Overture to Egmont
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
In the story of the Dutch Count Lamoral van Egmont, executed by the Spanish in 1568 for leading a movement to free the Netherlands from Spanish rule, Beethoven found the kind of hero he always idealized, and could have happily honored in his “Eroica” Symphony. The history of Egmont and the aspirations of the 16th-century Netherlanders to break the yoke of Spanish Hapsburg tyranny — a story which also figures in Schiller’s famous play Don Carlos and Verdi’s opera Don Carlo — was very much in the air in Vienna at this time. Goethe had seized on it as an appropriate subject for a theatrical drama, and in turn Schiller touched up Goethe’s play for its Viennese premiere on May 14, 1810.
It was customary then for composers to create overtures and incidental music to enhance spoken dramas, and Beethoven also provided such scores for The Ruins of Athens and King Stephan. When he was asked to participate in the production of Egmont, he readily assented. He even waived any fee for his work (though he later sold the music to a publisher) and wrote that he took on the assignment “only out of devotion to [Goethe].” In addition to the famous overture, Beethoven created two songs, four entr’actes, a melodrama to accompany a spoken scene, and a final Siegessymphonie or Victory Symphony, as Egmont goes triumphantly to his death on the scaffold, confident that his cause will win in the end. (In actuality, the Dutch had to wait nearly a century for their freedom from Spain.)
Beyond his generalized admiration for men like Egmont who lived and died for their ideals, the composer found contemporary relevance in this story from the already distant past. In 1809, Napoleon had invaded Austria and even bombarded and occupied Vienna. By 1810, this foreign conqueror — and Beethoven’s fallen idol — had been driven from Austrian soil, but the bitter memories of that occupation were still fresh for the composer.
A virile, martial portrait of the play’s protagonist, the famous overture touches on Egmont’s tragic fate in the dark, ominous chords of its F-minor slow introduction. Egmont’s heroic struggle against oppression is sketched in the Allegro main section. Then, after a quiet bridge passage comes the exhilarating coda, now in F major. This is the music of the Victory Symphony, the play’s finale, with Egmont’s triumph-in-death shouted out by the entire orchestra, dominated by the brass and those famous exuberant flourishes of the piccolo.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, December 31, 1962; now living in Philadelphia
Many of today’s composers bring a sensibility to concert music that owes more to rock and jazz than to Bach and Beethoven. The brilliantly gifted young American composer Jennifer Higdon is one of them; growing up, she recalls that her favorite musicians were The Beatles. “Classical music was probably the least present music in our household … My dad worked at home — he was an artist, which meant there was a lot of music in the background all the time — but normally it was rock and roll or bluegrass or reggae.” However, Higdon’s attraction to playing the flute eventually drew her into the world of classical music.
Now a prolific composer in constant demand for new works by major orchestras (she was the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “Composer of the Year” for 2005 and she premiered two works with The Philadelphia Orchestra as its composer-in-residence in 2007–2008) and ensembles all over America, Higdon somehow manages to pursue additional careers as a virtuoso flute player, a conductor, and a very popular teacher of composition at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music (she holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Compositional Studies). Her roots at Curtis run deep, for she first earned an artist’s diploma in flute there, before moving on to the University of Pennsylvania for master’s and doctoral degrees in composition, studying with prominent composers George Crumb and Ned Rorem.
Crumb has fingered several of the qualities that make her music special: “rhythmic vitality, interesting coloration, and sensitivity to nuance and timbre.” But beyond that, Higdon succeeds because she is a very original, personal, and emotionally communicative composer whose music, though modern in its techniques, is also immediately accessible and appealing. “My philosophy is simple and basic … the music has to sing — it has to speak — it has to communicate. If it doesn’t, there’s no point.” Now one of the most frequently performed of all American composers, she constantly has multiple scores in a variety of genres in the works. The San Francisco Opera has just commissioned her to write her first opera, scheduled for a 2013 premiere. Higdon has also shared in two Grammy Awards, in 2005 and 2008.
Hilary Hahn and Jennifer Higdon became acquainted when Hahn, also a Curtis graduate, studied in her 20th-century music class there. And so it was not surprising that Hahn, now an international super star, should approach Higdon to create a concerto for her; Higdon had previously written a percussion concerto for Colin Currie as well as one for piano for Lang Lang. The Violin Concerto was completed in June 2008 and received its world premiere by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchesta (a co-commissioner along with the Baltimore Symphony) on February 6, 2009. These concerts represent its East Coast premiere.
Jennifer Higdon explains her approach to creating a virtuoso vehicle for Hilary Hahn as follows:
“I believe that one of the most rewarding aspects of life is exploring and discovering the magic and mysteries within our universe. For a composer, this thrill often takes place in the writing of a concerto: it is the exploration of an instrument’s world, a journey of the imagination, confronting and stretching an instrument’s limits and discovering a particular performer’s gifts.
“The first movement of this concerto carries the somewhat enigmatic title of “1726.” This number represents an important aspect of such a journey of discovery, for both the composer and the soloist. The number 1726 happens to be the street address of The Curtis Institute of Music, where I first met Hilary as a student in my “20th Century Music” class. An exceptional student, Hilary devoured the information in the class and was always open to exploring and discovering new musical languages and styles. As Curtis was also a primary training ground for me as a young composer, it seemed an appropriate tribute. To tie into this title, I make extensive use of the intervals of unisons, sevenths, and seconds throughout this movement.
