Program Notes – Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony

There could be no better way to celebrate the true heroes of Summit County, our first responders, than by featuring musical heroes. We are proud to be donating a portion of tonight’s proceeds to our first responder not-for-profits.

Born on leap day, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy, Giaochino Rossini had perhaps the most enviable career of all the great composers: he wrote his first opera at age 18 and retired a wealthy man at age 36. He lived mainly in Paris after that, where he was treated as a celebrity and his gourmand lifestyle left a permanent imprint on the city’s classical cuisine. Today you can still find dishes such as tournedos Rossini on many a traditional bistro menu. (That item by the way, is a filet of beef, fried in butter, served on a crouton, topped with a hot slice of foie gras, and garnished with shavings of black truffle and a Madeira demi-glace.)

The overture to William Tell is almost a symphony unto itself. It opens at dawn with a glowing cello chorus, featuring displays of lyrical and technical brilliance from the principal. A storm breaks out before we find a shepherd calling for his herd, in the form of a duet between english horn and flute. The brassy finale is a reference to the Swiss battle to liberate their country from Austria. Or, if you prefer: Hi Ho, Silver! Away!

The orchestral works of Russell Peck have been performed thousands of times and by some of the major orchestras of US and Europe. The Glory and the Grandeur, one of his best known works, is a concerto for percussion trio. Each of the three percussionists has their own station equipped with snare, two tom toms, a small bass drum and a suspended cymbal. Augmenting these are two xylophones, a four-octave marimba, vibraphone (these last two are often shared by two or more of the soloists at a time), two glockenspiels, crotales (ask your butcher), two triangles, crash cymbals, tambourine, three Chinese cymbals, three Chinese opera gongs, bamboo wind chimes, guiro (a Latin-American notched gourd) and sandpaper blocks. The very spectacle of the soloist’s maneuverings among this forest of instruments is part of the fun here. An extended solo for the three percussionists, using the tom toms and bass drums only, opens the concerto. After the orchestra’s initially alarmed reaction, gradually the tempo subsides, giving way to a passage focusing on flowing lines in the vibraphone. The remainder of this one-movement work overflows with lightning-fast mallet work and ends in a flurry of drumming reminiscent of the opening bars.

The third symphony of Beethoven was a turning point in his creative approach, and in the development of the symphony as a genre. Completed in 1804, Beethoven had intended to dedicate it to Napoleon. But when he learned that Napoleon had claimed himself Emperor of France and was crowned in Notre Dame Cathedral, Beethoven flew off the handle. This liberator of the masses was then, after all, only “an ordinary human being” in his view, and he took a knife to the title page of his symphony which had borne the name “Bonaparte.” (An Italian publisher later gave it the new subtitle, Eroica.) This symphony ushers in Beethoven’s middle, “heroic” period, and it throws open the gates to hitherto undreamed-of symphonic galaxies.

The two hefty chords which start the first movement serve as gate-posts to the massive Eroica symphony. Behind those gates in the first movement we find four themes, so tightly constructed in relation to one another that upon study, even the surprises (like the cello melody’s slipping so soon into a “wrong-note,” c sharp) begin to seem inevitable. Beethoven doesn’t miss a chance either, to use offbeat syncopations and the timpani to bat us around here and there. The second movement is a funeral procession, phrase after phrase of which piles up before a fugue is employed to heighten our sense that implacable columns of dread have risen everywhere around us. In the third movement, Beethoven’s main building blocks are simply tension and release. The quiet opening seems perky and innocent at first, but soon the oscillating string accompaniment is used to pull tight a bowstring and send the movement flying into space. The finale is two interleaved sets of variations, each on their own theme. But here’s the catch: the first theme is the bass line to the second. At the conclusion of another rousing fugue and a brief break in the action, a beautiful oboe solo ushers in the final set of variations, where the most sublime potentials latent in these materials are revealed.


© Jamey Lamar 2018