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Program Notes: Beethoven and Schumann

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Friday, January 18, 2019 at 10:30am

Saturday, January 19, 2019 at 8:00PM

Karina Canellakis, conductor

Renaud Capuçon, violin


BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3, op. 72b

SCHUMANN Violin Concerto in D minor

Renaud Capuçon, violin


R. STRAUSS Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten

HINDEMITH Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

By Tim Munro

These four works by German composers span 150 years of history. It was a time when revolutions raged, an Empire and a Republic rose and fell, a dictatorship seized power. Laid in chronological order, these pieces sound like history changing gears.

Before intermission, two pieces of nineteenth century music that lean into the future. By Beethoven, whose revolutionary opera Fidelio was firmly aimed at posterity. And by Schumann, who worshipped Beethoven, and was to create “something new” in later compositions like the Violin Concerto.

After intermission, two pieces of twentieth century music that, fearful of the future, look backwards. Two pieces that are opposite sides of the same coin. Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis returns to the clarity and restraint of music from a bygone time. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten revels in nostalgia for the flamboyant excesses of the past.


Leonore Overture No. 3, op. 72b

Beethoven was eighteen when the Bastille fell. He watched as revolutions succeeded and failed, as republics appeared and collapsed, as leaders took and abused power.Fidelio, his only opera, responds to this violent political unrest. In this political work, Florestan, a liberal, is locked up by a fearful regime. His wife Leonore masquerades as a prison worker (“Fidelio”) to rescue him.

Beethoven's Fidelio tells the story of a whom who disguises herself as a prison guard to save her imprisoned husband.

Beethoven worked on the opera, on and off, for ten years. He rewrote and reordered sections, changed the title, and composed several overtures. LeonoreOverture No. 3 was the longest and most ambitious of his attempts. Although discarded for use in the opera, Leonore No. 3 has become a popular concert work.

Its opening chord thrusts us into Fidelio’s drama. Beethoven sends us tumbling down to Florestan’s subterranean jail cell. Here, bassoons murmur, a clarinet sings of hope, a lonely flute calls out. In the opera, Florestan sings of his desperation: “God! What darkness here. I dared to speak the truth, and these chains are my reward.”

As the music gathers steam, we hear the hearts of Florestan and Leonore flutter with anticipation. A dagger is drawn, a gun unholstered. At a key moment, an offstage trumpet fanfare heralds the arrival of the local Minister, who will ensure the couple’s safe release.

First Performance: November 20, 1805, Vienna

First SLSO Performance: December 3, 1908, Max Zach conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: January 30, 2010, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 14 minutes


Violin Concerto in D minor

The 43-year-old Schumann was ill. His speech was slurred, he stumbled on the street, he experienced breakdowns. Schumann found himself unable to write music.

One day the fog lifted. He completed a handful of pieces, including the Violin Concerto, and found his music-making to be “wonderful.” But it would not continue. These works would be among the last he would complete before his death.

In the previous decade Schumann’s music had turned in a new direction. He experimented with new forms, like melodrama (works for spoken voice and piano) and Märchen (works inspired by fairy tales). He looked to say more with less: melodies shrank, “sentimentality” was avoided.

The Violin Concerto was written for a great virtuoso, Schumann’s friend Joseph Joachim, but it offers few chances for technical display. The music instead asks the soloist to dig deep within, to plumb emotions and exploit the dusky colors of their instrument.

The first movement unfolds slowly, like a road trip through a subtly changing landscape. The elegance and gentle drama of the solo violin part keeps attentions from wavering, keeps eyes on the road.

Schumann was tormented by sounds in his head. At times his ears were filled with incessant whistling, at others he heard beautiful melodies, like the melody of the second movement, which he said was “sent by an angel.” It feels like time is suspended, and everyday life is very far away.

As he finished the work, Schumann discovered that his wife, Clara, was pregnant with their eighth child. The concerto’s third movement seems to carry the weighty optimism of this forty-something composer in a heavy but joyful dance.

Sadly, any bright hopes for the future would be dashed. Several months later Schumann would be institutionalized, remaining in this institution until he died, just two years later.

First Performance: November 26, 1937, Berlin Philharmonic, Georg Kulenkampff as soloist

First SLSO Performance: December 23, 1937, Vladimir Golschmann conducting with Yehudi

Menuhin as soloist

Most Recent SLSO Performance: November 14, 1970, Sergiu Comissiona conducting with Henryk Szeryng as soloist

Scoring: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 31 minutes


Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten

By any measure, Die Frau ohne Schatten is a gigantic work. The opera demands a huge orchestra, expensive sets, and extravagant costumes. A performance lasts more than four hours.

But beneath this bulky exterior, Die Frau tells the most intimate of stories: that of a couple’s struggles to have a child.

Barak and his wife, who is never named in the opera, cannot conceive. A character from the “spirit realm” comes to earth in search of a human “shadow,” which would allow her to have children. She tempts Barak’s wife to give up her shadow, inflaming tensions within the human couple.

Strauss’s opera was a deeply personal work. Strauss and his wife Pauline had a strong, yet at times difficult, bond. She was “very complex, very feminine,” he wrote, “a little perverse, at every minute different from how she had been a moment before.”

When Strauss made the arrangement of Die Frau for orchestra, late in life, he focused on the human characters. We hear music of Barak’s hope, sadness, and regret; we hear music of his wife’s frustration, desires, and deep love for Barak.

