fbpx

Beyond Beethoven

by Byron Adams

Written for Beyond Beethoven, which will be performed on January 31, 2020 at Carnegie Hall

Louis Spohr
Born April 5, 1784, Brunswick, Germany
Died October 22, 1859, Kassel, Germany

Symphony No. 6, “Historical Symphony”
Composed in 1839
Performance Time: Approximately 26 minutes

After Beethoven’s death in 1827, European critics and audiences generally agreed that Louis (née Ludwig) Spohr was the greatest German composer. Until the rise of Mendelssohn, Spohr was considered Beethoven’s heir. Their opinion might have surprised Beethoven himself, who was sharply critical of Spohr: “He is too rich in dissonances; pleasure in his music is marred by his chromatic melody.” For his part, Spohr initially detested Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony calling its choral finale “tasteless,” and the setting of Schiller’s Ode “trivial.”

Spohr’s aspersions on the Ninth Symphony are an unusual criticism of a score by a composer whose work he generally admired. Spohr, who was one of the finest violinists of his day, had earlier championed Beethoven’s String Quartets, Op. 18. For one year beginning in 1812, Spohr was the Kapellmeister—concertmaster—of the Theater an die Vien in Vienna, where he formed a cordial acquaintance with Beethoven. In 1820, Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries secured an engagement for Spohr with the London Philharmonic Society, beginning his protracted and lucrative relationship with that organization as a composer, conductor, and violinist.

Spohr is now generally considered a “conservative” composer, but such a description hardly does justice to his innovative streak. Foremost among Spohr’s formal experiments is his Symphony no. 6 in G major, Op. 116, subtitled “Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods.” Happily, Spohr avoids pastiche by evoking the past through his own idioms. The first movement celebrates the style of J.S. Bach and Handel (1720); the second evokes the styles of Haydn and Mozart (1780); and the third is a rumbustious scherzo cast in the style of Beethoven (1810). In the finale, Spohr burlesques the “latest contemporary” style (1840): loud, brash, vulgar, and French. At its premiere, conducted by Beethoven’s friend Sir George Smart at the London Philharmonic Society on 6 April 1840, the audience sat in respectful silence during the first three movements, but hissed at the end of the finale. The score met with a warmer response in Germany and remained in the repertory until the end of the nineteenth century.

Galina Ustvolskaya
Born June 17, 1919, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Died December 22, 2006, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Piano Concerto
Composed in 1964
Performance Time: Approximately 17 minutes.

Galina Ivanova Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) is an enigmatic figure in the history of Soviet music. As David Fanning notes, she was “a composer famous for a relatively small number of uncompromisingly ascetic, hyper-dissonant, super concentrated works … she purged her catalogue of almost everything with Socialist Realist connections.” In an obituary notice, Arnold Whittall throws up his hands, asking: “Was Ustvolskaya another liberating eccentric, capable, like Satie or Scelsi, of powerful musical thinking from time to time?”

Born in Petrograd, Ustvolskaya studied at the Leningrad (as it had become by then) Conservatory with Maximilian Steinberg and Dmitri Shostakovich. Ustvolskaya and Shostakovich developed such a close artistic and personal relationship that he quoted a theme from her Trio for clarinet, violin, and piano (1949) in his Fifth String Quartet, Op. 92 (1952). (Ustvolskaya broke with Shostakovich decisively in the early 1960s in part because he had joined the Communist Party.) After serving at a military hospital during World War II, she taught at the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music in Leningrad, where she was a respected and demanding teacher. Although she started out in a broadly neo-classical idiom influenced by Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya’s hermetic and highly dissonant later music reflects the intensity of her religious convictions.

Ustvolskaya’s early Concerto for piano, strings, and timpani (1946), cast in five movements played without pause, exemplifies some of the traits that persisted throughout her career, including the juxtaposition of very loud with very soft passages. The overall form is that of an arch, with the third section as its capstone. The two allegro sections are concise, contrapuntal, and virtuosic. The listener will detect the unmistakable influence of Shostakovich, especially the bustling finale of his Concerto in c minor for piano, trumpet and strings, Op. 35 (1933). However, the outer movements are wholly original, foreshadowing Ustvolskaya’s later religious music. Musicologist Susan Bradshaw comments, “the majestic outer sections reflect an unashamedly Beethovenian grandeur.” Pianist Ingrid Jacoby, who recorded this concerto, describes the remarkable ending as “akin to minimalism,” noting further that “Ustvolskaya drives home her message, steadily, slowly, and relentlessly.”

