BEETHOVEN’S VIOLIN CONCERTO
Featuring Debussy’s La Mer
By Kurt Loft
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Duration: ca. 45 minutes
The evolution of Beethoven’s creative genius makes for one of the more interesting biographies of any artist. Plagued by financial troubles most of his life, deafness by age 30, a variety of illnesses, and a paradoxical relationship with those around him, Beethoven could easily have given into what he called his “unfavorable fate.’’ Instead, he persisted, and his stubbornness – his most resilient trait – literally changed 19th century musical thought and action.
An example of his persistence can be seen in the year 1806, when deafness forced him to compose in the “absence’’ of sound, and Beethoven would write his thoughts in sketchbooks to converse with friends. His resolve, however, overcame his liability, evident in a remarkable outpouring of work that included the Rasumovsky string quartets, the Appassionata piano sonata, the Fourth Symphony, the main elements of the Fourth Piano Concerto – and the work you will hear tonight, the Violin Concerto.
The Fourth Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto share similar openings: lengthy orchestral introductions that set the stage for the solo instrument. They also share a sense of spaciousness, and in character are more graceful than frenetic. Unlike the Brahms or Tchaikovsky violin concertos, also in the key of D major, Beethoven’s work is not about power and bravura but poise and spirituality.
At about 45 minutes, the concerto also requires stamina, and while the writing for the solo violin is, in essence, a series of fragmented themes, the work as a whole exhibits a remarkable sense of cohesion. The challenge for a soloist is to bring all these small pieces into a larger whole while internalizing the architecture.
This unity begins at the very opening with five quiet taps on the kettledrum, and then settles into a lengthy conversation between violin and orchestra stretching for nearly half an hour. Like the four notes that ring throughout Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the timpani strokes that open the concerto are heard in different ways throughout, beginning with the strings in the introduction.
This motif serves as the concerto’s connective tissue. A luscious and serene larghetto offers a set of variations against muted strings, and the soloist works through a cadenza that leads directly into the finale, an energetic gypsy-like rondo in 6/8 meter bursting with arpeggios, double stops, scale runs, and a pair of delightful plucked notes from the violinist. Beethoven wrote no cadenzas for this concerto, and over the years violinists have written their own or play those by Fritz Kreisler.
“This is not a heroic or virtuosic or dramatic concerto,’’ notes Jan Swafford his book Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Instead, he describes the work as “beauty in the visceral and spiritual sense … its greatness lay not in its technique but in its singing.’’
Gabriela Lena Frank (1972- )
Apu: Tone Poem for Orchestra
Duration: ca. 13 minutes
Part of TFO’s mission is to introduce listeners to music of our day, while keeping alive the classics that were, in their own time, new. So this season, you’re hearing fresh works by Michael Ippolito, Thierry Caens, Lera Auerbach, Polina Nazaykinskaya, Kevin Puts, and Mindaugas Urbaitis.
This weekend, the orchestra offers its first performance of music by another contemporary, Gabriela Lena Frank, whose diverse heritage and physical impairment inspire her artistry. Born in Berkeley, CA., she’s now composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Washington Post recently named her one of the 35 most significant women composers in history.
“I firmly believe that only in the United States could a Peruvian-Chinese-Jewish-Lithuanian girl born with significant hearing loss in a hippie town successfully create a life writing string quartets and symphonies,’’ she has said. “If you look at me, I don’t look like most composers in classical music. I’m not white. I’m a woman. And, I’m alive.’’
She also devotes time to those in need in prisons and hospitals, and believes in teaching young musicians the importance of community engagement. She works with deaf African-American students who rap in sign language.
Frank composed her tone poem, Apu, in 2017 on a commission from Carnegie Hall for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States. The 15-minute piece can be enjoyed as purely abstract music, but follows a mythological storyline.
It describes the Apu, a spirit that lives in the mountains of Peru. The Apu inhabits rocks, rivers, and mountain peaks, keeping a watchful eye on travelers passing through highland roads. But the Apu has a mischievous side, and those who come near must sing folks songs and say prayers to appease it and ensure safe passage through the mountains.
In her notes on the score, Frank says the music “begins with a short folkloric song inspired by the agile pinkillo flute, a small slender instrument that packs well into the small bags of travelers. It’s followed by the extended haillí of the second movement, a prayer to the Apu, which flows (without pause) to the third movement, in which the Apu makes its brief but dazzling appearance before disappearing once again into the mountain peaks.’’
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Duration: ca. 23 minutes
Despite his short stature, Debussy was a towering figure in the world of music, the creator of an original soundscape that challenged tradition and sparked a new modernism. He was a master of suggestion in music, dissolving rigid conventions into endlessly shifting contours of harmony, texture and color.
After the 1894 premiere of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, music could no longer look back, as the composer Pierre Boulez later remarked: “The art of music began to beat with a new pulse.’’
Debussy was first labeled an “impressionist’’ in 1887, and as much as he disliked being associated with the movement in visual art, he never shed the stereotype. In 1908 he wrote to his publisher: “I’m attempting something different, realities in some sense, what imbeciles call impressionism — just about the least appropriate term possible.’’
In La Mer, Debussy pays tribute to the sea in a lavish three-movement masterpiece that demands every ounce of nuance from an orchestra. Throughout this music, chords seem to float effortless on their own, free of any tonal anchor. Harmony and structure don’t progress in the traditional sense, but become emotional states in themselves, a collage of light and shadow.
Debussy described the three sections not as movements but symphonic sketches that suggest the spirit of the ocean. The triptych includes:
From Dawn Until Noon – As the morning begins and the sea awakens, sunlight scatters across its surface, and tides shift the great mass of water. (Debussy’s friend, the composer Erik Satie, teasingly said he liked “the little bit between half past 10 and quarter to 11’’).
Play of the Waves – The music emerges weightless, then depicts wind-driven currents and waves in a crescendo of perpetual motion.
Dialogue of the Wind and Sea – The final section brings a thunderstorm above the sea as rain, lightning and wind join as one formidable force of nature; the work ends with a resounding timpani stroke.
Describing La Mer in words has always been tricky for musicians, critics and annotators. No wonder, when RCA Victor released a recording with conductor Arturo Toscanini in the 1950s, they decided to forgo the usual analytic liner notes. Instead, they printed an essay by someone who knew nothing about music but a great deal about the sea: Rachel Carson, the American marine biologist and author of Silent Spring.