“The excitement of the first movement’s intensity certainly deserves the calm and pensive relaxation of the second movement. This title, “Chaconni,” comes from the word “chaconne.” A chaconne is a chord progression that repeats throughout a section of music. In this particular case, there are several chaconnes, which create the stage for a dialogue between the soloist and various members of the orchestra. The beauty of the violin’s tone and the artist’s gifts are on display here.”
In a joint interview with Hahn that can be found on the You Tube website, Higdon further explained this movement, saying that she was particularly inspired by the beauty of Hahn’s tone throughout the violin’s range, including the extremes of its very lowest and highest notes. She also wanted to use this lustrous violin tone in duets with different orchestral soloists, which often gives this movement a chamber music feeling.
“The third movement’s title, “Fly Forward,” seemed like such a compelling image that I could not resist the idea of having the soloist do exactly that. Concerti throughout history have always allowed the soloist to delight the audience with feats of great virtuosity, and a when a composer is confronted with a real gift in the soloist’s ability to do so, well, it would be foolhardy not to let that dream become a reality.”
In the You Tube interview, Higdon further explained: “I was actually thinking about this [movement] as we were approaching the Olympics and especially about the field and track events when they’re running across the tape. … Violin playing is really athletic: you have to imagine Hilary flying forward across the racing tape at the end of the race!” In reviewing the Violin Concerto’s premiere, Jay Harvey, music critic for the Indianapolis Star, described this final movement as “almost a perpetual-motion exercise for the violin … about the deep joy of speed.”
The Violin Concerto was commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchesta, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchesta, and The Curtis Institute of Music. This commission was made possible with the generous support of the LDI, Ltd., the Lacy Foundation, and the Randolph S. Rothschild Fund, as well as the commissioning orchestras.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Symphony No. 5 in F Major
Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
Antonín Dvorák's early composing career was a period of severe hardship for himself and his family. So poor was this butcher's son in his early thirties that he could not even afford a piano. All this began to change when in 1874 he applied for and won the first of three annual stipends from the Austrian government intended to assist talented but struggling young composers in the far-flung provinces of the Austrian Empire, of which Bohemia was then a part. On the distinguished panel granting him that stipend was Johannes Brahms, who was soon to take up Dvorák's cause most generously: recommending him to Brahms' own publisher Simrock and setting in motion Dvorák's rise to international acclaim.
So buoyed was Dvorák by this financial assistance — and even more by the Viennese stamp of approval it represented — that the following year, 1875, was one of the most fruitful of his career. In addition to a number of chamber works and a five-act grand opera, Vanda, he was inspired to write his Fifth Symphony in the space of just five and a half weeks. It was by far the finest symphony he'd yet composed, with an impassioned finale ranked by many among the finest symphonic movements he ever created. But since Dvorák was still only known in his native Prague, where performance opportunities were rather limited, it was not premiered until 1879 nor published till 1888, by which time he was firmly established among Europe's most revered composers.
We frequently hear Dvorák's last three symphonies — the Seventh, Eighth, and the "New World" Ninth — and to a lesser extent his Sixth as well. But an opportunity to hear the Fifth Symphony — bursting with youthful energy and a host of marvelous Czech-flavored melodies — comes all too rarely. And it is a work well worth discovering.
The first movement is music of the Czech countryside: buoyant and optimistic, with bright, pastoral woodwind colors. Two clarinets, then two flutes introduce a birdlike reveille of a principal theme, with a serenely rising three-note tail that Dvorák will put to good use; Dvorak scholar Otakar Sourek describes this music as having "the dew-fresh fragrance of a spring morning." It ripples into the second part of the principal theme: a boisterous, syncopated peasant dance delivered loudly by the full orchestra. Syncopated rhythms also animate the contrasting lyrical theme: a chromatically slithering idea proposed by the violins. These ideas are briefly and energetically developed before the entire exposition is repeated.
The true development section initially emphasizes the opening theme and is yet more stormily energetic. The recapitulation returns quietly, with a pair of horns reprising the birdsong reveille theme. The movement closes as gently as it began.
Movement two, in A minor, is a pensive intermezzo revolving around a lovely, gently melancholy melody, first sung by the cellos. A middle section, in A major and dominated by the woodwinds, brightens the mood a bit; it has a tender sprightliness that recalls one of Dvorák's favorite composers: Franz Schubert.
The opening of the third movement briefly reprises the drooping melody of the second before accelerating into an enchanting scherzo dance, its sparkle accented by triangle. A skipping-rhythm Trio section again emphasizes the woodwind band before the scherzo dance repeats.
After the lightness of the two middle movements, the fierce entrance of the cellos singing an intensely passionate melody in A minor comes as quite a shock. This is the surprising launch of the Fifth's great finale, which begins as a battle to find the way back to the home tonality of F major. After a series of tempestuous passages, this dark minor theme is finally transformed into a boldly triumphant one in F major. This done, the storm can abate momentarily for a smoothly romantic second theme by cool woodwinds, topped by swooning violins. The music flows into one of Dvorák's most exciting development sections, full of fire and drama. As it dies out, the passionate theme, still stubbornly clinging to A minor, quietly recapitulates in the violins. In the closing coda, listen for the high woodwinds softly recalling the rising three-note motif from the beginning of the symphony. With a last exuberant brass fanfare, Dvorák joyfully demonstrates how well the first-movement reveille theme meshes with the finale's triumphant theme, thus bringing the work to a satisfying full-circle close.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion and strings.