November 3, 5, 2023
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Paul Lewis, piano
Christoph Willibald Gluck
*arranged by Felix Mottl
"Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Orfeo ed Euridice (1774)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58
Andante con moto–
Paul Lewis, piano
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25, Classical Symphony
Gavotte: Non troppo allegro
Finale: Molto vivace
The power of music is a timeless theme, from David relieving the suffering of Saul in the Bible to the irresistible melodies of Orpheus in Greek mythology. And modern music lovers know first-hand music’s power to calm, to heal, to energize, to inspire. This concert explores that power in surprising ways.
Stéphane Denève begins with the Orpheus myth and Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits. It’s a noteworthy choice as far as concert openers go: not loud or attention-getting, but instead serene and meditative, a calming transition from the distractions of daily life to the sublime experience of music at its best.
At the same time, Gluck’s Dance makes an astute link with the Beethoven piano concerto that follows, and not just by preparing us for its unexpectedly quiet beginning. The second movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto has been compared with the crucial scene in the Orpheus legend when he pleads with the Furies of the Underworld, winning them over with the sheer beauty of his music-making. The 19th-century music critic Adolf Bernhard Marx heard in it the power of the single person “who has no weapon and no force except the depth of his feeling and the irresistibility of his plea.” Perhaps you, too, will recognize the persuasiveness in Beethoven’s musical dialogue between pleading piano and fierce orchestral forces.
After intermission, we hear how two 20th-century composers found their own inspiration in the Classical past. From Maurice Ravel there is a musical “tombstone,” paying colorful and touching tribute both to comrades fallen in World War I and to the dancing elegance of French harpsichord music. And from Sergei Prokofiev, his brilliant Classical Symphony—channeling not the style but the spirit of an 18th-century master.
Dance of the Blessed Spirits
Christoph Willibald Gluck
Born 1714 Erasbach, Bavaria
Died 1787 Vienna, Austria
Christoph Willibald Gluck’s legacy in the world of opera is one of rejuvenation and transformation, and his Orfeo ed Euridice, composed for Vienna in 1762, made a bold statement at the time, emphasizing drama and narrative over ornate vocal display. This vision extended to the danced numbers in the opera, of which the Dance of the Blessed Spirits is the most famous.
Set against the backdrop of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, the Dance of the Blessed Spirits offers a moment of serenity and respite. Following the tumultuous Dance of the Furies, it paints a vivid contrast between the chaotic underworld and the peaceful Elysian Fields. This juxtaposition, central to Act II, underscores the emotional journey of Orpheus and the transformative power of love.
The Dance began life as a gentle minuet, tailored for a pair of flutes with strings. When he revised the opera for Paris in 1774, Gluck expanded this number by introducing a central flute solo, most likely to showcase the gifts of the Paris flutist Félix Rault.
The delicate melody that begins the Dance evokes images of souls floating diaphanously in the Elysian meadows, while the use of flutes conveys the pastoral theme. (Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze is another famous example of this 18th-century symbolism.) The harmonious interplay of the two flutes, often moving in parallel, is particularly beautiful. Hector Berlioz, a 19th-century champion of Gluck’s work, reflected on this sublime moment, writing: “What marvelous music, too, is that of the Elysian fields; with its vaporous harmonies, expressive of a placid happiness; and with its sweet and feeble instrumentation, so well rendering the idea of an infinite peace!”
While the original myth speaks to Orpheus’s human failings, Gluck’s rendition offers a vision of an idealized world, where love triumphs over adversity. In the journey of the opera, the Dance of the Blessed Spirits represents the height of serenity—its pastoral melodies and simple orchestration transport listeners, momentarily, to a realm of bliss.
Justino Gordón-LeChevalié © 2023
First performance: August 2, 1774, Paris, Salle du Palais-Royal
First SLSO performance: December 24, 1911, Max Zach conducting with solo flute G.A. Schmitt
Most recent SLSO performance: January 25, 2000, Hans Vonk conducting
Instrumentation: Gluck composed this dance for 2 flutes and strings; Mottl’s arrangement adds an English horn and 2 horns
Approximate duration: 7 minutes
Piano Concerto No. 4
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born 1770 Bonn, Germany
Died 1827 Vienna, Austria
FIRST MOVEMENT: We sit, expectant. Waiting for a grand entry from the orchestra. Instead, the piano soloist has the first word, beginning in quiet meditation with a repeated-note motif. The rhythm is the same four-note pattern that begins the Fifth Symphony, and will dominate the movement in the same way, but it’s utterly different in its effect. The orchestra responds quietly, entering in an unexpected and distant key (B major). Ludwig van Beethoven—innovator—knows how to surprise and delight.
Beethoven completed his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1806, and played the solo part in the work’s first public performance, which took place in a concert he presented in Vienna on December 22, 1808. That marathon event included the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Mass in C, and the Choral Fantasy (a trial run for the “Ode to Joy”), with Beethoven appearing as conductor and soloist.
Since arriving in Vienna in 1792, Beethoven had impressed the musical cognoscenti with his piano playing and his improvisations, as well as attracting attention for the exceptional originality and expressive power of his compositions. But in this concert his playing was erratic and at one point he threw out his arms, knocking over the lamps from the piano’s music stand. The deafness that had set in in 1802 was getting worse, and this would be the last concerto that Beethoven would introduce to the world himself. Meanwhile, the Fourth Concerto would not receive another performance until Felix Mendelssohn revived it in 1836.
