Program Notes

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4

For a printable, PDF version of these program notes, click here.

Listen to the audio version of these program notes, with music excerpts.

Joseph Bologne (1745-1799)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 11
Duration: ca. 10 min

Expert swordsman, freedom fighter, violinist, conductor – and one of the few early classical composers of color.

Meet Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whose Symphony No. 2 makes its Florida Orchestra debut this week alongside works by Vaughan Williams, Ravel and Beethoven. If you’ve never heard of Bologne, credit TFO for the introduction, and expect to see more emphasis on such diverse programming, especially works by women and composers of color.

Bologne was a fascinating character, a polymath who seemed to absorb everything around him and master a wide range of disciplines. Born in 1799 in Guadeloupe, he was the son of an African slave mother and French aristocrat father, and at age 7 moved to France, where as a teenager he would become a gendarme of the royal court and later knighted as Chevalier.

During the French Revolution, he served as a colonel in the Légion St.-Georges, the first-all Black military regiment in Europe. His skills with an épée were legendary, as was his moral posture. He withdrew his application for directorship of the Paris Opera after three singers protested working under a conductor of “mixed race.’’

Naturally gifted in music, he allegedly impressed such notables as Gossec and Leclair, and fraternized with Mozart, Gluck and Salieri. He soon was composing and conducting chamber music and small-scale symphonies, and while much of his music has been lost – or marginalized through European racism – his surviving scores are poised models of classical-era form. A blind listening to his violin concertos could be mistaken for Haydn.

One of the finest examples of Bologne’s style is the Symphony No. 2, composed in 1779 as a 10-minute jaunt in three movements marked allegro, presto and andante. Written for strings and pairs of oboes and horns, the music unfolds in the style of a French suite and borrows – note for note – the overture to Bologne’s only extant opera, L’Amant Anonyme.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The Lark Ascending
Duration: ca. 13 min

Vaughan Williams, a large, sluggish man who finished nine symphonies before his death at age 85, devoted himself to music based on English folk song, sounds that reflected the landscape of his own country. He had little use for the Germanic European tradition.

“As long as composers persist in serving up at a second hand the externals of the music of other nations,’’ he once said, “they must not be surprised if audiences prefer the real Brahms, Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky to their pale reflections.’’

After earning a doctorate degree in music at Cambridge in 1901, he joined the English Folk Song Society, and immersed himself in simple tunes he found in small villages and towns throughout England. This was to be a turning point for the composer, who said “the knowledge of our folk songs did not so much discover for us something new, but uncovered something which had been hidden by foreign matter.’’

This strident English view can be heard in such works as Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, On Wenlock Edge, and the popular Fantasia on Greensleeves. In this tradition is the lovely The Lark Ascending, his homage to birdsongs and to those who delight in listening to them.

Based on a poem by George Meredith, this ethereal 15-minute romance for violin and orchestra is one of the most exquisite creations in the repertoire, with impressionistic violin themes that don’t linger so much as evaporate into the air. Lark is all about pastoral beauty and lightness, and of the simple charm of a birdsong on a summer’s day in the country. The composer included the following excerpt from Meredith’s poem on the published score:

“He rises and begins to round, 
He drops the silver chain of sound, 
Of many links without a break, 
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake. 

“For singing till his heaven fills, 
‘Tis love of earth that he instils, 
And ever winging up and up, 
Our valley is his golden cup 
And he the wine which overflows 
to lift us with him as he goes. 

“Till lost on his aerial rings 
In light, and then the fancy sings.” 

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Duration: ca. 10 min

Ravel’s interest in the music of past generations led to a love of old folk tunes and traditions, particularly those carried on by indigenous Europeans. After hearing the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi – the great niece of the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim – play a lively melody, Ravel was inspired to write Tzigane, a 10-minute rhapsody originally for violin and piano (he later orchestrated it). It shows an otherwise conservative composer at his most daring.

This virtuoso showpiece mirrors a Hungarian rhapsody by Liszt, and the cadenza on the G string harks back to Paganini’s show-stopping recitals. It begins slow, building textures in a series of descending chords and a dazzling display of fireworks full of pizzicatos, glissandos, double stops, sharp rhythmic shifts and steely harmonies.

The violin plays solo for nearly four minutes before a harp appears, then flute, followed by the orchestra. Two themes – one staccato and one lyrical – change the pace and the soloist embellishes before sliding into a perpetuum mobile and three crashing chords to close.

After its premiere in 1924, critics snubbed Tzigane as an artificial pastiche that looked backward when composers should be looking forward. Ravel responded by saying “Doesn’t it ever occur to these people that I can be ‘artificial’ by nature?’’

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
Duration: ca. 34 min

The even-numbered symphonies of Beethoven have always gotten a bad rap. No wonder – they have to stand up against the heroic Third, the heart-pounding Fifth, the dance-like Seventh and the most imposing of all, the Ninth. But let’s not sell them short. Stravinsky once said he would take even-over-odd Beethoven any day. More importantly, each of the nine are a chapter in Beethoven’s evolution as a symphonist, and together they become a formidable book.

The Fourth Symphony, then, is not an extension of the Third any more than a prelude to the Fifth. It stands alone, notably for its lyricism, although there’s no denying its place between two giants. “He was aiming to broaden his new symphonic framework still further by showing that the epic, heroic model was only one of a number of alternatives,’’ notes Lewis Lockwood in his book Beethoven: The Music and the Life. “The Fourth shows that less could be as much, perhaps more.’’

It was composed during a time of tremendous productivity that included the Razumovsky Quartets, the Appassionata Sonata, the Violin Concerto and the Piano Concerto No. 4. Its tranquil nature offers no hint of the brutish behavior Beethoven exhibited in the summer of 1806 while composing it as guest in the summer castle of Prince Lichnowsky. He barricaded himself in his room, refusing visitors, bellowing musical ideas like a crazed opera singer.

The scoring is essentially that of a Mozart chamber orchestra: one flute; winds, horns and trumpets in pairs; timpani; and strings. The atmosphere is simple and without contrapuntal flourish. For all its apparently lightness, the symphony opens mysteriously, the music on tiptoe for nearly 40 bars, as if afraid to make too much sound. Suddenly, the orchestra perks up and wraps itself around the listener with a joyous, rhythmically charged theme full of percolating woodwinds.

The adagio is a lilting cantabile unmatched in anything he wrote up to this time, and the third movement achieves moments of emotional depth through Beethoven’s use of a wide harmonic range. The finale sets loose a romp of fleeting 16th notes, a moto perpetuo that nearly trips over itself in a race to the end.

The Fourth is a masterpiece among eight other symphonic masterpieces by Beethoven, and would easily be embraced as a best effort by countless other composers, noted the American musicologist Robert Greenberg.

“If any of Beethoven’s contemporaries had written this symphony, it would be considered that composer’s masterwork, and that composer would be remembered forever for this symphony, and it would be played, often, as an example of that composer’s great work.’’

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.