Program Notes: Concert IV

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major op.81a “Les Adieux”

From Beethoven’s second period, this work was written about five years after the “Eroica” Symphony marked the immersion of his unique compositional voice, independent of that of his teachers. History has an interesting impact on this Sonata. As such, Beethoven provided a fairly detailed program for its music, which was unusual for him.

In 1808, Beethoven received an offer from Napoleon’s brother, then King of Westphalia to leave Vienna. However, Beethoven’s wealthy Viennese patrons (Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lobkowitz, and Prince Kinsky) countered and offered a lifetime income to Beethoven. He accepted and stayed. Napoleon attacked Vienna in 1809. While the timing certainly seems suspicious, I’m sure that attack had nothing to do with Beethoven’s rejection of the King of Westphalia’s offer! Beethoven’s friend and patron Archduke Rudolph was forced to leave the city for several months. The program of this Sonata details his friend’s exodus. The movements are titled: Lebewohl (The Farewell), Abwesenheit (The Absence), and Das Wiedersehen (The Return). As to why the French translation of Lebewohl has lasted as the nickname for this piece is irony. Indeed, Beethoven brought the program into the score of the piece. He wrote the word Le-be-wohl over the first three, slow chords that open the work. The 1811 publication even bears this dedication: “On the departure of his Imperial Highness, for the Archduke Rudolph in admiration.”

With sorrow at the temporary loss of a friend as its program, one might expect sadness to be expressed in the form of some kind of minor key dirge. Beethoven — rather surprisingly – frames his farewell in the “bright” key of E-flat major. Against such a background, the resigned falling chords throughout the movement truly pull at the heartstrings. They also seem to indicate that the separation is only temporary. The second movement is more melancholy as the reality of missing friendship has set in. Harmonically, it is built on dissonance, a diminished chord, in the key of c minor (the relative minor key to E-Flat major because they share the same key signature). The third movement is pure joy at the reunion.

Beethoven: Piano Trio Op. 70 No. 1, the “Ghost”

Beethoven’s Opus 70 contains two trios that were both written in 1808 (the year before the Op. 81a Sonata!, while Beethoven was staying at the home of Countess Marie von Erdödy and are dedicated to her. Every bit as famous as Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio, the nickname of the “Ghost” Trio derives from its spooky-sounding middle movement. Beethoven’s famous student Carl Czerny later wrote that the second movement even reminded him of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. There is some speculation that the music was intended for a possible Macbeth opera that never materialized. The words “Macbett” and “Ende” are notated at the end of the manuscript.

1808 was a period of uncertainty for Beethoven. He had just completed his “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 and didn’t yet have a steady source of income (which we discussed in the Sonata notes). Perhaps, that uncertainty finds its way into the work’s underlying tension. A tense atmosphere pervades the famous second movement. It is the core of the piece and the longest movement. Ominous tremolos throughout are interrupted with dissonance, slow diminuendi and crescendi, as well as silence.

Shorter, brighter outer movements further serve to set apart the second movement. Each are rather straightforward in content, form, and expression which serves to contribute to an arced form for the work itself. Vigorous and fast, the first movement is lyrical and unfolds in waves of motion. Much like the Sonata at the opening of this program, the final movement here is also a joyful sonata form.

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49

About the composer // Felix Mendelssohn had it all. His name even means happy. He was born rich, successful professionally as a composer and performer, happily married, good looking, a master chess player, socially popular, an adept painter, and child prodigy. Unfortunately, Mendelssohn died young. One is left to wonder what output was yet to come from the prodigy. However, his musical legacy is less than happy. Mendelssohn hasn’t quite reached the immortal status of say a Beethoven or Wagner. His music is often criticized for being too perfect and not emotional enough. Indeed, his music even fell into some level of obscurity (due in degree to Nazi Germany ignoring his music as a Jewish composer) until the mid Twentieth century when he was “rediscovered.”

About the music // His Piano Trio dates as somewhat of a late piece, having been written in 1839 (six years before his death). Mendelssohn listened to the advice of his friend to rewrite the piano part into a more modern, Schumann-esque style. Schumann clearly loved the flattery, Of it he wrote: “Mendelssohn, as one of the many sons of this age, must have had to struggle with and often listen to the insipid declaration of some ignorant critics that ‘the true golden age of music is behind us’ – although it probably affected him less – and has so distinguished himself that we may well say: He is the Mozart of the 19th century, the most brilliant of musicians, the one who most clearly perceives the contradictions of the age, and the first to reconcile them.” An aching, slowly rising melody from the cello begins the first movement. The music ebbs gradually to grand heights, yet still tinged with a soft melancholy.  The soft andante of the second movement continues the mood. It is sometimes described as a “Song without Words.” The final scherzo is pure Mendelssohn. The melody dances between the instruments.

Program notes written by Crystal Young-Otterstrom.