Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composer and the pieces

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)  was born in Bonn, the capital of the German Electorate of Cologne,1 on December 16 or 17. His family was a troubled one. His mother died a horrible death from tuberculosis. His father, an alcoholic singer who often roamed the streets of Bonn, was Ludwig’s first teacher and a tyrannical one who often beat his son as part of his teaching. Brother Kaspar Anton Karl served as Ludwig’s manager for a while, but his work was more burdensome than helpful.

Around age ten Beethoven withdrew from school to study music with organist and composer Christian Gottlob Neefe who freed him from his father’s tyranny, introduced him to Bach’s music, and influenced his humanistic political leanings. At fourteen, he worked as a court organist. Two years later he traveled to Vienna to study with Mozart, but soon after his arrival, he had to return to Bonn to take care of his dying mother. Her death that year (1787) left him with two siblings to care for while managing his career and trying to catch the attention of nobles who might support him.

It was no secret to Beethoven that Mozart and Haydn were Vienna’s musical gods, and he was determined to join their pantheon. His first great work was Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II (1790), but it was not performed and was considered lost until Johannes Brahms rediscovered it in the 1880s. In 1792, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein (the dedicatee of Piano Sonata No. 21) helped pave the way for his second visit to Vienna. Mozart had died by then, but Beethoven was able to study with Albrechtsberger, Salieri, and Haydn. In 1795, he made his Vienna debut as a pianist performing his Piano Concerto No. 1 in C-Major2 and produced his first published work, the Opus 1 Piano Trios.

Meanwhile, nobles like Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz and Prince Karl Alois Johann-Nepomuk Vinzenz Leonhard aka Prince Lichnowsky helped Beethoven with financial support. He did not care for teaching, but to help support himself he took on students from noble families. Even so, his finances remained a concern, and by 1808, indebtedness led him to consider leaving Vienna for a court position in Westphalia. Upon learning of Beethoven’s situation, Rudolph Johann Joseph Rainier–the Archduke of Austria, son of Emperor Leopold II, brother of Emperor Franz, and Beethoven’s only composition student–persuaded Lobkowitz and Count Franz Joseph Kinsky to pay Beethoven a salary so he could remain in Vienna. After Kinsky died and Lobkowitz went bankrupt, Rudolph made up the financial slack and became Beethoven’s most frequent dedicatee. (Piano Sonatas Les Adieux3 and Hammerklavier, Violin Sonata No. 10, the ’Archduke” Piano Trio, etc.) Much later, the composer wrote Missa Solemnis for Rudolph’s installation as Archbishop of Olmütz (Olomouc) but did not finish it in time for the occasion.

Beethoven’s personal life was not an easy one. His medical problems have been pored over by scholars, though two centuries later it is difficult to be sure what some of his ailments were. One for certain was hearing loss that set in around 1796 and drove him to despair. In 1802, in what became known as his Heiligenstadt Testament named after the Austrian village where he wrote it, he informed his brothers of his deafness, thoughts of suicide, and his determination to achieve his artistic destiny despite it all. He dealt with his deteriorating hearing by having his visitors use notebooks, many of which have survived. By 1814 he was deaf or nearly deaf, yet he wrote some of his greatest works after that year until his death in 1827, including the last six piano sonatas, Missa Solemnis, the last three symphonies, and in his final three years, the last five string quartets.

Beethoven’s romantic life (he never married) also presented difficulties, partly because he was attracted to women who were married or above his station. His most famous relationship began in 1812 when he wrote a long love letter to a woman identified as “Immortal Beloved,” most likely Antonie Brentano, a prominent advocate of the arts and the dedicatee of the Diabelli Variations. His life changed drastically in 1815 when his brother Kaspar died, leaving behind his nine-year-old son, Karl. Ludwig never expressed much interest in the boy when his brother was alive, but his loathing for Kasper’s widow, Johanna, drove him to battle her in court for custody of her son. He succeeded, but the boy was so miserable living with his uncle that he shot himself in the head. After he recovered, he was taken to Johanna and gained his freedom.

Beethoven’s output has been divided into three periods: Early (until 1802), Middle (1802-1812), and Late (1812-1827). A drop-off between 1816 and 1820 was due to his obsession with his nephew. The works on this concert are from his Middle Period.

Coriolan Overture, op. 62 (1807) was written for a performance of Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s eponymous play about Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus4 whose capture of the Volscian town of Corioli earned him the cognomen5 Coriolanus. Incidental music was not Beethoven’s forte, and it is not clear if he intended to write incidental music for future performances of the play. The overture is an ominously dark work driven by a stern and stirring portrait of Coriolanus’s tough militant nature and balanced by the sweeping and uplifting plea for peace from his wife and mother.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, “Emperor,”6 op. 73.  Beethoven wrote his last and most symphonic piano concerto in the summer of 1809 after Napoleon’s bombardment of Vienna (during which he buried himself in his cousin’s cellar with his ears covered to save what was left of his hearing). A few years earlier, he had admired Napoleon, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution enough to dedicate his Symphony No. 3 (1804) to the Frenchman, but he rescinded that idea when the truth about the dictator’s aggressions became clear. After Austria surrendered to Napoleon, Beethoven left Vienna and found enough peace to work on this concerto and his Tenth String Quartet. The concerto’s 1811 premier in Leipzig was played by Friedrich Schneider and the one in Vienna by Carl Czerny in 1812. (Beethoven had premiered his earlier piano concertos, but his deafness forced him to give up performing.)