Die Frau depicts two worlds: the human world and the spirit realm. Strauss’s music for the human world glows with warmth, while his music for the spirit realm dazzles with glittering brightness.

In rejecting much of the music of the spirit realm, in focusing only on the wife and her husband, was Strauss sending a final love letter to Pauline? Pauline, who had sacrificed her own artistic career to support Richard’s. Pauline, who would outlive her husband by only one year.

Listening guide:

Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten Symphonic Fantasy is performed in one complete movement, without any breaks. The guide below is not intended as a real-time road-map, since it will be difficult to follow, but should give listeners a sense of where the excerpts occur in Strauss’s opera.

Excerpt 1. Location: A palace in the spirit realm. Keikobad is the King of the Spirit Realm, a figure of power and fear. He lies behind all that occurs in the opera. Forceful lower brass instruments spell out the rhythm, “Kei-ko-bad.”

Excerpt 2. Location: A bare room, both home and workshop. Dyed cloths are drying on racks. Barak and his wife, a human couple, cannot conceive. In the opera, Barak sings of his hope for children, “Oh, good fortune hangs over me, and expectation and gladness are in my heart!”

Excerpt 3. Location: A bare room, transforming into a lordly pavilion. Servants kneel.Barak’s wife is tempted by two characters from the spiritual realm. They show her the luxurious spirit world that would await her if she were to give up her shadow.

Excerpt 4. Barak’s wife has been tempted by the mirage of a beautiful young man. She rejects her husband: “Maybe, one evening I won’t come home again to you. You think you have me in a cage like a captive bird, but I am elsewhere, at home in another place.”

Excerpt 5. Location: An underground vault. On the right, Barak crouches gloomily. On the left, his wife is in tears. Barak (here played by the trombone), having lashed out, feels guilt, regret: “Entrusted to me, that I might tend her. And yet she feared my hand.” Barak’s wife, having given away her shadow, is tormented by ghosts.

Excerpt 6. Location: Mists cover the set. Rolling thunder and stormy winds gain in frequency. Barak and his wife struggle to find one another. They sing, “Where are you? Come to me! Lost, alas!” Meanwhile, characters from the spirit realm fight over the fate of the human couple.

Excerpt 7. Location: A golden bridge falls across a chasm. The couple cross the bridge and embrace. Barak: “Now I will rejoice as none ever rejoiced. We were tempered in the testing flames. We were near death, but we will now be the parents of blessed children.”

Excerpt 8. Location: Gauze curtains obscure the figures and the landscape. Voices of unborn children sing, “Father, nothing can threaten you. See, mother, all will soon pass, all that caused you fear and anxiety. If ever there has been a celebration, we, in secret, were the guests...and the hosts, too.”

First Performance: October 10, 1919, Vienna, Franz Schalk conducting

First SLSO Performance: this week

Scoring: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, C clarinet, bass clarinet, basset horn, 3 bassoons, contrabassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, glockenspiel, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 22 minutes


Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

In 1938, Paul Hindemith felt like a stranger in Germany. Heinrich Goebbels called him a “dud,” a “charlatan,” an “atonal noise-maker.” It was a country he no longer recognized, and, worried for his life, Hindemith fled the Nazis, settling in America in 1940.

Moving to America cemented Hindemith’s renown. His composition class at Yale was a huge draw, commissions flowed freely, and his music became known across the globe. But Hindemith never truly felt at home in the United States.

Involuntary exile turned him back to the music of his homeland. He wrote music on German models, with German melodies, inspired by German stories. In 1943, feeling far from a homeland that he no longer recognized, Hindemith was eager for an exercise in nostalgia.

The idea for Symphonic Metamorphosis came from Russian choreographer and dancer Léonide Massine. Massine wanted music for a ballet, and asked Hindemith to write arrangements of music by the German composer Carl Maria von Weber. Hindemith eventually picked four works by Weber: three short pieces for piano duet and an orchestral overture.

But Hindemith went beyond the commission. He retained the melodies and structure of Weber’s originals, but Hindemith’s fingerprints are everywhere. He took these slight works and expanded their size, fleshed out their harmonies, clothed them in colorful robes.

Each movement draws from a piece by Weber:

1. Allegro. (From Weber’s Eight Pieces for Piano Four Hands, Op. 60, No. 4 Alla zingara [“In the ‘gypsy’ style”]). Weber’s piano duets were intended for domestic use, and they started a century-long craze for such works, many of them, like this one, folk music-inspired.

1. Scherzo. (From Weber’s overture to Gozzi’s play Turandot). Weber’s overture uses a “Chinese” folk theme, and Hindemith’s playful version, highlights the brass and percussion sections.

1. Andantino. (From Weber’s Six Pieces for Piano Four Hands, Op. 10a, No. 2Andantino con moto). Weber’s touching slow dance becomes mysterious and expressive in Hindemith’s hands, showing off the wind players of the orchestra.

1. March. (From Weber’s Eight Pieces for Piano Four Hands, Op. 60, No. 7 March). A constant in Hindemith’s career was his love for musical marches, and here Weber’s innocent march transforms into a movement of darkness and drama.

First Performance: January 20, 1944, New York, Artur Rodzi ́nski conducting the New York Philharmonic

First SLSO Performance: December 22, 1945, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: April 21, 2002, Park Hills, David Amado conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, tom toms, snare drum, tenor drum, chimes, cymbals, wood block, bass drum, gong), and strings

Performance Time: approximately 21 minutes

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Creative Partner.


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