Beethoven composed his delectable Opus 16 Wind Quintet in 1796, when he was riding a wave of public acclaim as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser. It’s likely that he modeled it on Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat, K. 452, also scored for piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, which had been composed twelve years earlier. There’s a delightful anecdote related by Ferdinand Ries about an 1804 performance of the Quintet, at which the ever-impish Beethoven suddenly began to improvise on the Rondo theme, amusing himself and the audience but quite annoying the other musicians, as they were constantly raising their instruments when they expected to resume playing, only to have to put them down again. When Beethoven finally returned to the Rondo, the audience was transported with delight. This is a superb performance by Klára Würtz and the Netherlands Wind Soloists. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – A Call for Creatures of Prometheus.
Ballet was a very popular entertainment in 18th century Vienna, and Beethoven composed his first ballet, the “Ritterballet” (Dance of the Knights) in 1791, while still in Bonn. Ten years later, he collaborated with the noted dancer and composer Salvatore Viganò on a ballet with mime, called “Creatures of Prometheus”.
A handbill for the first performance in the Burgtheater in Vienna on 28 March 1801 provides the following synopsis: “This allegorical ballet is based on the myth of Prometheus. The Greek philosophers who knew him tell the story in the following manner: they depict Prometheus as a lofty spirit who, finding the human beings of his time in a state of ignorance, refined them through art and knowledge and gave them laws of right conduct. In accordance with this source, the ballet presents two animate statues who, by the power of harmony, are made susceptible to all the passions of human existence. Prometheus takes them to Parnassus to receive instruction from Apollo, god of the arts, who commands Amphion, Arion and Orpheus to teach them music, [and] Melpomene and Thalia [to teach them] tragedy and comedy. Terpsichore aids Pan who introduces them to the Pastoral Dance which he has invented, and from Bacchus they learn his invention – the Heroic Dance.”
In addition to the overture, Beethoven composed 16 numbers. It was well received by the audience, with 21 further performances, but with one critic opining that “his writing here is too learned for a ballet”. Today, only the overture is regularly heard. The following performance is arranged as “a concert suite in four movements with overture”, omitting some of the numbers. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy — Out of ruins; bring forth a renaissance.
“The Ruins of Athens” is the third of three plays written by August von Kotzebue for the opening of the lavish new theater in Pest (the first was “King Stephen”, and the second didn’t survive the censor’s knife). In the play, Athena wakes from a thousand-year sleep to find her city in ruins and under foreign occupation. She’s then whisked to Hungary, where a new center of learning and culture is being created. For the play, Beethoven composed an overture and eight musical pieces, the best-known of which is the famous Turkish March (which is also the subject of his Opus 76 variations). [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – King Stephen Overture, Op. 117
In 1811, Beethoven was commissioned to provide music for two stage works written by the playwright August von Kotzebue. The occasion was the dedication of a new German-language theatre in Pest (part of today’s Budapest), built to alleviate the nationalist feelings incipient in Hungary and to celebrate the loyalty of Hungary to the Austrian monarch. “King Stephen, or Hungary’s First Benefactor” relates events in the life of Hungary’s founder. Although the Overture remains popular today, the remaining nine musical numbers that Beethoven composed are rarely heard. Here is the complete performance with full score, performed by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy — the incomparable violin concerto in D major
Beethoven composed his only violin concerto in 1806, specifically for the young violinist Franz Clement, whose playing was described as being of “indescribable tenderness”. The premier was chaotic, with Clement at one point interrupting the program to play one of his own compositions while holding the violin upside-down! Other violinists attempted the work with little success, and the concerto languished for several decades. It was the sensational 1844 performance by the 13-year-old Joseph Joachim, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting, which firmly established Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as one of the monuments in the repertoire. Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim collaborated in this extraordinary 1992 performance. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Though published in 1810, the Horn Sextet was composed some time around 1795, when Beethoven was a newcomer to Vienna and popular taste was dominated by Haydn and the recently-deceased Mozart. Scored for two horns, two violins, viola and cello, the horn parts are so demanding that Beethoven probably composed with specific players in mind (one possibility being his Bonn publisher Simrock, who was a talented amateur horn player). It’s performed here by members of the National Symphony Orchestra. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Four hands are better than two, Op. 6 piano sonata
With an opening theme that resembles the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven’s Opus 6 sonata for piano four hands is a rarely heard gem. Due to its brevity and relative ease of execution, it’s generally thought of as a work for piano students, but in the hands of brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen it’s a delightful frolic. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy — Three nations on Mars; Beethoven’s triple concerto.
The space agencies of three different countries – the United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates – have successfully arrived at Mars and begun a promising collaboration for the advancement of human knowledge and power. In that spirit, we have today’s selection: Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and piano. The soloists are cellist Mischa Maisky, his son Sascha on violin, and his daughter Lily at the piano. Enjoy! [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy — the master’s climactic Op. 111 finishes his use of the sonata form.
Although Beethoven would go on to compose other works for solo piano, the Opus 111 is Beethoven’s climactic finish to the sonata form. With the first movement, he reduces the C minor key to its bare elements (think of the Pathétique) and produces a work of incredible power and passion. The second movement, innocuously called “Arietta,” takes the form of variations on a simple theme in C major, but these variations transcend anything that has ever been done on the piano. Here is an thoughtful performance by Mitsuko Uchida. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]
Beethoven: Sparks of Joy — Opus 110 well-known, presents a gamut of settings, much like a great drama.
Opus 110 is the most popular of Beethoven’s late sonatas. The opening is lyrical and warm, and is followed by an exuberant Scherzo, whose themes were borrowed from two folk tunes – “Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghab” (Our cat has had kittens) and “Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich” (I’m a dissolute slob, and so are you). The specific force of the allusions may not be felt, but their boisterous, comic character is clear. However, it is the extraordinary third movement that dominates discussion of this sonata. Its principal elements are an Arioso dolente (lamenting song) and a three-voice fugue, which unexpectedly loses heart and gives way to a second Arioso even more despairing than the first. Suddenly, the fugue is repeated, but this time the theme is turned upside-down, and it ends on a note of triumph with a flourish of arpeggios. Seong-Jin Cho was just 17 years old when he performed this sonata at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]