The Orchestre Métropolitain was founded in 1981 by a group of musicians, graduates of Québec’s most respected institutions. Since then, the Orchestra has answered with much enthousiasm to the mandate it [...]
They spoke about it
Sinfonia Eroica, Op. 55
In October 1803, Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s student and assistant, wrote to Nikolaus Simrok that Beethoven “has a great desire to dedicate [his third symphony] to Napoleon, but if not—because Lobkowitz wants to have it for a year and will pay 400 gulden for it—then it will be called Bonaparte.”
The ensuing episode, as told by Ries in his memoirs, is well known: “In 1803 Beethoven composed his third symphony (now known as the Sinfonia eroica) in Heiligenstadt, a village about one-and-a-half hours from Vienna. In this symphony Beethoven had Buonaparte in mind, but this was when he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven held him in the very highest esteem and compared him with the greatest of the Roman Consuls.
Not only I myself but several of his closest friends had seen this symphony, already in full score, lying on his table; at the head of the title page was the word ‘Buonaparte’ and quite at the foot was written ‘Luigi van Beethoven,’ but no other word. […] I was the first to bring him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor. Thereupon he flew into a rage and cried out, ‘He too is nothing but an ordinary man! Now he will trample underfoot all the Rights of Man and only indulge in his ambition: he will now set himself on high, like all the others, and become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, seized the title-page from the top, tore it up completely and threw it on the floor. The first page was written out anew and it was now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia eroica.”
The story gives us precious insights on Beethoven’s character—on the unyielding nature of his moral, ethical and political convictions. However, it seems that beyond the title-page episode, Beethoven’s relationship with the figure of Napoleon remained ambiguous. For instance, some time after the scene told by Ries, the words “Geschrieben auf Bonaparte” (“written in honor of Bonaparte”) were added in pencil on the title-page of a copyist’s score.
Moreover, in August 1804, Beethoven wrote a letter to Breitkopf Härtel in which he states that “the title of the symphony is really Bonaparte.” Finally, it is important to note that in October 1810, Beethoven wrote, for his own eyes, that “the Mass [in C major, Op. 86] could possibly be dedicated to Napoleon.” These examples show that if Beethoven was indeed infuriated by Napoleon’s actions in 1804, he never ceased to admire what in Napoleon agreed with his own republican ideals. The symphony is therefore not, strickly speaking, a “historical” work—a work offering a narrative of the actual life of Napoleon—but an artwork which transmutes, as music, Beethoven’s ideals.
From a musical standpoint, the Eroica broke new grounds. Its proportions, gigantic for the time, as well as its harmonic, thematic and rhythmic complexities, could not but disconcert Beethoven’s contemporaries. In May of 1905, a critic of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung wrote that “the symphony would gain immensely (it lasts a full hour) if Beethoven would decide to shorten it and introduce into the whole more light, clarity and unity.” Berlioz, writing in 1844 about his and the public’s reaction to the work, says: “I am always engulfed in a feeling of deep sorrow when listening to this symphony; but the public seems poorely touched. […] As for the first movement, I cannot delude myself, for I have noted in the last ten years that the public listens to it nearly cold-blooded: it sees an ingenious composition; beyond that… nothing.”
When compared to the first movements of Beethoven’s two earlier symphonies, the Allegro con brio of the Eroica does indeed seem monumental. In the exposition, it becomes quite fruitless to speak of “first” or “second theme,” for neither of these two sections (one in the key of the tonic, the other in the dominant) displays a single, characteristic musical motif (the second thematic group itself is made of six segments, each presenting new thematic material). In this movement, Beethoven thus largely expanded the two main tonal areas. But the composer also introduced a radically new way of manipulating musical time: the music “accelerates,” “slows down,” seems at times to remain still, all this subtly articulated, creating a sense that the narrative goes beyond the usual formal divisions.
The second movement, Marcia funebre: Adagio assai, displays some of the traditional elements of the genre. A foreign element, however, is introduced (after the C major episode), a fugato which seems to internalize even more the tragic mode of the piece.
In his essay on the Eroica, Berlioz wrote: “The third movement is called Scherzo, as is usual. The italian word means play, banter. On first glance, we do not see how such a style of music may fit in this epic composition. One must hear it to understand. Here is indeed the rhythm, the movement of a Scherzo; these are games, but truely funeral games, at each moment rendered more sombre by thoughts of mourning-games as celebrated by the warriors of the Illiad at the tombs of their leaders.” Berlioz’s reading of the Scherzo may denote too keen a willingness to accord it with a general program for the symphony (he titles it “Heroic symphony to celebrate the anniversary of the death of a great man”), but he nevertheless recognized the innovative aspects of Beethoven’s scherzos. Underlying his purely descriptive interpretation is a true feeling for the Scherzo’s rhythmic energy, and the sense that its dramatic character takes place within the narrative of the symphony as a whole.
The last movement is the stragest Theme and Variations. Beethoven, after a Fortissimo introduction on the dominant, first presents the bass of the theme (basso del tema). Only in the third variation does a melody actually appear—a theme which is also the third variation on the basso del tema.
Egmont, Op. 84
It took Goethe twelve years, between 1775 and 1787, to complete his tragedy Egmont.
The work was based on a historical fact: in the mid-sixteenth century, Lamoral, count Egmont, was named by Charles Quint governor of Flandres and Artois. When Egmont refused to enforce new measures from Spain, measures which restricted the rights and privileges of his people, Philipp II sent the duke of Alba to the Netherlands at the head of an army. Egmont was arrested on September 9, 1567, and beheaded on June 15, 1568, in Brussels. This drama of a man who believes first and foremost in freedom could only fascinate Beethoven.
He started writing the music for Egmont in 1809—year in which Vienna was under French occupation. Goethe had indicated in his text the passages which were to be accompanied by music. To these, the two Clärchen Lied, the two melodramas (Clärchen’s Death and Egmont’s Sleep and Monologue) and the Victory Symphony (Siegessymphonie), Beethoven added a overture and four Zwischenakt (entr’acte).
The Egmont Overture is in three parts, which follow each other without interruption. The first part, Sostenuto ma non troppo, has two contrasting themes, a stern marcato in F minor and a more lyrical theme, appearing first in D-flat major, pp, accompanied by the marcato rhythm. The first theme of the Allegro (a sonata form with a short development), rhythmically off-balance, is an extended version of the Sostenuto’s second theme, while the second theme of the Allegro borrows its rhythm from the marcato, its character now being that of inflexible will. The Allegro, after a brief and timeless transition, is followed by the Siegessymphonie (Allegro con brio in F major), the music of which will be textually repeated at the end of the drama.
The first Clärchen Lied, Die Trommel gerühret!, is part of act one of the drama. It is a rather martial piece, sung according to Goethe’s original indications (which Beethoven did not follow) as a duet by Clärchen and Brackenbourg, son of a village burgher.
The second Lied, Freudvoll und leidvoll, more passionately intense, is sung by Clärchen during the second act. Here she sings of her love for Egmont, while her mother attempts to show her the merits of Brackenbourg’s love (“He could still make you happy”).
© Alex Benjamin