The Marriage of Figaro was the first of Mozart’s three collaborations with the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who also scripted Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. It was possibly Mozart’s idea to borrow the scenario from a 1778 French play by Pierre Beaumarchais, a sequel to his earlier hit, The Barber of Seville (later immortalized in Rossini’s 1816 opera). The farce was banned in Vienna at the time for its sarcastic condemnation of the aristocracy, and da Ponte had to scrub the work of its political overtones to gain the emperor’s approval.
The Marriage of Figaro transpires over the course of “one crazy day.” Figaro, the head servant to Count Almaviva, is due to wed the maid Susanna, who meanwhile has been subjected to the Count’s lecherous advances. In the end, the Count gets his comeuppance, and Figaro and Susanna marry. Although the music of the overture has no major presence later in the opera, it sets the scene for the hilarity that ensues. The overture’s form is quite lean, with neither a repeat of the exposition nor a development section. The frenetic Presto tempo and persistent eighth-notes give the prelude a breathless feeling throughout its four-minute sprint, while rising figures and drawn-out crescendos establish the buoyant tone of the opera.
Aaron Grad ©2013
In 1811, the ailing Beethoven took his doctor’s advice and summered in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz. The trip succeeded in refreshing Beethoven’s health and spirits, and soon he started on a new symphony, his first in three years. He completed the Symphony no. 7 the following spring and began work immediately on his Eighth Symphony. His return visit to Teplitz in 1812 was a more heartbreaking affair: he penned unsent love letters to his mysterious “Immortal Beloved,” now believed to be Antonie Brentano, a married woman from Frankfurt. He also had a disappointing introduction to his literary hero, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, about whom Beethoven complained, “He delights far too much in the court atmosphere, far more than is becoming in a poet.”
With the Napoleonic Wars disrupting concert life in Vienna, the Seventh Symphony did not reach the public until the end of 1813. On December 8, Beethoven conducted a benefit concert for wounded soldiers from the Battle of Hanau, featuring the premiere of Wellington’s Victory or the Battle of Vitoria, a bombastic orchestral account of the conflict, complete with six trumpets, ten percussionists creating martial sound effects, and triumphant variations on God Save the King. Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony” stole the show, but the debut of the Seventh Symphony made an impression, too, with the audience demanding an encore of the Allegretto movement.
The symphony begins with an introduction, the structure favored by Haydn in his late symphonies. Typically this would be a slow introduction, but Beethoven’s Poco sostenuto tempo has unusual forward drive, its momentum reinforced by repeated notes and rising scales. The introduction is also of an unprecedented length, lasting nearly four minutes before a single repeated pitch links into the lively Vivace continuation, set in a rollicking triple meter infused with the snap of dotted rhythms.
The second movement again defies the expectation of slow music, appearing as a nimble Allegretto in A minor. It explores a distinctive rhythmic stamp (long, short-short, long, long), advancing a simple theme while expanding the scoring from lower strings to the full orchestra. A contrasting major-key section with broad phrases and pulsing pizzicato intervenes twice, but variants of the opening figure return each time as the heartbeat of the music, even when it is reduced to a skeletal final statement.
The Presto third movement is a scherzo in all but name, Beethoven’s supercharged answer to Haydn’s minuets. It features cheeky rhythmic play and sudden dynamic contrast, as would be expected from a palate-cleansing third movement; more surprising is the strangely earnest trio section, with winds intoning a hymn-like chorale over droning violins. Instead of the typical three-part structure in which the trio appears once as a central departure, here it enters twice and then echoes again in the movement’s coda.
The Allegro con brio finale ushers in more foot-stomping rhythmic drive, pounding hard on the accented off-beats. It is no wonder that Richard Wagner called this symphony “the apotheosis of the dance”—each movement is a celebration of relentless, infectious rhythms.
Aaron Grad ©2012