Stravinsky composed Les cinq doigts (The Five Fingers) for his young children in 1921, crafting eight short movements that explored the melodic possibilities of leaving the right hand mostly stationary over a single set of five notes. Even with such limited materials, the music sounded unmistakably like Stravinsky, with dancing rhythms and fractured themes indicative of his burgeoning “neoclassical” style. In another sense, Les cinq doigts prefigured the serial experiments from late in the composer’s career, when he again played with restricted tone combinations.
Stravinsky resurrected the little piano score in 1962, creating the arrangement he titled Eight Instrumental Miniatures for a 15-member ensemble. The orchestration went beyond mere note distribution, to include what Stravinsky described as “rhythmic rewriting, phrase regrouping, canonic elaboration, [and] new modulation.” Stravinsky conducted the premiere in Toronto several weeks before his 80th birthday, in what proved to be the last premiere that he directed himself
Aaron Grad ©2014
When the principal second violinist of the Esterházy Orchestra, Johann Tost, made plans to start a music distribution enterprise in Paris, Haydn offered him two new symphonies plus a dozen string quartets to resell. Tost, alas, was a bit of a scoundrel; he tried to pass off a symphony by Adalbert Gyrowetz as a third work by Haydn, and he was later implicated in a scheme to pirate, behind the composer’s back, Haydn’s manuscripts held in the Esterházy collection.
The Symphony No. 88 exhibits grandeur and breadth to match the preceding “Paris” symphonies. As in most of Haydn’s late symphonies, a slow introduction sets the stage; here, the dotted rhythms (a short-long pattern) of the opening chords suggest the character of French overtures from an earlier era. In the Allegro body of the movement, the violins begin with a figure suggestive of hunting horns, establishing material that lends the movement an al fresco air.
The Largo second movement, constructed as a theme with variations, holds the biggest surprise of this symphony. The opening statement, featuring solo oboe and cello, establishes a chamber-music intimacy. Then, forty measures into the movement, a fortissimo entrance by the entire ensemble adds the piercing force of two trumpets and timpani, whose absence in the first movement makes this point of arrival all the more thrilling.
The Menuetto also holds back a surprise. To complement the boisterous dance music of the main section, the contrasting trio introduces a rustic, droning texture, which supports exotic melodies in unusual modes. Closing the symphony on a high note, the finale hardly ceases its bouncing eighth-note pulse, and even its minor-key episodes exude buoyant charm.
Aaron Grad ©2012
If Beethoven can be regarded as the most universally admired composer in Western music history, it is the aspiration of his music that has thus installed him. Consider that he composed nine symphonies to Haydn’s 104—but each of those nine aspires to profundity, to express the human condition in a way that Haydn, for all his genius and originality, did not. This quality of Beethoven’s music is especially salient to his celebrated “heroic” period, and the Violin Concerto dates from the height of that chapter of his career. Though it has, to be sure, stiff competition (the Eroica, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies; the Emperor Concerto; any number of sonatas, string quartets; et cetera ad infinitum), the Violin Concerto might be considered Beethoven’s quintessential work.
Certainly, it shares the broad aspirations of its siblings. (In the year 1806 alone, Beethoven completed, in addition to the Violin Concerto, the Razumovsky Quartets, Appassionata Sonata, Fourth Symphony, and Fourth Piano Concerto.) The Concerto’s first movement alone outlasts most Haydn symphonies in their entirety. Moreover, the concerto medium—virtuoso in front of the orchestra: leader of the masses, perhaps, or revolutionary, or messiah—presents an ideal manifestation of the Beethovenian concept of heroism.
But the psychological complexity of the Violin Concerto challenges the paradigm. The solo writing—which, make no mistake, ranks among the most technically demanding in the violin repertoire—does not gratify the soloist with blazing pyrotechnics. The protagonist of this heroic journey is not your standard-issue knight in shining armor; Beethoven creates a more elusive character.
The Concerto begins in famously unorthodox fashion, with the timpani presenting a five-beat rhythmic motif. This seemingly innocuous gesture is immediately revealed to be a powerfully consequential germinal cell (foreshadowing Fate knocking at the door in the Fifth Symphony). It surfaces in different manifestations in quick succession: now regal, now quickened and breathless, now lyrical.
This is Beethoven’s signature motivic developmental technique: obsession over simple motives catalyzes a sweeping sense of drama. Beethoven’s very compositional vocabulary, in the composer’s penchant for building something great from something humble, thus explicitly represents heroism.
Yet the soloist’s first entrance is startlingly unassuming; neither fearless leader nor conquering hero, but something more nuanced. Against tutti music of heroic breadth, the soloist offers unaffected stream-of-consciousness musing.
Thus does Beethoven set the scene for the remarkable journey that is this triumphant Violin Concerto. Having built the stage from a blueprint set out in the Concerto’s opening measures, based on that germinal five-note rhythmic motif, and having established the character of the soloist and its relationship to the orchestra, Beethoven subsequently uses the solo writing—in other words, masterfully exploits the very concerto medium—to three-dimensionalize his blueprint.
This is indeed music of great expressive aspiration. The Violin Concerto is also music of great insight and empathy. The arc traced from the splendid opening Allegro through the sublime Larghetto and ultimately to the ebullient finale places it alongside Beethoven’s final piano sonata, his Ninth Symphony, and others of his most deeply human utterances. It is music that expresses on the listener’s behalf something otherwise inarticulable, but unmistakably resonant and truly universal.
Patrick Castillo ©2015