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Opening Night: Beethoven's 7th

Overture to The Flying Dutchman (1841)
Richard Wagner (Leipzig, Germany 1813 – Cannaregio, Venice, Italy 1883)

“Whee! How the wind howls! Yahahe! How it whistles in the rigging!” Senta, the daughter of a Norwegian sea-captain recounts an ancient legend about a mysterious ship with a “pale man” at the helm, condemned to ply the seas of the world with no respite unless he finds a woman who will be faithful to him until death. Senta is obsessed with this story and this man; and then – lo and behold – the man suddenly appears on her doorstep and asks for her hand in marriage!

The young Wagner’s first operatic masterpiece was inspired in part by this story, which he read as told by the great German poet Heinrich Heine, and in part by his own experience of a stormy sea voyage. Wagner had been working as an opera conductor in Riga, in what is now Latvia, where he got heavily into debt. His situation eventually became so precarious that, in July 1839, he decided to flee. Accompanied by his wife Minna and an enormous Newfoundland dog named Robber, Wagner eventually made it to Paris where the next chapter of his adventurous life began. Yet, due to extremely inclement weather, the crossing that normally would have taken eight days took more than a month and included a forced rest in a Norwegian fjord, directly inspiring the opera.

One can literally hear the raging storm in the dramatic tremolos (very fast repeated notes) and rapidly rising and falling half-tone scales at the beginning of the overture. Against this menacing background, the brass instruments intone the overture’s (and the opera’s) main theme. It is a motif made up entirely of hollow-sounding fourths and fifths, an incomplete harmony that expresses evil forebodings. As a complete contrast, the English horn announces Senta’s redemption theme, based on a soothing major triad. Later, we hear other themes from the opera such as the Dutchman’s tragic aria, the happy song of the sailors and, over and over again, the frightening sounds of the storm.

Operatic overtures of the time often ended with a jubilant final section that would suggest a happy ending. Yet in this case, Wagner doesn’t allow the music to end on an exuberant note: the redemption motif returns one last time with some evocative broken chords in the harp, as in a dream.

 

Selections from Peter Grimes, Op. 33/a-b (1945)
Passacaglia & Four Sea Interludes
Benjamin Britten (Lowestoft, Suffolk, 1913 – Aldeburgh, 1976)

The sea is also a protagonist in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. A source of the livelihood for the fishermen of the Suffolk coast of East Anglia, it can also inspire fear, and bring death and destruction. Benjamin Britten was born on the Suffolk coast, not far from Aldeburgh, home of the 18th-century poet George Crabbe, on whose work Peter Grimes was based. Later, Britten himself bought a house in the town (at 4 Crabbe Street) and lived in Aldeburgh for the rest of his life. In 1948, Britten, his partner, the great tenor Peter Pears (who had created the role of Peter Grimes) and librettist/producer Eric Crozier founded a music festival there; the Aldeburgh Festival became one of the most important musical venues in the world.

For all his strong ties to East Anglia, it is ironic that Britten first came across Crabbe’s tale while living in the United States during the years of World War II. The nostalgic feelings the tale evoked were a strong factor in Britten’s decision to return to England in 1942.

When Britten started planning his opera about Peter Grimes, he and his librettist Montagu Slater made important changes in the character. In Crabbe’s poem, Grimes was a villain, a drunkard and a brute who had caused the death of three of his young apprentices. In the opera, he became a much more complex person: an outcast, guilty of violence but not of murder, trying hard to rid himself of his bad reputation but brought down by his great pride, his emotional instability and a hostile and deeply prejudiced environment.

There are six orchestral interludes in the opera, introducing or separating the various scenes. Of these, Britten had four published together as Four Sea Interludes (Op. 33a). A fifth interlude, Passacaglia, was published separately as Op. 33b. The sixth interlude, introducing Grimes’s “mad scene” in Act III, cannot be easily extracted from the rest of the opera and is not performed in concert.

