From Darkness to Light Program
In four short notes, Ludwig van Beethoven opened his fifth symphony and changed classical music forever. From those foreboding first bars, the great master takes listeners on a journey from impenetrable darkness to blazing light. Maestro Andrew Grams brings his remarkable tenure as ESO music director to a fitting close with Schumann’s virtuosic yet poignantly sensitive Symphony No. 2.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
Schumann: Symphony No. 2
by Daniel Maki (click each title below to read)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67
by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of a handful of artistic masterpieces in our culture that would seem to have become victims of their own greatness. It has so often been used and abused as an instantly recognizable symbol, so often parodied by everyone from TV jingle writers to rock bands, that trying to listen to it as it was originally intended is rather like trying to look at the Mona Lisa without imagining the mustache. Or as musicologist Charles Rosen has put it, it’s difficult to tell whether we are listening to the piece or to its reputation. Ample rewards, however, await the listener who can ignore previous associations and hear it not as a warhorse that has been ridden too many times, but as the revolutionary work that it once was.
The Fifth Symphony was first performed on a frigid evening in Vienna in December of 1808. The concert was one of those interminable affairs common at the time, for which the best preparation was a well-padded fundament, or as the Germans so quaintly call it, Sitzfleisch. Included on the all-Beethoven program, which, incidentally, was held in an unheated hall, were not only the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, but also two movements of a Mass, the Fourth Piano Concerto, a concert aria, and the Choral Fantasy, a hefty work for chorus, orchestra, and solo piano (!). Given the length of the program, the frigid conditions, and the fact that the program was badly under- rehearsed, it is not surprising that the Fifth symphony made less than an overwhelming impression. Subsequent early performances, however, seem also to have puzzled audiences, and it was only with time that the Fifth came to be accepted as the quintessential Beethoven symphony.
Those opening four notes, now probably the best -known four notes in our culture, probably puzzled and even shocked early listeners with their completely unprepared ferocity. The brief oboe cadenza at the beginning of the recapitulation of the first movement, now so familiar as to seem inevitable, is one of a number of instances in which Beethoven is stretching the familiar classical forms. After joining the third and fourth movements (something which Beethoven’s predecessors Haydn and Mozart had almost never done), Beethoven had the temerity to bring back a quote from the third movement in the middle of the finale. Also novel was his orchestration, which for the first time in Beethoven’s symphonies employed such exotic instruments as the piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombones.
Masterpieces as rich as the Fifth Symphony seem to be able to speak differently to different generations. Nineteenth and early twentieth century audiences tended to hear it as a Romantic work, a view expressed by the English musicologist Sir George Grove, who called it “the first great and assured triumph” of the new Romantic movement. Many listeners of the time eagerly read into it extra-musical ideas such as the notion that the four note motive represented “Fate knocking at the door”, as Beethoven himself is reported to have said. The Fifth, incidentally, established a model for such so-called “fate symphonies” which begin in a dark minor key but end in a triumphant major.
Later commentators, on the other hand, despite its innovations, have seen it more as a Classical work and have emphasized its organic unity. (Those four notes – three short and one long – do recur throughout the work.) According to this view the symphony represents what the musicologist Paul Henry Lang called “the consummate example of symphonic logic” and nonmusical associations have been carefully avoided.
Somehow the Fifth symphony has survived all such contradictory interpretations, innumerable bad performances, and what the great English scholar Donald Francis Tovey called the “roaring cataracts of nonsense” that have been written and spoken about it. It is well worth the effort of imagination to divest ourselves of all such intellectual baggage and to let the music speak as the fresh and original work that it once was.
Symphony No. 2 in C major , Opus 61
By Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)
Those who are interested in the mysteries of artistic creation would do well to study the origins of Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony. After some years of enormously prolific composition, in 1844 Schumann suffered a nervous breakdown. Although he had experienced bouts of severe depression since his teen-age years, this episode was the worst to date, including severe depression and anxiety, various phobias, and mysterious physical symptoms such as trembling and ringing in the ears. Composition was impossible for a while but then he began to write short pieces, using the contrapuntal style of the works of J.S. Bach, which he studied carefully and which he said soothed his agitated state. Finally his creative juices returned and by July of 1845 he had finished his Piano Concerto, a work begun earlier and which remains one of his most popular works. He then began to think about a new symphony and in December of 1845 in a period of two weeks, sketched out the outline of the entire work. It would, however, be nearly another year of hard work before the work was finished. The composer had this to say about the difficult process: “I wrote my symphony in 1845, and I sometimes fear my semi-invalid state can be divined from the music. I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement and I was certainly much better when I finished the whole work. All the same it reminds me of dark days. I can very well say that it is the resistance of the spirit which is manifested here and which I tried to find in order to struggle against my condition.”
