Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Piano trio, variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” theme
“Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” (I am Kakadu the tailor) was the name of a popular tune from Wenzel Muller’s opera “Die Schwestern von Prag (The Sisters from Prague). Beethoven composed these variations during his early years in Vienna, then sent them to the publisher after the opera was revived in 1814, with the note, “one of my earlier compositions, though it is not among the reprehensible ones”. Enjoy this delightful performance by the ATOS Trio. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy — his beautiful song, An die ferne Geliebteto contemplate the future.
Alois Jeitteles was a young physician who was also making a name for himself as a poet when he wrote the six poems which Beethoven wove into the beautiful “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the distant Beloved). It is a true Liederkreis (song cycle), thoroughly composed so that the songs are inseparable from one another. This performance by John Sigerson and Margaret Greenspan was part of an international conference of the Schiller Institute that took place in April of 2020. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven’s fifth and last piano concerto was published in 1810 in French-occupied Vienna, but not performed until the following year in Leipzig. The Vienna premier took place in 1812, with Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny as the soloist, Beethoven being by this time too deaf to play with an orchestra. Beethoven, an ardent republican, would certainly not have approved of the nickname “the Emperor” for his 5th piano concerto, calling it simply his “great concerto”. It’s a grand and expansive work, with rich dialog between soloist and orchestra. Here is a most enjoyable performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on piano, with David Afkham conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony orchestra. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto is unique in that it opens not with a grandiose orchestral introduction, but with a serene statement of the ideas by the piano soloist. Following its public premiere in December 1808 – part of a marathon concert which also featured the 5th and 6th Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy, and three movements from the Mass in C – the concerto languished until 1836, when it was revived by Felix Mendelssohn. On November 3, 1838, Robert Schumann wrote, “Today Mendelssohn played the G‑Major Concerto of Beethoven with a power and polish that it transported us all. I took a pleasure in it such as I have never before enjoyed, and I sat in my seat without moving a muscle or even breathing.” Today’s performance is by Mitsuko Uchida, with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Beethoven: Spark of Joy – Oratorio, Op. 85, Christ on the Mount of Olives
Beethoven’s little-known oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85”, is considered a failure by most critics and scholars today, and they insist that Beethoven also considered it so. Yet, despite its many detractors, it was a great success in its time, until it was banned in 1825; and even though it was composed in two weeks, with a weak libretto, Beethoven thought enough of it to revise parts that he thought needed it. Could it be that objections to the work are based more on its radically different treatment of the character of Jesus Christ than any musical deficiencies?
The Origins of the Work
Before Beethoven attempted string quartets, he wrote three string trios to sharpen his compositional skills to the level necessary. Similarly, the oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives“ was very likely Beethoven’s preparation for his first opera, Leonore, later known as “Fidelio”. Both works were commissioned by the same individual, Emmanuel Schikeneder, who is best known for having commissioned and written the libretto for Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”. The opera was commissioned shortly after the premiere of the oratorio, most probably on the basis of its success. Both premiered in Schikeneder’s theater—the Theater an dem Wien—Christ on the Mount of Olives in 1803, and Leonore/Fidelio in 1805.
Oratorio and opera both combine music and drama, but in . . . oratorio, there is no scenery, the characters are not in costume, and they do not act. They stand and sing, letting the music tell the story. The chorus plays a much greater role than in opera. In “Christ on the Mount of Olives”, there are no acts, but six numbered sections featuring three soloists—Jesus, the Seraph, and Peter, as well as the chorus (playing different roles) and an orchestra.
What unifies these two works is the conception Beethoven shares with the great poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller—the Promethean idea of humanity—the idea that an individual person can intervene into history to change its course.
In the classical Greek play “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus, Prometheus, himself an immortal god, has stolen fire from the tyrannical chief God Zeus; and given it and other gifts of knowledge to the “creatures of a day”- mankind, whom Zeus wishes to destroy. Armed with knowledge, and a vision of the future (Prometheus’ very name means “forethought”), mankind is lifted above its bestial condition, and progresses. Zeus, in anger, imposes hideous punishment on Prometheus-to be chained to a rock, where an eagle returns every day to eat his liver. All of Prometheus’ friends, who live for the moment, urge him to compromise with Zeus, in order to ensure his immediate survival. Prometheus refuses to compromise. He operates on a higher level. Despite great suffering, he orders his life in the present, in order to bring about a future he knows has to be.
In his “Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Mankind”, Schiller also called upon the artistic community to give human beings a gift—of a more powerful, true, and beautiful notion of their own human nature. More than any other composer, Beethoven responded to Schiller’s call. Beethoven and Schiller shared something with Prometheus; they would not compromise an inch on matters of moral importance for humanity. Both introduced the bold idea of a woman as a Promethean leader; Schiller in his “Maid of Orleans” (the story of Joan of Arc), and Beethoven in his Lenore, the hero of his opera “Fidelio”.
