Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony
- September 21, 2013
Franz Schreker was among the most influential musicians in the German-speaking world in the years after World War I, both for his successful operas and for his role in academia. He was a product of the conservatory system, having studied violin and composition at the Vienna Conservatory in the last years of the nineteenth century. He joined the faculty of Vienna’s Imperial Academy of Music in 1912, and later stepped up to direct the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin from 1920 to 1932, during which time the school rose to the highest echelon of music education. Amidst the swelling power of the Nazi party, Schreker (the son of a Jewish photographer) lost his job, and after his early death from a stroke, the Nazis effectively silenced his music, an injustice that has only started to reverse itself in recent decades.
With stagings of Schreker’s operas still far from common, the Chamber Symphony from 1916 has become the work through which many listeners first encounter this neglected composer. Schreker prepared the score for his colleagues on the faculty of the Imperial Academy, who premiered the work in 1917, in honor of the school’s centenary. This chamber symphony in one movement shares many traits with Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, another single-movement work for an ensemble of soloists, which came out in Vienna almost exactly a decade earlier. We can also presume that the particular lineup of 23 musicians in Schreker’s orchestration was an outgrowth of the faculty’s makeup; the presence of three keyboard instruments, for example, must have helped occupy the piano department. Schreker composed individual lines for each string player, although he did suggest in the score that the parts could be augmented with small sections for performances in large concert halls.
The dreamy tone in the Chamber Symphony’s introduction owes much to the confluence of harp, celesta, harmonium (a small reed organ) and piano, supporting a flute motive that returns at multiple points. The continuous form passes through sections that reflect classic symphonic structure, including a slow introduction that releases into an Allegro vivace continuation. A quick recap of the opening material ushers in a lush Adagio, followed by a Scherzo, and finally a conclusion based on earlier themes.
Aaron Grad ©2013
*Crossroads represents my third musical encounter with Louise Glück’s poetry. In my Symphony No. 5 (2007), her poem Relic offers a kind of rejoinder, a Euridice counterforce, to Czeslaw Milosz’s retelling of the Orpheus story.
In The Seven Ages, I chose six of the poems to follow that book’s hidden narrative. The shape of Louise Glück’s lines and the emotional regions they inhabit forced me to find some new musical solutions, and left unanswered a lot of questions about how to do this.
When Glück published A Village Life in 2009, I noticed a new direction. The book seemed to originate in a community in which isolation was both ameliorated and more deeply experienced, something like what I register in the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi. I wanted to engage with her poems partly to add voice to this new direction, to affirm it, and to find whatever new compositional skills it required.
Each of the three settings—Twilight, Primavera, and Crossroads—is preceded by the same Refrain, which I took to be a location, the community norm, from which the music can depart.
I am grateful to the oboist Peggy Pearson for initiating the co-commissioning process, and to the many participants for their support. Crossroads, for Soprano or Mezzo Soprano, Oboe, and Strings was co-commissioned by the following organizations and ensembles: Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, La Jolla Music Society for SummerFest, and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, with additional support from Atlanta Chamber Players, Blair School of Music-Vanderbilt University, Chamber Music Amarillo/Harrington String Quartet/Amy Goeser Kolb, Chamber Music Northwest, Chesapeake Chamber Music, Network for New Music, Oberlin Conservatory, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, San Francisco Symphony, Serenata of Santa Fe, Texas Tech University School of Music, and Winsor Music.
John Harbison ©2012
Beethoven’s first two symphonies owe much to Haydn, the formidable “father of the symphony” and Beethoven’s teacher for a short while after he moved to Vienna. Soon enough, Beethoven honed a symphonic voice that eclipsed even Haydn’s in its scale and grandeur, beginning with the massive Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) from 1803 and continuing in the fateful Symphony No. 5 from 1808. Sandwiched between those landmark symphonies is a smaller specimen, the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, a work that underscores Beethoven’s lasting debt to Haydn.
Beethoven composed the Fourth Symphony in mid-1806, and first unveiled it at a private concert in March 1807. Close followers of Haydn’s London symphonies might have noted Beethoven’s nod to the Symphony No. 102, which likewise begins with a held B-flat octave. Whereas Haydn made a subtle detour to B-flat minor in his introduction, Beethoven fully embraced the move to the minor scale, especially leaning on its characteristic lowered sixth tone, G-flat. The harmony sneaks back to the major key via one of the score’s many slippery and surprising transitions, launching the Allegro vivace body of the movement. Later, the introspective development section wanders off to an unexpected F-sharp chord—an enharmonic re-spelling of the pivotal G-flat from the introduction—before finding the proper F chord to prepare the recapitulation.
The Adagio movement begins with an introductory figure that seems to have lingered from the end of the first movement, preparing the way for a sweet, singing melody. The second theme, for solo clarinet over plucked and bowed violins, invokes the intimacy of chamber music. Although the first publication called it a minuet, the quick and boisterous third movement is a scherzo in all but name. The contrasting trio section intervenes twice, creating an expansive five-part form.
The spirit of Haydn is on full display in the breathless romp of the finale. It saves its best humor for the end, when the violins, as if thoroughly exhausted, slowly trudge through the main theme one last time. After a similarly lethargic response from the bassoons and then the cellos and basses, the group rallies to end the symphony with an energetic flourish.
Aaron Grad ©2014
Composer John Harbison, featured on this program, will join us for a Composer Conversation at Amsterdam Bar and Hall in Saint Paul on Wednesday, September 18 at 7:00pm. Composer Conversation Series events are FREE but reservations are required. More at thespco.org/composer-conversation-series.