Franz Liszt
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Austria
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

Fantasy on Motifs from Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens
Composed in 1808
Performance Time: Approximately 11 minutes.

In May of 1822, eleven-year-old Franz Liszt and his family arrived in Vienna so that the boy could study piano with Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny. On April 13 of the next year, Liszt gave a farewell recital in the small Redoutensaal. This concert was the basis of several myths concerning Liszt and Beethoven that were later woven by Liszt’s biographers and by the composer himself. While it is true that Beethoven’s amanuensis Anton Schindler suggested that Beethoven be invited to this concert and perhaps supply a theme upon which Liszt could improvise, the rest is clouded by legend. Liszt’s early biographers claimed that Beethoven attended this concert and bestowed on a “kiss of consecration,” prophesying about Liszt’s future greatness. While it is possible that Czerny introduced Liszt to his former teacher and that Beethoven may have kissed the boy, features of this oft-repeated story, make it highly unlikely to have occurred. However, Liszt himself mentioned this story in a letter to the Grand Duke Carl Alexander dated November 1, 1862, almost forty years after the event and after it had become part of Liszt’s personal legend.

Starting in the 1830s Liszt began to evangelize for Beethoven’s music across Europe, performing his own transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies.  Liszt was the co-director, with Louis Spohr, (who had an equivocal relationship to Beethoven’s later music), of the 1845 Beethoven Festival at Bonn, at which a statue of Beethoven, the greatest of the town’s native sons, was unveiled. Liszt was the undisputed star of this event, which further enhanced his reputation as Beethoven’s champion.

In the year preceding this festival, Liszt had made his connection to Beethoven musically explicit by commencing the composition of his Fantasie über Motive aus Beethovens Ruinen von Athen (“Fantasy on Motifs from Beethoven’s ‘Ruins of Athens’”) for piano and orchestra This score was premiered in Pest on June 1, 1853. For this fantasy, Liszt selected three excerpts Beethoven’s incidental music written in 1811 for August von Kotzebue’s play The Ruins of Athens; ever the showman, Liszt concludes the piece with virtuosic variations on the popular Turkish March.

Max Reger
Born March 19, 1873, Brand, Germany
Died May 11, 1916, Leipzig, Germany

Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven, Op.86
Composed in 1904
Performance Time: Approximately 22 minutes.

Max Reger died in 1916 at the early age of forty-three, leaving behind a prodigious and varied output: lieder, piano music, chamber music, organ music, choral music, and orchestral acores. Certain historians have pigeonholed Reger as merely a “transitional” figure between Brahms and Schoenberg. Christopher Palmer writes that “like Schoenberg he took the labyrinthine chromatic entanglements of [Wagner’s] Parsifal a stage further, but his music never acquired the intransigently linear orientation which resulted elsewhere in the utter demolition of tonality.”  Because he recoiled from atonality, Reger has not received the status or attention that his music merits. He has always had discerning admirers, however: Schoenberg declared forthrightly, “I consider Reger a genius.”

Although he was a loving paterfamilias and a successful pedagogue, aspects of Reger’s rebarbative personality—his tactlessness and heavy-handed sense of humor—have contributed to a superficial dismissal of his work. Even his astounding contrapuntal skill is held against him as the antiquarianism of a conservative crank. As Leon Botstein writes, “Reger is one of those composers to whom certain clichés stick whether or not they fit.” As Botstein continues, “His music is considered academic, knotty, dense, and thick.” Reger’s variety of invention, harmonic daring, contrapuntal mastery, and iridescent orchestration should not be casually dismissed.

Walter Frisch has pointed out Reger’s espousal of “historical modernism,” which he characterizes as “reflective, self-aware and always ready to acknowledge a temporal gulf.” Reger was no antiquarian. As Frisch observes, “Reger proudly included himself among the ‘moderns’” and revered tradition while not cutting himself off from innovation. Reger’s flexible sense of the past is exemplified in the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 86 (1904; orchestrated by the composer in 1915), which was originally scored for two pianos. Taking Beethoven’s Bagatelle for piano, Op. 119, no. 11 in B-flat major as his theme, Reger models his developmental procedures on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 (1823).  Reger constructs a set of eight variations followed by a vivacious fugue that pays homage to the counterpoint of Beethoven’s late scores: the piano sonatas, the two ‘cello sonatas, and string quartets.