Beethoven and Berlioz
- June 7, 2013
- June 6, 2013
Ferruccio Busoni and Franz Liszt were not only the leading piano virtuosi of their respective eras, but also two of the most inveterate creators of transcriptions. They habitually transformed their own, original compositions, as well as those of other composers, in order to explore fresh sonorities—and to find new audiences and markets for their music. The works catalogues of both Busoni and Liszt contain numerous examples of their delight in tinkering with new sounds and textures. They transcribed piano solos into orchestral works (and vice versa), songs and opera arias into piano solos (and vice versa), and difficult piano solos into super-difficult piano solos.
Busoni had strongly held opinions on the subject. In the final analysis, he said, “notation is itself the transcription of an abstract idea. The moment that the pen takes possession of it, the thought loses its original form.” Further, in transcribing a composition from one instrumental voice to another, he maintained that “transcription has become an independent art, no matter whether the starting-point is original or unoriginal. Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, and Brahms were evidently all of the opinion that there is artistic value concealed in a pure transcription, for they all cultivated the art themselves, seriously and lovingly.” That John Adams chose to arrange piano pieces by Liszt and Busoni for The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra seems only fair play.
Busoni wrote and published the piano Berceuse (Cradle Song) in 1909 and immediately transcribed it for orchestra, naming the new version “Berceuse élégiaque (Des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter)”—the added German subtitle explaining the “elegiac” element, the “cradle song of the man at his mother’s coffin.” Busoni also authorized that the 1909 piano solo be included in a re-issue of an earlier set of piano pieces entitled “Elegien,” thus covering at least three bases in the market for his cradle song. John Adams based his orchestral arrangement on the original piano solo (with its elegiac title).
Sandra Hyslop ©2013
Hector Berlioz earned a living writing music criticism, and his passion for words carried over into his music. In 1839 he created a programmatic symphony based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and in 1840 he made another nod to “the Bard” with his song collection Les Nuits d’été (Nights of Summer), the title referencing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Berlioz knew as “Le Songe d’une nuit d’été.” Using poems from an 1838 volume by his friend and fellow critic Théophile Gautier, Berlioz completed the cycle for voice and piano in 1841.
Berlioz orchestrated one song from Les Nuits d’été in 1843, and then he completed the set and prepared it for publication in 1856. (He did not hear the full orchestra version performed in his lifetime.) The first song, Villanelle, announces the coming of spring in music propelled by a bright and pulsing accompaniment. The Spectre of the Rose infuses a dead flower with romance and longing, while On the Lagoons brings the rocking lilt of the sea to a heartbreaking song of mourning. Absence is another meditation on loss and distance, albeit one with a glimmer of hopefulness in its central ascending motive. At the Cemetery, Moonlight contains a verse describing a dove singing in a cemetery, words that could justly describe Berlioz’s melody: “An air sickly tender, / At the same time charming and ominous, / Which makes you feel agony / Yet which you wish to hear always; / An air like a sigh from the heavens / of a love-lorn angel.” That delectable agony dissipates for the swashbuckling final song, Unknown Island.
Aaron Grad ©2012
Franz Liszt was known to revise and re-work his compositions multiple times, sometimes over a long span of years. In the case of La lugubre gondola (The black gondola), he composed three versions, all beginning in 1882. Version I was a piano solo. Late in the year he undertook a transcription of La lugubre gondola as a duet for cello or violin and piano; in turn, he transformed that version of the piece into a piano solo, completing it in January 1883 as La lugubre gondola II. This is the version upon which John Adams based his arrangement for the SPCO, giving it the English title The Black Gondola.
It remains to be noted that Liszt’s Black Gondola has become permanently linked with the death of Richard Wagner, the husband of Liszt’s daughter Cosima. In 1882 Liszt had composed La lugubre gondola in response to the striking visions of funeral gondolas on the lagoons of Venice. His revered son-in-law was carried to his final resting place in just such a procession in February 1883, not two months after Liszt composed this music.
Sandra Hyslop ©2013
Beethoven attempted a symphony in 1795-96, after hearing Haydn’s London symphonies, but he did not complete one until 1800. The following year he began his Second Symphony, which he finished in 1802 while living in Heiligenstadt, outside of Vienna. Beethoven had hoped that time in the country might slow his encroaching deafness and improve his spirits, but by the end of his stay he was in a nearly suicidal state of despair. That fall he wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” an unsent letter to his brothers that was found among his papers after his death. He included thisdescription of his tormented life that year:
If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. … What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.
Beethoven re-entered society in Vienna and soon received a boost in the form of an opera commission. His new association with the Theater an der Wien led to a concert on April 5, 1803, at which he conducted the premiere of the Second Symphony, performed the solo part in the Third Piano Concerto, debuted the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, and reprised his First Symphony.
Despite the circumstances of its creation, the Second Symphony is a lively and jovial work. It marks a high point in Beethoven’s early Classical style, moving past the long shadow of Haydn that guided the First Symphony. The opening movement begins with a meaty introduction, filled with shifting rhythms, moody harmonies and surprising horn blasts. The Allegro con brio section begins, conversely, with the barest trace of a melody in the lower strings, but it surges to music of an even wilder nature, pounding with offbeat accents and extreme dynamic contrasts. Whereas Haydn loved the elegant dichotomy of forte and piano intensities, Beethoven’s score asks for the even louder fortissimo and even softer pianissimo dynamics, moving beyond tidy Classical style into the more volatile spectrum associated with Romantic music.
Aaron Grad ©2014
Saturday's performance will be broadcast live on Classical Minnesota Public Radio stations.