Summer Concert June 5, 2022 – Program Notes

Felix Mendelssohn: Overture “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”, op. 27

Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is a setting of two contrasting poems by Goethe, Meeresstille (Calm Sea) and Glückliche Fahrt (Prosperous Voyage). These two poems seem to have been very popular at the time, as they had already inspired Beethoven’s choral setting by the same name and Schubert’s lied Meeresstille). In fact, Mendelssohn was aware of Beethoven’s version and he acknowledged it by choosing the same key of D major for his overture.

Calm Sea is actually a rather dark poem: it describes a totally becalmed sea, which in the days of sail was a cause for alarm, as the ships couldn’t move without wind. Goethe even refers to a ‘fearful and deathly stillness’, depicted by Mendelssohn in a sombre adagio, only sluggishly agitated by contrapuntal undercurrents.

A solo flute makes the transition to Prosperous Voyage. The breeze raises, the mist clears and after a rush of orchestral excitement the vessel is underway to a heroic melody. There follow passages of plain interspersed with the nimble activity of the sailors, until fanfares and timpani cannonades announce that land is sighted. The voyage is over, and the overture ends with a contented sigh of relief.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, op 55  “Eroica

Composed between 1802 and 1804, Beethoven’s Third Symphony marked the beginning of the composer’s innovative “middle period”. With its scope, richness of ideas and dramatic character, it represents a turning point not only in Beethoven’s development as a composer, but also in the development of the symphony as a musical form itself.

The full title of the symphony, as it appears in Beethoven’s manuscript is Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d’un grand’uomo (Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man). According to his pupil Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven originally named the symphony Buonaparte, and dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of the French Republic – whom he reputedly greatly admired and in whom he saw the personification of the ideals of the French Revolution. When Beethoven learned the news that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor, he was so disgusted and disappointed that he tore the title page of the manuscript in half and later changed the title to Sinfonia eroica.

This is the legend of the Eroica; but like all legends, it has to be treated with a grain of salt. What is certain is that initially Beethoven did, indeed name the symphony Buonaparte and did dedicate it to Napoleon. However, modern research suggests a far more prosaic and pragmatic reason for the symphony’s initial association with Napoleon, and its subsequent dissociation with him. In 1803, the year he started to work on the symphony, Beethoven was contemplating either a tour or even a move to Paris, so it seemed a good idea to write a symphony honouring Bonaparte. When these plans didn’t materialize, Beethoven rededicated the work to Prince Lobkowitz, one of his most loyal admirers (who also payed very good money for it). Moreover, by that time Austria was at war with France, so obviously, the title Buonaparte had to go.

And if the French Revolution is not the inspiration for this work, what did move Beethoven to write it? And who is the hero mentioned in the new title? The true inspiration for the Eroica is personal: the symphony is the result of two crises, one artistic and one emotional, that Beethoven underwent in 1802. While enjoying an ever increasing success as a pianist and as a composer. Beethoven came to the gradual realization that he had reached the limits of what he could achieve by adhering strictly to the path of Haydn and Mozart, and he was searching for new solutions. Unfortunately, paralleling his artistic success, Beethoven’s hearing was continuously deteriorating. In the spring of 1802, on the advice of his physicians, he decided to give his hearing a rest by retiring to the quiet village of Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna. However, his hearing did not improve and by October he was in a deep emotional crisis and felt compelled to draft a testament, the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, discovered among his papers after his death. In the preamble, Beethoven describes in an anguished language his illness and his despondency. He then goes on to say that he contemplated suicide, but that his art prevented him from taking this course. Both crises, however, resulted in a sort of catharsis, and immediately following Heiligenstadt Beethoven started to work again with renewed vigour and in a novel, daring style. The frontispiece of this new phase in his artistic development is the Eroica. The symphony becomes an allegory of Beethoven’s own heroic struggle against blind fate, and his ultimate victory – the hero alluded in the symphony’s title is Beethoven himself. The Eroica is the first musical composition that is centered on the composer’s own personal experience and that makes it also the first Romantic symphony.

Musically speaking, what makes Eroica such a revolutionary work is its scope and complexity. The first movement is in the traditional sonata form, however Beethoven pushes the envelope from the get-go, by doing away with the slow introduction. The movement starts with a big bang: two chords in the home tonality of E-flat, which are immediately broken to form a noble, heroic subject. Harmonic tension appears very early on with a dark chromatic note in the fifth bar of the melody. Another innovations is the vey expansive and dramatic development section, which features a couple of climaxes, as well as new thematic material.

The second movement is entitled Marcia funebre (Funeral march) and it is the first time that a movement with a programmatic character is incorporated into a symphony. The traditional Minuet is replaced by an exuberant Scherzo, with Trio section featuring three horns.

The last movement is a set of variations. In yet another break with tradition, the theme isn’t explicitly stated until the third variation. The theme of the movement is one that Beethoven used in a series of earlier works, most notably the ballet music The Creatures of Prometheus Op. 43. In the Greek mythology Prometheus is the hero that stole the fire from the Gods and brought it to mankind. Therefore the symphony may be an allegory of Prometheus, and by extension, and allegory of the struggle of the human spirit against preordained, unjust order and blind fate. Such an interpretation would also fit with Beethoven’s admiration of the ideas of the French Revolution. Most importantly, Beethoven uses the symbol of Prometheus to transcend his own personal struggle and to elevate it to a more general level.. 

Joseph Nachman