Concert Notes

Beethoven’s Fifth

Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
Max Bruch                                  
b. Cologne, Germany / January 6, 1838;
d. Berlin, Germany / October 2, 1920

Concert and operatic music based on folk melodies became hugely popular in the mid-nineteenth century. Nationalism even inspired composers to set folk music from other lands. Bruch is a prime example. In addition to the Scottish Fantasy, he created works derived from Swedish, Irish, Russian and Welsh materials. “As a rule, a good folk tune is more valuable than 200 created works of art,” he wrote. “I would never have come to anything in this world if I had not, since my twenty‑fourth year, studied the folk music of all nations with seriousness, perseverance, and unending interest. There is nothing to compare with the feeling, power, originality and beauty of the folk song...This is the route one should now take – here is the salvation of our unmelodic times...”

He became acquainted with The Scots Musical Museum, an exhaustive collection of authentic melodies. The first fruits of this encounter were his Twelve Scottish Folk Songs for voice and piano, followed by the Scottish Fantasy, which he composed in Berlin during the winter of 1879‑1880. He shaped it with the skills of a particular violin soloist in mind: the Spaniard Pablo de Sarasate, but it was another eminent soloist and colleague of Bruch’s who gave the premiere. Joseph Joachim played the first performance, under Bruch’s direction, in Liverpool, England on February 22, 1881.

In addition to Bruch’s own, original themes, the fantasy makes use of traditional Scottish airs, some of which are known by several different names. First movement: Auld Rob Morris; second movement: Hey, the Dusty Miller; third movement: I’m a’ doun for lack o’ Johnnie; and fourth movement: Scots wha hae. 

Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
1. Introduction: Grave – Adagio cantabile
2. Allegro
3. Andante sostenuto
4. Finale: Allegro guerriero 

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770;
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

When Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the mighty “Eroica,” burst upon the world in 1805, it trumpeted that he was no longer content to imitate; from now on he would innovate. It broke new ground on many fronts: it runs twice as long as the average Classical symphony; introduces the funeral march as a symphonic movement; contains a scherzo of unprecedented vigour and formal innovation; and concludes with a set of variations in which a naïve tune is raised to the same lofty plateau as the first three movements.

He began sketching what would become his Fifth Symphony early in 1804. An overwhelming number of pressing deadlines, and difficulties in finalizing its formal layout led him to set it aside temporarily. After clearing the decks of various projects (including the Violin Concerto, the opera Fidelio and Piano Concerto No. 4), he completed the Fifth during the first months of 1808.  It and the Sixth premiered at the same, all-Beethoven marathon concert in December 1808 (albeit in reverse order of their numbering). 

Another work dating from the intermediary period was Symphony No. 4, composed in 1807. It is, at least relatively speaking, a light-hearted and humorous work. It makes a fascinating pair with No. 3, launching a cycle of alternation in personality which would continue with Nos. 5 and 6, and Nos. 7 and 8.

The Fifth has perhaps the most familiar opening of any piece of classical orchestral music. This is also, surely, the most intense, even obsessive first movement anyone had written up to that time. Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler, whose reminiscences are not always to be trusted, claimed that the composer pointed to the opening notes in the score and stated, “Thus fate knocks at the door!” That opening rhythm appears in almost every bar of the first movement. Whether listeners take the analogy that Schindler mentions literally or metaphorically, it is clear that Beethoven is addressing momentous concepts in this music.

Recognizing the need to follow such a revolutionary tempest with something relaxed and traditional, in the second movement Beethoven offers a Haydn-esque set of variations, cast as a nonchalant stroll punctuated with pompous fanfares. The third movement is a dark, dramatic scherzo. After the whispered opening on the strings, the horns introduce a bold theme, clearly related to the opening movement’s first subject. Later, Beethoven puts the lower strings through some spectacular paces. Composer Hector Berlioz compared them with “the gambols of a delighted elephant.” 

The scherzo’s closing measures, veiled in uncertainty, point to a tragic conclusion. In another act of symphonic innovation, Beethoven leads us straight on to the finale; the path lies through a tunnel, echoing eerily with the muffled, heart-like beat of the timpani, the rhythm once again recalling the symphony’s opening motive. Then with heart-stirring suddenness, we emerge into the blazing sunlight of a glorious new dawn. Beethoven gives extra color and solidity to this exhilarating finale (which includes a reprise of the main scherzo theme) by bringing piccolo, trombones and contrabassoon into the symphonic orchestra for the first time.

With this section, Beethoven and his listeners conclude an emotional journey from darkness to light, the first such expedition undertaken in a symphony. This sequence of moods has the power to stir audiences on a fundamental level, embracing them in a common sense of victory. It also holds out the promise of hope, a tonic whose necessity never fades. This generosity of spirit is the foundation stone of Beethoven’s reputation – and his immortality. 

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante con moto
3. Allegro...
4. Allegro 


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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