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Program Notes: Beethoven and Mendelssohn (March 10-11, 2023)

Program

March 10-11, 2023


Nicholas McGegan, conductor

Sarah Price, soprano

Danielle Yilmaz, soprano

Victoria Carmichael, alto

Enrico Lagasca, bass-baritone

Trent Patterson, guest conductor

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Selections from Egmont, op. 84 (1809)

Overture

No. 1 Die Trommel gerühret

No. 2 Entr’acte I

No. 3 Entr’acte II

No. 4 Freudvoll und leidvoll

No. 5 Entr’acte III

No. 6 Entr’acte IV

No. 7 Clärchen’s Death

No. 8 Melodrama

No. 9 Siegessymphonie


Sarah Price, soprano (Freudvoll und leidvoll)

Danielle Yilmaz, soprano (Die Trommel gerühret)


Intermission


Felix Mendelssohn

Die erste Walpurgisnacht

(The First Walpurgis Night), op. 60(1784)

Overture: Bad weather

The transition to springtime

Now May again

Know ye not a deed so daring

The man who flies our sacrifice

Disperse, ye gallant men!

Should our Christian foes assail us

Come with flappers, fires, and clappers

Restrained by might, we now by night

Help, my comrades, see a legion!

Unclouded now, the flame is bright


Victoria Carmichael, alto

Thomas Cooley, tenor

Enrico Lagasca, bass-baritone

St. Louis Symphony Chorus

Trent Patterson, guest conductor


 

Program Notes

by Yvonne Frindle


From the Conductor

What we’re dealing with here is very dramatic music by two people who are not necessarily known as dramatic composers. The overture to Egmont is well known, but the rest of the music is wonderful top-notch Beethoven too. And in the Mendelssohn, we see him out of his comfort zone, being wild and romantic. So we get to hear less well-known sides of these two great composers. —Nicholas McGegan


Introduction

A child of the mid-18th century, little Wolfgang grew up in an intensely musical household. He and his sister learned piano and to harmonize at the keyboard. He had a fine bass voice—for him, song was the ultimate music. He fell in love with opera early on and tried his hand at writing one when he was in his teens.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? No, another leading creative mind, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s reputation looms large. In English-speaking countries he’s known mainly as a literary figure: poet, novelist, and playwright. But he was also a linguist and editor, a collector of folk poetry, a philosopher, and a natural scientist whose interests included geology, botany, and color theory. He studied law (practicing briefly) and fine art. He was a diplomat, civil servant, and entrepreneur, and at various times the director of a theater company, a finance minister, head of a mining operation, and a landscape architect. And while he was never a professional musician, his influence on European music proved deep and lasting.


Without Goethe, we wouldn’t have some of Franz Schubert’s most famous songs, including the terrifying Erlkönig, and Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony might have taken a very different shape. Without Goethe, we wouldn’t have Jules Massenet’s opera Werther or Charles Gounod’s opera Faust. We also wouldn’t have Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony or Hector Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. And without Goethe, Disney’s Fantasia wouldn’t have seen Mickey Mouse frantically battling an army of replicating brooms (Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice).


More important for this concert: without Goethe, we wouldn’t have Beethoven’s incidental music for the play Egmont, and we wouldn’t have Mendelssohn’s choral-orchestral work, The First Walpurgis Night. Goethe is the unifying figure in the program—presenting the theme of religious freedom via two very different texts, and bringing together two composers who never met, allowing us to hear unusual and striking aspects of their musical personalities.

 
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Ludwig Van Beethoven

Selections from Egmont


Ludwig Van Beethoven

Born 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died 1827, Vienna, Austria


Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Egmont music to accompany a long-awaited revival of Goethe’s play in Vienna. A decade later, in 1821, this incidental music (to use the technical term) was given a concert performance: the overture, two songs, and seven instrumental movements, tied together with a narration. Goethe’s response: “Beethoven has followed my intentions with admirable genius.”


