporary and rich stories classical music can paint. The “Fate Symphony” has held the fate of classical music in its hands for centuries, and I believe the piece will continue to be a riveting gateway work for many more centuries to come.