King Stephan Overture, op. 117
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
In 1811 the German dramatist August von Kotzebue, possibly the most successful German playwright of his time. had prepared two new works to open and close a festival celebrating the new theater in Pest (one of the two cities which would later unite to become Budapest). The opener told the story of Stephan, an important Hungarian leader, who united the country at about 1000 AD. As King of a unified Hungary, he led the conversion of his people to Christianity, for which he was later canonized by the Catholic church. Beethoven made one of his infrequent forays into music for the stage, when he accepted a commission to compose an overture and a collection of incidental music to accompany Kotzebue’s play. The celebration was a success, but the music lay fallow until Beethoven published its overture as a stand-alone concert piece fifteen years later.
As with most of his other stage music, Beethoven made no attempt to explicitly relate the overture to the incidents of the play. Instead, he chose to distill its elements of emotion and feeling. and portray them without a story line. The musical materials he chose for the overture establish the ambiance for the story, heroic and vibrant. In many ways, this short work embodies the “symphonic ideal” which shaped his major works, wherein the music extends beyond its own narrow confines and touches the larger issues of life.
The overture opens with a stark,. heroic statement that is divided up among the brass. Could this herald the dramatic trials that the hero faces? Immediately, this bold theme gives way to a simple, quiet melody. Perhaps this represents another facet of the hero’s character? The introduction alternates between these two ideas, and establishes a tension that the rest of the music must meet and overcome. There follows a spirited allegro, and with a little imagination one can picture Stephan caught up in the whirlwind of events that will end in his being proclaimed king. Struggle, respite, a brief moment of wistful sadness, a climax of heroic triumph-and Beethoven has once again captured the essence of Stephan’s achievement, all without benefit of a story line or portrayal of specific events.
Flute Concerto no. 7 in e-minor
Francois Devienne (1759-1803)
Francois Devienne’s wide-ranging musical career began as a journeyman. At about age twenty he joined the orchestra of the Paris Opera as second bassoonist. Although he continued to improve as a bassoonist, he also began studying with the principal flute player in his orchestra. He quickly outstripped his teacher, and became a virtuoso on both instruments. He gave his solo debuts on each instrument in the next couple of years, playing concerti that he had himself written, thus demonstrating skills as a composer as well. Over the next twenty-some years he held positions as principal flute and principal bassoon (alternately, of course: even he couldn’t play both instruments at once!), in several orchestras as well as the Military Band of the French Guard.
Eventually, he added teaching to his list of skills, when he was given the rank of sergeant with the duty of teaching (dare we guess which instruments?) the children of his colleagues in the military band in its Free School of Music. After the Revolutionary period, this Free School became the National Institute of Music, When it was later chartered as the Paris Conservatory, Devienne was one of the first group of nine elected administrators, and became its first Flute Professor. Throughout, he maintained his position as a player with the orchestra of the theater that would eventually become L’Opera Comique. Here, he began to compose comic operas for his own employers, several of which were very successful – the royalties he earned left him comfortable for life.
His specialty as a composer, though, was the virtuoso concerto. Besides a dozen for flute, he wrote four for bassoon and two for horn, as well as many Sinfonie Concertante for combinations of instruments accompanied by orchestra.. His concerto style was consistent: simple structural form, allowing focus on the virtuoso character of the soloist. His simple, graceful melodic lines-characteristic of the Classical period-sound rather like his contemporary, Mozart. Devienne’s lack of thematic development and structural elaboration identifies him as a craftsman, rather than a genius. Nevertheless, his music possesses charm and elegance, as well as some of the most virtuosic solo writing of his era. This charming Seventh Flute Concerto is perhaps his greatest instrumental work..
Symphony no. 3, op. 56 “Scottish”
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
After Mendelssohn’s formal training had ended, his wealthy father sent him abroad on a grand tour of Europe. In succession he visited England Scotland, Germany, Italy, and Germany again. While on his journeys he experienced the wonders of the world that would inspire many of his later works. Two of the best examples are his Scottish Symphony and Fingal’s Cave Overture. The seeds for what would become two of his most powerful orchestral compositions were sown on the same trip, a vacation he took in Scotland to escape the incessant pressures of the London musical and social scene on his first trip to England.
On the Scottish trip he visited Holyrood, the home of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. The dark, somber mood of the place inspired plans for a symphony based on her dramatic life. Together, with some fragments of melody and a hymn-like harmonic structure, he sketched out several bars of what would become the opening of the symphony, then put the project aside in favor of pressing matters. (He was, after all. a tourist on vacation!). Alter the trip, his musical life was so full of other duties that he never cultivated his inspiration. The seeds, however, were planted in fertile ground, not fallow. It would be thirteen years before he returned to his original musical thoughts. Thirteen years, during which he attained musical maturity as a composer. Although published as his Third Symphony, the “Scottish” is really his penultimate orchestral work. It, along with the famous violin concerto, became his final musical testament, (The fourth and fifth symphonies are actually earlier works, published posthumously by his publisher.) Although surrounded by Romantic influences. Mendelssohn’s truest love in music was pre-Romantic, and this symphony shows it. By the time he got around to composing the work, he had lost the youthful Romantic fire behind its original conception. Instead, he returned to his Classical roots, and made use of his original inspiration-as well as other Scottish folk idioms-to construct a monumental structure that was neither formally constrained Classicism nor rhapsodic Romanticism.
Mendelssohn conceived of the work as a single organic whole, and did not divide the score into formal movements. The structure of several sections so perfectly fits the Classical rules of form that it seems natural to call these sections “movements”, but most conductors take as short a break as possible, in order to emphasize the connectedness of the piece. Even though Mendelssohn generally scoffed at direct use of folksong in his works, many of the melodies have a distinctly Scottish character, especially in their rhythms. This is especially evident in the spritely segment that serves as a scherzo movement, which requires virtuoso playing by all sections of the orchestra.
Even more Scottish than the melodies, though, is the overall character of the musical impressions. The brooding opening andante recalls the dark recesses of Holyrood Castle. This is followed by a typically Classical allegro development that is as massive and rugged as the Scottish countryside, before a return to an echo of the opening hymn which closes the first “movement”. Although it makes no direct quotations of folk tunes, the frenzied agitation of the ensuing scherzo heavily uses a rhythmic two-note device called a “Scotch snap”, which permeates Scottish folk music.
The adagio alternates between a sentimental song that expresses the melancholy character, which is one aspect of every Scot, and march-like episodes that match their stem resolve. The energetic finale, marked by the composer as “allegro guerriero” (a “warlike” allegro) opens with a musical language as athletic and macho as the ever-warring Scottish clans themselves. After a pianissimo bridge, the symphony ends with a triumphant apotheosis. This final statement (which is closely related to the hymn that opens the work) seems to say that in spite of all adversity, the Scot’s fundamental character brings him through to a noble conclusion. A majestic work, worthy of an admirable people.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly