Columbus Symphony Performs Music of Beethoven, Brahms and Webern

Guest conductor Mei-An Chen, Music Director of the Memphis Symphony, leads this weekend's Columbus Symphony concerts.(Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)
Guest conductor Mei-An Chen, Music Director of the Memphis Symphony, leads this weekend's Columbus Symphony concerts.(Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

Yeah, I know it’s the three Bs, not two Bs and a W. But this weekend’s Columbus Symphony program opens with a ricercar by J.S. Bach (first B) arranged in the 20th century by Anton Webern, along with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and the Concerto for violin and cello by Brahms.

These are the final CSO Classical series concerts of the season.

As if the music isn’t exciting enough, guest conductor Mei-An Chen, the music director of the Memphis Symphony, is a hot new name in the music business. Axel Strauss, violin and Nathaniel Rosen, cello are featured solists in the Brahms Double Concerto.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat, aka the Eroica was the work that made its composer famous. It is a work of extremes, and it evoked extreme responses.

Love it for its power or hate it for being longer, darker and different, the ‘Eroica’ was the buzz of Vienna.  At 45 minutes it was much longer than the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart so loved by the Viennese.  The Eroica was considered much too emotional and unwieldy, too in your face.

The fact is this symphony ushered in Beethoven’s middle period. The symphonies 4, 5 and 6 were soon to come, as well as he opera Fidelio (all five versions of it) and the string quartets opus 59.  This from a man who had not long before contemplated suicide.

One of the saddest bits of music history is a document called theHeiligenstadt Testament. Beethoven wrote this down in a village outside Vienna where he had hoped the quiet would restore his hearing. It didn’t work.

I was born with an ardent and lively temperament, ever susceptible to the diversions of society,  I was compelled  to isolate myself, to live in loneliness…yet it was impossible for me to to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf!

Luckily, Beethoven’s despair found an outlet in his Third Symphony, begun in 1804. We know the composer wanted to dedicate this work to Napoleon. He changed his mind several times and eventually the Eroica was published with the inscription:

Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the victory of a great man.

This ambiguity may have pleased Beethoven’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz, who paid for the work and presented its premiere at his castle outside Vienna.

Musicians have identified a few works that changed the rules. The Rite of Spring, Tristan und Isolde and certainly Beethoven’s Eroica. Its length, its emotional vigor, and the lack of music as pure entertainment surprised many back in 1805-and irritated others. Nevertheless, the Eroica ushered in the romantic period in music, where strict forms we loosened and where emotion and personalization were prized.

The second movement, Marcia funebre is especially poignant. Beethoven, with music and no words, goes right to the heart:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T00UX87UbgI

If the Eroica ushered in Beethoven’s great years, Johannes Brahms (1833897) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Cello in 1887. It was his final work for orchestra.

The four symphonies had gone out into the world – the first had a tortured birth, but the rest followed easily – the German Requiem was recognized as the sublime work it is, and Brahms’ appearances as a pianist and conductor had made him world famous.

His music was richly orchestrated-there’s a lot of sound to Brahms. The Double Concerto also healed a rift between Brahms and his close friend and mentor, the violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907 ).

It was for Joachim that both Schumann, Dvorak and Brahms had written their violin concertos. Alas! Herr Joachim was involved in a messy divorce, and Brahms was among the many siding with Frau Joachim.

After ten years Brahms wrote his former friend asking him to consider a new concerto. The addition of the cello was a later development.

What we have is a multi octave sweep, with the violin at his highest going down to the cello in the basement. Brahms may make you wait for it, but there’s always a big tune.

Listen to the second movement of the Brahms Double Concerto:

And so on to the rollicking finale, in what Brahms used to call his ’gypsy’ style. Maybe this is where the myth of the young composer playing piano in a whore house came from:

Oh, and about Anton Webern? His orchestration of a Bach ricercare (a late renaissance term meaning’ to search out’ where the keys play hide and seek) is a blend of the sublime with the musically kinky.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz45cem4MSs

Webern learned the twelve tone technique from Schoenberg. Heartless! cried musicians like Strauss and Mahler. But the blend of Bach with second Viennese school modernism is spicy, provocative and still beautiful.

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