Tonight, we hear nearly all the music as a suite. “Nearly all” because, without an actor-narrator, it’s necessary to adopt concert endings (for interludes written to fade underneath the following scene) and to make a judicious cut to the Melodrama, removing a section of music intended to underscore Egmont’s prison speech.


The music and its intrinsic drama can stand alone, but knowing something of Goethe’s scenario reveals why the play fired Beethoven’s enthusiasm—to the extent that he refused a fee for the work.


The real Count Egmont was a 16th-century hero—a Flemish general responsible for several successful campaigns against the French, who subsequently led his people in resistance to the Spanish. At the heart of the conflict was religious freedom. The annexed territories of the Netherlands took pride in their tolerance, but under the Spaniards, Protestantism was suppressed. Egmont, himself a Catholic, put his own life on the line to plead the Protestant cause.


Goethe’s play pits his hero against the Duke of Alva, who goads Egmont into defending the rights of the common man before the King—a treason punishable by death. Clara is a fictional addition: not merely Egmont’s love interest but a figure of tremendous courage. Her first song captures the fearless optimism of her desire to follow Egmont into battle; in the second she sings of a love that can endure dread, pain, even death. She will try to rouse her countrymen to rescue Egmont, and she too will die for her trouble.


It’s easy to see how this story of bravery in the face of oppression, with its strong female character, appealed to the composer of the opera Fidelio. (“Fidelio” is Leonore, who disguises herself as a man to rescue her imprisoned lover—an endeavor more successful than Clara’s.) It’s easy to see how it would have appealed to the composer who’d scratched Napoleon’s name from the title page of his Eroica Symphony after hearing that Napoleon had declared himself emperor and, in Beethoven’s mind, a “tyrant.”


The Egmont overture sets the tone with an ominous introduction. It points to the enemy with music suggesting the sarabande, a stately dance from baroque Spain. It swells into a faster section that evokes nobility and liberty with rising motifs and incisive gestures, but also death when it ends with a simple two-note “sigh” from the violins and a sudden silence. (Beethoven’s sketchbook notes: “death could be expressed through a rest.”) It then launches into a stirring finale that—in this concert—you’ll be able to recognize as a victory.

The overture holds a well-deserved place in the repertoire as a concert work. What’s surprising is that the rest of Beethoven’s Egmont music languishes in relative obscurity, because in this powerful sequence of short pieces he distils the essence of Goethe’s drama.


The four interludes do so much more than cover scene changes. They foreshadow events, they reflect emotional turmoil, they hint at the brief happiness of the lovers, and, in the fourth interlude, we can hear Egmont’s entrapment followed by Clara’s efforts to save him. The pathos of her death is depicted in a tender orchestral miniature, underpinned by pulsing notes from horns and strings, as the lights go out on stage. The Melodrama matches the eloquence of Egmont’s prison scene (a condemned man extolling the oblivion of “sweet sleep” and then dreaming of liberty). The final Victory Symphony, which, in the play, follows Egmont’s final, impassioned call to arms against tyranny, casts a triumphant glow over his tragic death.


First performance: June 15, 1810, in Vienna, Austria

First SLSO performance of the Overture: October 1, 1881, Joseph Otten conducting

Most recent SLSO performance of the Overture: September 14, 2016, David Robertson conducting Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, strings, soprano soloist

Approximate duration: 35 minutes

 


Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelsssohn

The First Walpurgis Night

Felix Mendelssohn

Born 1809, Hamburg, Germany

Died 1847, Leipzig, Germany


Beethoven and Goethe admired and respected each other, but apparently they didn’t hit it off in person. The relationship between Goethe and Felix Mendelssohn was entirely different. With an age difference of 60 years, it was more like grandfather and grandson. Goethe (who’d met Mozart as a boy) recognized 12-year-old Mendelssohn’s genius and maturity, and the two became fond friends, meeting and corresponding over the course of a decade. But Goethe never heard Mendelssohn’s music inspired by his ballad Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night). The first version was finished just weeks before Goethe’s death in 1832 and received its public premiere a year later; the revised final version wasn’t completed until 1843.