Jesus as Promethean Hero
Part of the controversy over “Christ on the Mount of Olives” was the way Beethoven portrayed Jesus. For Christians, he is both the “Son of God” and the “Son of Man.” Some felt that portraying the human side of Him undermined his identity as “the Son of God.” There were plenty of gnostics trying to claim that he was the greatest of men, but still only a man. So, there was a reluctance to have either an actor or singer play Him directly. (Ft1) J.S. Bach did so, but as a bass, and like the evangelist, singing for the most part recitative, as a kind of narrative, rather than playing a direct dramatic role. For Beethoven, Jesus was also the “Son of Man’ as he called himself, and the human side of Him was often missed. In emphasizing Jesus’ identity as a human being though, Beethoven is not in any way seeking to undermine His divinity.
Unlike the “Passion” settings of the story, Beethoven’s oratorio does not deal with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, but just the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. It also differs in that Jesus is the main dramatic character, and his part is sung by a Heldentenor (heroic tenor.)
It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus accepted His hard fate: the inevitability of His own death, in order to fulfill His mission on earth. It was presented to Him in the form of a cup, from which He must drink. If He were only a God, there would have been no need to fear, but as a Man, it was terrifying.
He did not want to die, and prayed three times: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”
He looks around at his Apostles, and they have all fallen asleep. He realizes that no-one else is going to do it, and says to God the Father: “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:39).
But, in order for us to love the sublime heroism of Jesus, his suffering must be real. The Biblical account of Christ’s suffering is powerful, but short:
“And his sweat were as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
“My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” (Mark 14:34, Matthew 26:38)
The shortness of that Biblical passage can allow readers to skip over it, without really taking it into their hearts. In his essay, “On the Pathetic” (discussed in the posting of April 7th), Schiller says that “the artist portrays suffering not for its own sake, but for the heroic quality of overcoming that suffering in order to act”. It is not art to become master of feelings, which only lightly and fleetingly sweep the surface of the soul; but to retain one’s mental freedom in a storm, which arouses all of sensuous nature, thereto belongs a capacity of resisting that is, above all natural power, infinitely sublime. Therefore, one attains to moral freedom only through the most lively representation of suffering nature, and the tragic hero must have first legitimized himself to us as a feeling being, before we pay homage to him as a being of reason, and believe in the strength of his soul.
Beethoven commissioned a libretto that would develop and dramatize the short passage: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” > > > [Excerpts from Fred Haight’s Daily Dose of Beethoven; the whole part 1 can be found at this link.
Here a sublime performance of Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85, performed by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Vienna Academy Chorus, Hermann Scherchen, Jan Peerce, Maria Stander, Otto Wiener ℗ 2013 Past Classics.
Beethoven: Spark of Joy – Piano concerto No. 3, Op. 37 in C-minor.
Beethoven premiered his third piano concerto in 1803 at a massive benefit concert, which also featured the premieres of his Second Symphony, the oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives”, and a reprise of the first symphony (premiered a year earlier). As the composer had been completing orchestral scores for the oratorio in the wee hours of that morning, there was no time for him to write out the piano score for his new concerto. Hence the great consternation of his page-turner, Ignaz von Seyfried, who saw nothing but “empty pages with here and there what looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs, unintelligible to me, scribbled to serve as clues for him,” and had to rely on surreptitious nods from Beethoven to signal that it was time to turn the page. In this concerto, composed in the C-minor tonality, Beethoven once again pays homage to Mozart, whose 24th piano concerto was also in C-minor and is considered to be his greatest. Here, Seong-Jin Cho performs Beethoven’s third piano concerto, Opus 37, with the WDR Symphony Orchestra. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Beethoven’s five piano concerti were written between 1793 and 1809. The first two were quite experimental, intending to fill the palpable void in Vienna for this genre of composition left by the death of Mozart in 1791. By the third concerto in C minor, Beethoven was fully the master of the form. Beethoven also personally premiered each concerto, composing the cadenzas for each one himself, making the case for his preeminent virtuosity as a pianist, with the exception of the 5th by which time his loss of hearing had become acute. Here is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15, with Fabio Luisi conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden and pianist Margarita Höhenrieder. [Notes John Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Opus 9, no. 3, string trio: Foreshadows Later Great Works
The third of the Opus 9 string trios is a masterwork in C-minor, the tonality associated with some of Beethoven’s most dramatic works (think of the “Pathétique” and Opus 111 piano sonatas, for example). This is Beethoven’s farewell to the string trio. After 1798 he would begin working on string quartets, a genre which would bear fruits throughout the rest of his life. The Opus 9 no. 3 is played with great musicality by the Camerata Pacifica. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – String Trio, Opus 9, No. 2
The Opus 9 no. 2 string trio differs from its siblings in its quietly introspective character, with Beethoven’s melodic genius fully on display, especially in the second and fourth movements. Here it is in full score, performed by the Grumiaux Trio. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Opus 9, No. 1: A Gem Trio Dedicated to an Irishman Who Served in the Russian Army!
Beethoven’s Opus 9 is a delightful set of three string trios, deserving of broader popularity than they enjoy today. They were dedicated to one of his early patrons, Count Johann George von Browne, the son of an Irish soldier of fortune who had risen to the rank of major general in the Russian army. This one, Op. 9, no. 1, was written in 1798. Here is a riveting performance of the Opus 9 no. 1 from the Camerata Pacifica. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]