Robert Schumann moved to Düsseldorf in 1850 to begin his new post as Municipal Music Director. Despite the added strain of conducting and managing an orchestra, he entered one of his most productive periods of composition, completing fifty works over the next four years. Sadly, this phase also marked the final collapse of Schumann’s mental health. Not long after the move, Clara Schumann noted her husband’s “highly nervous, irritable, excited mood.” The orchestra forced Robert to resign his conducting post in 1853, and the next year he threw himself into the Rhine River in a suicide attempt. He lived out his remaining years in an insane asylum.
One of the first pieces Schumann completed in Düsseldorf was originally labeled a Konzertstück for cello and orchestra and later published as a Cello Concerto. The composition does contain the three typical movements of a concerto, but the heading of Konzertstück (“Concert Piece”) captures Schumann’s desire to create a more integrated and continuous form, rather than a showy concerto full of virtuosity for its own sake. To that end, he dispensed with a hefty orchestral introduction, connected the three movements with linking material, and included orchestral accompaniment during a solo cadenza, among other departures from traditional concerto form. Schumann had played the cello as a boy, and again briefly after a hand injury curtailed his piano playing, and he put his intimate understanding of the instrument to use in the concerto. The solo part exploits the full sonic range of the instrument, from the growling bass of the open C-string to the steely soprano territory beyond the treble staff, while the deft orchestration ensures that the soloist is never obscured.
Schumann penned the Cello Concerto in just two weeks, completing it on the day he conducted his first concert in Düsseldorf. He must have held some misgivings about the work, since he canceled a scheduled premiere in 1852 and delayed its publication until 1854. The first performance did not occur until 1860, four years after Schumann died.
The interconnected movements feature thematic cross-references throughout. The opening gesture of three successive chords, for example, takes on new forms in the second and third movements; likewise, the interval of a descending fifth that pervades the slow movement reappears in the accompaniment to the finale’s cadenza. Still, for all its formal novelty, it is the heartbreaking lyricism that distinguishes this concerto. Clara Schumann was among the first to appreciate the strengths of the work when, in 1851, she wrote, “The romantic quality, the vivacity, the freshness and humor, also the highly interesting interweaving of violoncello and orchestra are indeed wholly ravishing, and what euphony and deep feeling one finds in all the melodic passages!”
Aaron Grad ©2013
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was received well by Viennese audiences; the Eighth, less so. “That’s because it’s so much better,” Beethoven supposedly said to his student Carl Czerny. If authentic, this gruff remark can surely be heard, in part, as a defensive overreaction and dismissal of the fickle Viennese public.
But there is indeed something mighty hiding inside the Eighth Symphony’s diminutive stature. It is the shortest of Beethoven’s symphonies, and scored for a Haydn-sized orchestra; Beethoven referred to it as “my little Symphony in F,” distinguishing it from the Pastoral Symphony, also in F major, but substantially longer.
It’s not only the Symphony’s apparently modest scale that recalls Haydn. So too does its character. The first movement exposition (nearly as compact as that of the Serioso Quartet, completed the previous year and consciously designed for an audience of connoisseurs) is all Haydn-esque humor, light, and delight—likely an anachronistic surprise to its first audiences, a decade after the Eroica. But here is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the voice of a brave new era donning Haydn’s powdered wig. Hear how utterly transformed is the first theme, so bright and affable in the Symphony’s opening measures, as the movement’s central development section takes hold: an angry snarl in the cellos and basses, an urgent plea in the woodwinds and second violins amidst a tempest conjured by the firsts, who now alter the theme into cries of panic as we hurtle inexorably towards certain shipwreck. At the last moment, Beethoven throws us instead—no less violently, mind—into the glorious recapitulation. This is not just a return to the home key, but new music of blinding resplendence. It is again the cellos and basses (joined now by the bassoons) that have the theme, roaring through an ecstatic fortissimo in the rest of the orchestra. And then, just as abruptly: winds, piano e dolce, as if we’ve woken from the hallucinatory realm of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique to find ourselves still in Haydn’s studio at the Esterházy court, circa 1790.
Lewis Lockwood writes of the Eighth, “precisely because it emulates the smaller symphonic scale of Beethoven’s predecessors, but from a modern perspective, this work stands in a stylistically distanced relationship to tradition and becomes an artful commentary on the historical development of the genre.”
The delicacy of the second movement, marked Allegretto scherzando, seems to point back to the Seventh Symphony, as if to reiterate the point that Allegretto means allegretto. This movement’s surface charm moreover masks a complex rhetorical quality to the Symphony. Featherweight, staccato sixteenth notes provide a steady backdrop to the dainty theme introduced by the first violins; the clockwork routine is punctured, but just occasionally, by a fortissimo thrum of sixty-fourth notes. We almost learn to pay it no mind, to not let it interrupt such a lovely stroll through the park.
The outburst expands, with sudden vigor, and abruptly has the last word. It pulls us into the minuet (another Haydn-esque convention; Beethoven eschews a true scherzo). It’s a moment of exquisite strangeness, in a setting where we expect nothing strange at all. What does it mean? Likewise the finale, a lithe Allegro vivace rife with such expressive import and subtle strangeness. Midway through the movement, the cellos and basses interrupt the proceedings with two forceful, declamatory gestures, changing the tenor of the movement from here to the Symphony’s conclusion. This prefigures, albeit on a smaller scale, a rhetorical strategy of the Ninth Symphony, in whose final movement the cellos become nearly human, fashioning a lyrical recitative into the “Ode to Joy.” The Eighth Symphony arrived disguised as Haydn to the consternation of Vienna in 1814, but their consternation is not for us to share. This “little Symphony in F” bears Beethoven’s blazing signature through and through.
Patrick Castillo ©2014