Concerts are held at the Performing Arts Center at Greenwich High School, 10 Hillside Road in Greenwich Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm.
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)
John O'Conor, Piano
The Irish pianist John O’Conor has been gathering wonderful reviews for his masterly playing for over forty years. His recordings of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas led CD Review to say that he “by now should be recognized as the world’s premier Beethoven interpreter.” His recording of the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos have also been greeted with acclaim. He has released two new CDs on the Steinway label: Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and five Haydn Sonatas. A Steinway Artist, he is Chair of the Piano Division at Shenandoah University in Virginia, Professor of Piano at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, International Visiting Artist at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and Visiting Professor at Showa University in Japan.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat,
Op. 55 (Eroica)
Beethoven’s larger-than-life “heroic” symphony emerged from rather humble origins and first appeared as the seventh of Twelve Contredances completed in 1801. Beethoven repurposed the theme of this dance as the Finale for his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus during the same year, and one year later as the basis for Variations and Fugue for Piano. Beethoven did not title the piano work, but it became known as the Eroica Variations due to associations arising from the subsequent use of its theme in the Third Symphony. The theme had also been adapted for a ballet about Prometheus, the god who stole fire from Mount Olympus to give early Mankind, paving the way to human civilization, arguably, not coincidental. For this act, Prometheus was condemned to be chained to a rock where his liver would be gnawed by eagles throughout eternity. Prometheus’ audacity and the dire penalty to which he subjected himself may have inspired Beethoven to enlarge on a heroic treatment of the Prometheus theme. All this would have been very much in keeping with the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, a period alive with new political awakenings, developments in science, industry, commerce, and culture, along with the risks of unforeseen consequences.
Beethoven had idealized Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of the new French Republic, as a Promethean inspiration for an epic symphony, a first of its kind. Much has been made of Beethoven angrily withdrawing his dedication of the symphony after Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, and embarked upon wars of conquest in Europe. Actually, Beethoven wanted to assure the continued support of his noble patron, Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz, so he rededicated the symphony to him. The always mercurial Beethoven must have labored under mixed emotions. He had titled the symphony Buonoparte, but angrily withdrew the title as well as the dedication upon hearing that Napoleon had taken the Imperial crown.
Eroica was completed in 1804 and given private performances in Prince Lobkowitz’s estates. The first public performance was given at Theater an der Wien in Vienna on April 7, 1805. In 1806 the symphony received, upon its publication, the title Eroica, to which Beethoven added composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.
Eroica would upend all previous conceptions of what symphonic composition during the Classical period had been, even his own previous two symphonies. In length, emotional expression, and form, Beethoven was taking his listeners to a new place. At the very opening, instead of beginning with a stately and dignified introduction, Beethoven starts with two violent whiplashes. Beethoven does not merely call for attention, he absolutely demands it. The theme that follows, in triple meter instead of the usual duple, is deceptively simple but has a way of slipping unexpectedly away from the home key of E-flat, with nervous syncopations appearing when least expected. The exposition consists of the usual two themes with inventive transitions, but he takes the unprecedented action of introducing a new third theme in the development section. He cleverly anticipates the start of the recapitulation by giving the main theme to the French horn apparently four bars early, which nearly creates the impression that the player may have miscounted.
The second movement, Marcia funebre is totally unprecedented, much longer and embodying a far more powerful gravitas than the traditional second movements by Haydn or Mozart, usually a place for witty inside jokes by the former, or longing, sentimental yearnings by the latter. Beethoven paints here with a broad brush in a way that anticipates the slow movements of Bruckner. Near the end, Beethoven gets very “modern” breaking the theme into choked fragments that emulate a mourner too deep in grief to speak coherently.
The Scherzo, a form that Beethoven developed to supplant the elegant minuet of the Classical period, is a like a high velocity speed chase, driven by the tremulous energy of the basses. The middle section features a rallying call by three French horns instead of the usual two, another new thing. During the return of the opening music, Beethoven pulls another fast one by slipping in four bars of two-beat meter instead of the usual three. Mixed meter in 1804.
Although the Finale is where Beethoven has recognizably placed his Contredance-Prometheus-Eroica theme for a whirlwind of ten variations and a coda, it has been lurking beneath the surface throughout the symphony like a subliminal message hinting at its basic outlines. After an introductory flourish, like anxious latecomers scrambling to take their seats, the variations begin with the theme’s bassline given pizzicato. The second variation adds an accompaniment figure. It is only in the third variation that the actual theme is stated for the first time. From there, the subsequent variations take every turn that Beethoven could imagine, exploring a range of expressive moods, devices, and inventions not previously combined in a single work. The piece ends nearly as it began, not so much with whiplashes, but with exclamation points.
Eroica has become an almost too familiar fixture in our concert repertoire. Familiarity surely would not breed contempt for such a great work, but there is the risk that it could breed complacency. It is worthwhile to imagine listeners hearing Eroica for the first time in the early 19th century to put in perspective our own reactions to unfamiliar music in our own time.
Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 (Emperor)
After all the misgivings Beethoven experienced over the naming and dedication of his Eroica symphony, it is unlikely that he would give the title Emperor to his fifth and final piano concerto. In fact he did not – his English publisher, John Baptist Cramer, took that presumption upon himself, no doubt inspired by the strong regal bearing of the work. In fact the concerto was dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf of Austria, an accomplished pianist, pupil, and close friend of Beethoven, who happened to be the very Archduke to whom the Archduke Trio was dedicated. Both works were completed around the same time, in 1811. The Concerto was first heard privately on January 13, 1811 at the Vienna palace of Beethoven’s Eroica patron, Prince Lobkowitz. The public Vienna premiere took place on February 12, 1812. The soloist was Carl Czerny, considered to be the father of modern piano playing whose study materials continue to be widely used today.
Although the Emperor Concerto was not quite as revolutionary as the Eroica Symphony, in its own way, it was unique in its time. It is difficult to cite a piano concerto on as grand a scale at that period, including the previous four by Beethoven. Little wonder that the publisher was moved to name it as he did. Departing from the usual custom of beginning with the orchestra stating the themes, Beethoven gives this task to the soloist in a brilliant cadenza with punctuating chords from the orchestra. The second movement, by contrast, is quiet, restrained, and contemplative with the soloist playing variations over slow moving material in the orchestra. The Finale is in rondo form, the mood is exultant and triumphant. No doubt, the great piano concertos to follow by Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, follow the example set by Beethoven in his Emperor Concerto.
– Richard Schneider