The Four Sea Interludes capture much of the opera’s special ambiance. They suggest the somber atmosphere that provides the background to the plot; the music has special links with some of the main characters such as Peter or the widowed schoolteacher Ellen Orford who is Peter’s only friend in the community. The sequence of the interludes in the suite is different than in the opera, because Britten realized that the Storm from Act I had to come at the end.

The first interlude, Dawn, separates the opera’s prologue from Act I, Scene 1. The prologue contains a court scene where the death of Grimes’s first apprentice is being investigated, as well as a short dialogue between Peter and Ellen confirming their friendship. The music of the interlude is rather static; it consists of an eerie melodic line of long notes played by violins and flutes in their high register, interrupted by unsettling arpeggios in the harp and sixteenth-note runs in the clarinets and violas. It sets the stage for an opening scene where weary townspeople go about their daily work in a somewhat lethargic way. (This music also returns at the end of the opera, where the townspeople again attend to their usual business while Peter’s boat is going down.)

The second interlude, Sunday Morning, opens Act II of the opera. A jaunty rhythmic motif signals the joyful, festive atmosphere. A second, expressive melody, announced by violas and cellos, alludes to Ellen whose stage entrance it prepares. Soon we hear church bells ringing: the townspeople are all at the service, except for Ellen and John, Peter’s new apprentice (a silent role for a boy actor). The concert version of the interlude includes the first half of Scene 1, without the vocal parts. The church bells and the contentment of the townspeople serve as the background for some very perturbing developments: in the course of this scene Ellen discovers that Peter has been treating his new apprentice just as cruelly as he had the previous boy.

The third interlude, Moonlight, is the beginning of Act III. At the end of Act II, the young apprentice fell to his death (although at this point in the opera, it is not known whether or not he is actually dead). At first, the music is again of a static, motionless character, but then the somber string chords gradually begin to intensify. They are punctuated by short interjections from flutes, trumpets, xylophone and harp. The interlude is followed by a dance scene in the pub, but what its tragic tone really anticipates is the later scene where Peter goes to sea for the last time to sink his own boat.

The fourth interlude, Storm, occurs between the two scenes of Act I. It depicts high winds on the sea but is at the same time a psychological portrait of Peter, torn between his desire for peace and the propensity for violence he cannot resist. This movement is dominated for the most part by an energetic fortissimo motif; it later calms down and we hear a lyrical melody on strings, played pianissimo. This is the theme Peter sang in the previous scene to the words:

What harbour shelters peace away from tidal waves,
away from storms,
What harbour can embrace terrors and tragedies?

Peter can never find the comfort he seeks. The opera has a tragic ending, foreshadowed in this interlude by the return of the storm music and its relentless progress towards an abrupt conclusion.

The “Passacaglia” occurs between the two scenes of the opera’s second act. The townspeople are about to go to Peter’s hut to apprehend the fisherman, against whom new evidence has surfaced. In the next scene, Grimes will escape narrowly but his apprentice will suffer a fatal accident. The function of the interlude is to prepare what will be a turning point in the drama. Passacaglia means variations on a bass theme; in this case, the theme (Andante moderato) is introduced pizzicato (with plucked strings) by the cellos and basses. The mournful first variation is presented by a solo viola; the subsequent variations—each featuring a different combination of instruments—become more and more agitated as the tempo gradually increases. This interlude has been said to be a musical portrait of Peter who, in the opera, interrupts the music, screaming to his terrified apprentice: “Go there! Go there!”

 

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1812)
Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, 1770 – Vienna 1827)

I can distinctly remember the day I heard Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony for the first time. I was about five or six years old, and a recording with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony was playing on the radio. I was completely mesmerized by the performance, and when the fourth movement began, I jumped to my feet and started to dance.