Once extremely popular, The First Walpurgis Night is now a rare treat in the concert hall. Its better-known cousin is Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Goethe’s ballad offers a kind of origin story for the widespread legends of witches’ sabbaths on deserted mountaintops, whether the Brocksberg in Bavaria or Bald Mountain near Kyiv.


The title refers to Saint Walpurga, an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon doctor-missionary and abbess of Heidenheim, who lent her name to the ancient festivals marking the beginning of summer. Goethe’s narrative is an imagined version of the very first May’s Eve or Walpurgis Night as celebrated by the pagan Druids of Bavaria.


The drama of the poetry is important, which is why Nicholas McGegan has chosen to perform the work in English, and this is exactly what Mendelssohn would have expected. He conceived the songs in his Midsummer Night’s Dream music so they would work equally well in German (the language of the premiere) and in English. His oratorio Elijah was premiered in Birmingham (U.K.) in English, but was composed simultaneously for performance in German as Elias.


This bilingualism stems from Mendelssohn’s popularity in Victorian England. Goethe, too, was revered by the Victorians as the “Sage of Weimar.” Perhaps the umbrella of celebrity is why The First Walpurgis Night was such a success, even though its text must have seemed controversial to devout listeners.


William Bartholomew’s 19th-century singing translation softens the effect somewhat. For example, he rewrites “dumpfen Pfaffenchristen” (stupid Christian priests) as “Christian foes.” Even so, the text retains Goethe’s antipathy to Christianity, extolling the unsullied, natural faith of his “Druids” in the face of Christian persecution. It reports, almost with glee, the Druids’ stratagem to frighten off their harassers by impersonating the (Christian) devil in midnight revels.


Goethe told Mendelssohn his ballad had an elevated symbolic meaning and wasn’t intended as literal material for drama, but Mendelssohn had other ideas. Writing to his sister, Fanny Hensel, he excitedly tells her of spring songs, of the watchmen making “a ruckus with their prongs and pitchforks,” and of “witches’ spookiness,” reminding her of how he had a “particular fondness” for such things. He writes of Druids appearing “in C major with their trombones,” of eerie and mysterious choruses, and beautiful music for the solemn sacrificial chorus.


The result shows a different, darker side to Mendelssohn. The central chorus, “Come with torches,” reveals an uncharacteristic extravagance. The Druids frighten the Christians with relentless rhythms, unexpected dissonances, and arresting use of drums and piccolo. The drums, in particular, caused Mendelssohn some soul-searching: “I am cloaked in uncertainty as to whether I should use the bass drum. ‘Prongs, pitchforks, and clappers’ actually do make me inclined to use it, but moderation would make me disinclined.” The need for “a great deal of noise” won out over his natural reserve, and Hector Berlioz—a composer not known for moderation—called it “a masterpiece of Romanticism.”


This is not music for the theatre in the way that Beethoven’s Egmont is, but it is theatrical, and when a friend proposed that it might be staged, Mendelssohn approved the plan. But it’s better as a concert work, avoiding moments of unintended humor such as a full symphonic chorus singing about “dispersing” across the stage when there’s clearly no room to do so.


It’s no accident that The First Walpurgis Night is subtitled “Ballade for chorus and orchestra”. There may be soloists, but this is music in which the chorus gets to shine. Without intending to, Mendelssohn created a new kind of cantata. It begins with an overture that, unusually, is a tone poem in two parts: a representation of bad weather, followed by the cheerful beginning of spring. This is followed by solos and choruses—some barely a minute, some more substantial—strung together in a continuous dramatic arc. Everything listeners admire in Mendelssohn is present: rhythmic energy, singable melodies, easy elegance. But the sheer vividness of the musical characterizations gives some hint as to why this was one of Mendelssohn’s favorite creations and how it came to be one of his most admired works in his lifetime.


First performance: January 10, 1833, in Berlin, Germany

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombones, timpani, percussion, strings; alto, tenor, baritone, and bass soloists; chorus

Approximate duration: 34 minutes

 

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.

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