Allegro opens with three big orchestral chords, each followed by the piano’s showy gestures and embellishments. The first major theme–a broad, symphonic statement–follows in the orchestra. The exposition ends with a long scale passage from the piano, followed by a quasi-cadenza. The development works with the sweet and lyrical opening material mostly in the piano. Soon the orchestra steps in with a marchlike passage, but the piano takes over and establishes its prominence. Much of this material is lyrical, leading to another marchlike passage in the orchestra before the piano executes a flowing series of scales. The sparkling effect that follows is almost Mozartean. When the muscular opening seems about to return, the piano goes on an excursion of its own until the opening theme returns more abstractly and intimately than before. As the movement continues, the piano writing becomes more expressive and expansive.

Adagio un poco moto is based on an exquisite orchestral chorale followed by a reflective, dreamlike passage in the piano accompanied by bits of the chorale. Eventually, the piano transforms the chorale from ethereal to winsome and noble. The orchestra takes the chorale back while the piano accompanies with a series of quiet intervals. At one point, the movement seems about to end, but when the horns bid it to continue, the piano responds with a lively German dance that leads without pause to the final movement.

Rondo-Allegro ma non troppo presents several clearly drawn variations of the dance. At one point the mood darkens, but the rondo theme restores the upbeat mood, and the piano takes a final look around over a quietly pulsating timpani. A short exuberant coda ends the work.

Symphony No. 5 in C-Minor, opus 67. Completed in 1808, “Beethoven's Fifth” is as much an iconic musical term as it is a reference to the most famous symphony ever written. Like his Third Symphony it is marked by the French Revolution. In the words of Josef Beheimb, “the music of the revolution’s aesthetic ideal, namely the élan terrible [the first movement] and éclat triumphal [the finale] are classically manifested” in the Fifth. The symphony’s 1808 premiere was played by an underrehearsed orchestra in a long, poorly attended all-Beethoven concert on a cold December evening in an unheated Theater an der Wien. “As regards the execution of this academy [sic] it was insufficient in every respect,” wrote one critic.

Beethoven’s first two symphonies are Classical in style. The Third is more Romantic, expansive, and complex, and the Fourth is lighter but still Romantic. The Fifth’s compressed, taut, and tightly constructed structure was a contrast to what went before. Many scholars associate it with victory rather than Fate.7 Others hear it as a migration from dark to light or from anxiety to celebration as it marches through a darkish C-Minor to a bright, heroic C-Major. (Then there is Arturo Toscanini’s down-to-earth observation that “Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is not a symphony of destiny or anything else–it literally is an ‘allegro con brio’ written on the score.”)

The Fifth may be best known for its opening measures.

Debate surrounds this motif. One of Beethoven’s early biographers, the unreliable Anton Schindler, claimed that the composer called it, “the sound of fate knocking at the door.” British conductor John Eliot Gardiner believes it is from a French Revolutionary song that Luigi Cherubini used in “Hymne du Panthéon.” Carl Czerny guessed it was from a birdcall!

Allegro con brio is an ingenious working out in sonata form of the opening motif (hereon Motif) whose rhythm is more important than its pitches. Spurred by its leap from an upbeat, the Motif drives almost every measure save for a winsome second theme heard a few times after the horns proclaim the Motif to announce a new section, as they do a few times in this movement. After an oboe soliloquy, the Motif’s often turbulent working out dominates the proceedings along with lyrical passages. Quite fitting is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s observation that this music, “is made up of just the driest facts, no ambiance...It is the sculptor...the dramatist who speaks here. It is all development, everything is portrayed at the moment it is acted out.”

Andante con moto opens with a sweet song for low strings followed by a chorale-like worshipful figure in the winds alternating with a jaunty but quiet march that climaxes in militaristic style three times in the trumpets and timpani. A second idea is a rolling melody in the cellos and violas that is followed by the earlier worshipful passages in the winds. The militaristic brass march returns, followed by a heavenly moment in the violins until the rolling melody returns. A flowing conversation among the winds is followed by another brass proclamation. The march returns, ghostly this time, and the movement ends with a lively woodwind passage followed by a short eloquent recall of earlier ideas.

Allegro begins mysteriously in the low strings followed by a powerful march in the horns based on the Motif, this time starting on the beat, applying a more grounded pacing than the forward thrust displayed earlier. The opening string passage returns followed by the march. A gain in energy gives way to a vigorous fugue in the strings that in turn yields to a creepy passage with ghostly hopping winds and eerie strings over mysterious timpani.

Allegro. Without pause, the finale bursts into blazing light and grand sweeping aspirations. For this movement Beethoven expands the orchestra by introducing the piccolo, three trombones, and contrabassoon. Almost all of the movement is an expansive outburst of triumph. The ideas are stirring and uplifting with jubilant soaring themes, save for one cautionary quiet interval that recalls the ghostly hopping from the third movement before giving way to celebration as the music races to the end.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony, as well as trombonist and orchestra manager of Lowell House Opera, Commonwealth Opera, and MetroWest Opera. He is a regular reviewer forAmerican Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback Magazine. His fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).


1 In 1770, Germany was made up of electorates that were part of the Holy Roman Empire.
2 The C-Major was his second. No. 2 in B-Flat was written earlier, but a publishing anomaly reversed their numbering.
3 Beethoven wrote “Les Adieux” for Rudolph when the Archduke fled Vienna. The movement titles tell a story: Das Lebewohl (Farewell), Die Abwesenheit (Absence), and Das Wiedersehen (Reunion).
4 Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was based on the same subject. That said, some consider the story of Coriolanus apocryphal.
5 A name added to a Roman’s birth name, in this case to honor the capture of Corioli. Cognomens pass from father to son.
6 Emperor was added much later by a publisher.
7 Dot-dot-dot-dash in Morse code stands for V (as in “victory”), but Samuel Morse first worked out his Morse Code in 1837 after Beethoven finished the Fifth Symphony in 1808.


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