About a dozen years later, I learned about Richard Wagner’s description of the symphony as the “apotheosis of the dance,” and although I wasn’t sure what an apotheosis was, I could certainly agree that dance was at the center of what this symphony was all about. Even later, I became acquainted with other attempts by 19th-century writers to capture the work’s essence, invoking political revolutions, military parades, masquerade balls, Bacchic orgies, and more. Finally, about 25 years after my first encounter with the symphony, I read Maynard Solomon’s excellent book on Beethoven, in which the author shows how all these fanciful interpretations were really variations on a single theme, that of the “carnival or festival, which, from time immemorial, has temporarily lifted the burden of perpetual subjugation to the prevailing social and natural order by periodically suspending all customary privileges, norms and imperatives.”

In other words, generations of listeners have felt that Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is a wild celebration of life and freedom. While the Ninth Symphony is a fierce struggle with fate that is won only when the Ode to Joy is intoned, from the start the Seventh radiates joy and happiness that not even the second movement (to some, a funeral march) can seriously compromise.

The dance feelings associated with the work find their explanation in the fact that each of the four movements is based on a single rhythmic figure that is present almost without interruption. (The third movement has two such figures, one for the Scherzo proper and one for the central Trio section.) In the first movement, we may see how the predominant rhythm gradually comes to life during the transition from the lengthy slow introduction to the fast tempo.

Every lover of rock-and-roll knows how intoxicating the constant repetition of simple rhythmic patterns can be. That’s part of what Beethoven did here, but he also did much more than that: against a backdrop of continually repeated dance rhythms, he created an endless diversity of melodic and harmonic events. There is a strong sense of cohesion as the melodies flow from one another with inimitable spontaneity. At the same time, harmony, melody, dynamics and orchestration are all full of the most delightful surprises. It is somewhat like riding in a car at a constant (and rather high) speed while watching an ever-changing, beautiful landscape pass by.

The first movement starts with the most extended slow introduction Beethoven ever wrote for a symphony. It presents and develops its own thematic material, linked to the main theme of the Allegro section in a passage consisting of multiple repeats of a single note — E — in the flute, oboe, and violins. Among the many unforgettable moments of this movement, I would single out two: the surprise oboe solo at the beginning of the recapitulation (which has no counterpart in the exposition) and the irresistible, gradual crescendo at the end that culminates in a fortissimo statement of the movement’s main rhythmic figure.

The second-movement Allegretto in A minor was the section in the symphony that became the most popular from the day of the premiere. (It had to be repeated at its very first performance.) The main rhythmic pattern of this movement was used in Austro-German church litanies of the 18th and 19th centuries. The same pattern is so frequent in the music of Franz Schubert that it is sometimes referred to as the “Schubert rhythm.” The Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh combines this rhythm with a melody of a rare expressive power. The rhythm persists in the bass even during the contrasting middle section in A major.

The third-movement Scherzo is the only one of the symphony’s movements where the basic rhythmic patterns are grouped in an unpredictable, asymmetrical way. The joke (which is what the word Scherzo means) lies in the fact that the listener may never know what will happen in the next moment. Only the Trio returns to regular-length periods. In another innovative move, Beethoven expands the traditional Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo structure by repeating the Trio a second time, followed by a third appearance of the Scherzo. At the end, Beethoven leads us to believe that he is going to start the Trio over yet another time. But we are about to be doubly surprised: first when the by-now familiar Trio melody is suddenly transformed from major to minor; and second when, with five quick tutti strokes, the movement abruptly ends, as if cut off in the middle.

In the fourth-movement Allegro con brio, the exuberant feelings reach their peak as one glorious theme follows another over an unchanging rhythmic pulsation. The dance reaches an almost superhuman intensity (and that, incidentally, is the meaning of the Greek word “apotheosis,” literally, “becoming God-like”). This is a movement of which even Sir Donald Francis Tovey, the most celebrated British musical essayist of the first half of the 20th century, had to admit: “I can attempt nothing here by way of description.” Fortunately, the music speaks for itself.
 

Program notes by Peter Laki

 

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