The resulting symphony was finally premiered on 5 November 1846 in Leipzig by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under the direction of Schumann’s good friend Felix Mendelssohn. Once again, as in the case of Beethoven’s Fifth, audience reaction was dulled by an excessively long program which included an encore of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Some of Schumann’s supporters even accused the audience of trying to sabotage the new symphony. The program was repeated some 11 days later, by which time Schumann had made some changes in orchestration, including the inspired idea of adding three trombones. Incidentally, the symphony was dedicated to Oscar II, King of Norway and Sweden. Sardine lovers will recognize his portrait on the tins from the Norwegian company that bears his name.
Though some listeners might at first have been puzzled by some of the novel features of the work, it was not long before it was accepted as a major addition to the great Germanic tradition of Beethoven. The symphony had the same heroic feeling of the overcoming of struggle, of moving from darkness to light, as Beethoven’s Fifth. Among Schumann’s four symphonies, the Second was the favorite of the composer’s beloved wife Clara, herself a superb musician who was one of the leading pianists of the age and also a fine composer in her own right. This view was seconded by most critics throughout the nineteenth century. Although early twentieth century critics changed the tune somewhat, criticizing Schumann’s handling of the large symphonic form and claiming that his orchestration was weak, more recent Schumann devotees such as Leonard Bernstein have helped restore the symphony to a place of honor among Romantic period symphonies.
Despite its undeniable Beethovenian features, the symphony clearly shows Schumann’s own creative personality. Among the most important innovations is the use of so-called cyclical form, i.e., the repetition of material in later parts of a work that had already been used earlier, in order to create unity of structure. As mentioned above, Beethoven had already introduced the idea in the Fifth Symphony and would use it again in the Ninth. Schumann, however, carries it further and became the model for many later Romantic period composers.
The symphony opens with an extended introduction which begins with a motto theme which will recur several times throughout the entire symphony, serving as a unifying reference point. This theme is a figure played quietly in the brass which, although as simple as a bugle call, has the dignity and majesty of a chorale. Underneath, the strings play a meandering figure which creates a feeling of doubt and darkness even though the key of C major had traditionally been thought of as a celebratory key. Finally the introduction manages to find the main body of the movement, music that is filled with jagged rhythms and intense expression and which Schumann called “moody and refractory.” The movement ends with the opening brass figure.
Although scherzo movements had traditionally been more often used as third movements, Schumann places it as the second here. This a true virtuoso movement with difficult string parts which are often used in auditions. Despite its surface jocularity and fantasy which are strongly reminiscent of the style of Mendelssohn, there is a feeling of manic frenzy underneath. The perpetuum mobile of the strings is interrupted by two so-called trios, a term which refers to a contrasting middle section of a minuet or scherzo. The first features winds, which provide a rustic air. The second offers an interesting piece of musical coding. The name BACH, when translated into German musical nutation, stands for the notes Bb-A-C-B natural, a musical cryptogram which has been used by many composers and one which Schumann used in his Bach studies. Here Schumann uses this device to create a warmly Romantic passage while paying homage to his great Baroque predecessor. After the strings return to their opening frenzy for the third time we hear once again the motto theme in the brass.
The third movement is in a dark C minor with an elegiac flavor characterized by a soaring melody with large skips and painfully expressive dissonances. This music, which seems to express to the greatest possible degree the composer’s agony of soul, has been called the most sublime and profound slow movement since Beethoven. Well into the movement Schumann pays yet another homage to Bach as he suddenly breaks into a fugue. This touch of Baroque style then gradually resolves back into Schumann’s more customary texture. The movement ends quietly in C major, with a suggestion of things to come.
The finale bursts forth with an explosion of C major jubilation and enormous rhythmic energy. For a second theme Schumann pulls a clever trick, taking the poignant theme of the slow movement and playing it much faster, transforming it from a tragic statement to a joyful one. (Gustav Mahler would do the same thing in his Fifth Symphony.) After the thematic material has been developed, the music somehow seems to run out of steam, quieting down to a stopping point in C minor. Here Schumann plays yet another trick, introducing a completely new theme, a beautifully tender melody which is almost an exact quotation of a love song by Beethoven, with the words, “Take, O take, these songs I offer”. This song had special meaning to the Schumanns, for it had appeared in several earlier works and is obviously intended as a love note to Clara as she had nursed her husband through his suffering.
By now the perceptive listener might well be expecting that now familiar brass figure that opened the symphony, and that is exactly what happens. It is first heard softly but gradually grows in intensity and, combined with “Take, O take”, builds to an enormous climax which brings the symphony to a joyous close, punctuated by a dramatic timpani solo. Light has conquered the darkness.
In 1854 Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine River only to be saved by some fishermen. He spent his remaining two years in an insane asylum where he died at the age of 46.
The possible connection between creative genius and mental illness has been argued from time immemorial. Aristotle, who had an opinion about most things, opined on this topic also: “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”
Edgar Allan Poe put it this way: “Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.”
The question is still not settled, but in the case of Robert Schumann, whether in spite of his malady or in some way because of it, this deeply troubled soul produced a large body of radiantly beautiful music that was an indispensable part of German Romanticism and which remains a life-enhancing part of our culture.