SECOND MOVEMENT: A radical musical statement. Piano and orchestra appear as adversaries: the piano, muted and lyrical; the orchestra, fiercely emphatic. In the dialogue that follows, the latter’s forcefulness is gradually calmed by the peaceful demeanor of the soloist, coming to a close on a note of sorrowful resignation. It’s a miniature opera-without-words that has been compared to Gluck’s portrayal of Orpheus taming the Furies in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice.
Although not as sweeping or heroic in tone as either the composer’s Third or Fifth piano concertos, the Fourth is every bit as beautiful and in several respects more original. The unorthodox opening and the exceptional casting of the slow movement as a dramatic dialogue were practically unprecedented when the concerto was first heard, and the extensions of its thematic material are accomplished with an ingenuity characteristic of Beethoven’s greatest music.
THIRD MOVEMENT: The piano’s final notes of the Andante con moto have barely died away before we’re cast without pause into the finale. A joyful dance—powdered wigs tossed aside, heavy coats shed. Piano and orchestra unite, as if to sing, “Liberté!”
The concluding Rondo finds Beethoven’s spirits restored. It begins quietly with hushed strings, but, as in the first movement, the music is underpinned by a pervasive rhythm, dominated by repeated notes. Trumpets and drums—entering for the first time in the concerto—establish a brilliant character for the march-like principal theme, and yet this is the most elegant of Beethoven’s concerto finales, with music that is poised, refined, and often surprising in its developments.
The program of that marathon concert in 1808 reveals the richness of Beethoven’s output during this period. In addition, he composed his Violin Concerto, the Razumovsky Quartets, the Coriolan Overture, and began working on his opera Fidelio. But even among these masterpieces, the Fourth Piano Concerto stands out for its ingenuity, its fresh approach to the combining of soloist and orchestra, and its eloquent poetry. The soloist must be as much chamber musician as concerto virtuoso, in poetic music that calls for equal parts refined transparency and dramatic impetuosity.
Adapted from notes by Paul Schiavo © 2013 and Tim Munroe © 2022
Many great names, including Johannes Brahms, wrote cadenzas for this concerto, but most pianists today use Beethoven’s own cadenzas, supplemented by ad libitum flourishes in the finale.
First performance: December 22, 1808, at Vienna Theater an der Wien, composer as soloist
First SLSO performance: February 9, 1912, Max Zach conducting with soloist Wilhelm Backhaus
Most recent SLSO performance: October 21, 2016, Cristian Măcelaru conducting with soloist Orli Shaham
Instrumentation: solo piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 34 minutes
Le Tombeau de Couperin
Born 1875 in Ciboure, France
Died 1937 in Paris, France
We owe this piece to not one but two French composers: Maurice Ravel, who wrote it, and the great harpsichordist François Couperin (1668–1733), who stands behind it as something of a guiding spirit.
For centuries, the French have used the term “tombeau” (literally a tombstone) to denote a poetic or musical composition written in honor of a deceased colleague. Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin is the most famous modern instance of this practice. He initially conceived this work in 1914 as a suite for piano modeled on the sort of 18th-century dance forms that underlie many of Couperin’s harpsichord pieces. He had barely began composing it, however, when the outbreak of World War I and his enlistment as an ambulance driver in the French army forced him to set it aside. He completed the suite upon his discharge, in 1917, dedicating the six movements to friends who’d died in the war. The work’s musical tribute is more widely cast: “not so much,” said Ravel, “to Couperin himself as to 18th-century French music in general.” Two years later, he orchestrated four of those movements, and in this form Le Tombeau de Couperin was first heard in 1920.
The first movement, Prélude, opens with a rustling of woodwinds—specifically, a running melody given out in a famously challenging oboe solo. Other instruments take up this theme in a game of flight and pursuit, as Ravel passes melodies between the woodwinds and the strings. He can be heard taking advantage of Erard’s new double-action harp, and the movement comes to a close with trills swept up in a harp glissando.
The Forlane takes its title and rhythms from an old dance form, but its principal melody, heard at once in the violins, is quite modern in its angular profile. The movement’s closing gesture, in the violins, prefigures the opening bar of the ensuing Menuet, in which a feeling of restraint and nostalgia prevails, with modal harmonies and classically balanced phrases. That mood is swept away by the trumpet in the opening measures of the Provençal Rigaudon, whose incisive phrases and bright orchestration produce a spirited effect.
Ravel’s music succeeds brilliantly in evoking not only the forms but the economy and clarity of Couperin’s keyboard music. But while capturing something of the spirit of 18th-century music, Le Tombeau de Couperin is unmistakably in the manner of its author. Indeed, its pleasing but ever-surprising harmonies, its atmospheric textures, and its distinctive use of orchestral color could hardly be the work of any other composer. Ravel’s is the most seductive sort of modernism in music, much as the paintings of Henri Matisse are in visual art. As a result, it is easy to overlook its innovations. Among other things, Le Tombeau de Couperin anticipated by several years the more famous neo-classical experiments of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev.
Adapted from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2009
First performance: February 28, 1920 in Paris, Orchestre Pasdeloup, Rhené-Baton conducting
First SLSO performance: January 31, 1930, Georg Szell conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: May 2, 2009, Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, harp, strings
Approximate duration: 17 minutes
Born 1891 in Sontsovka, Ukraine
Died 1953 in Moscow, Russia
In the summer of 1917, Prokofiev retreated to the country outside St. Petersburg to work on a musical project. Leaving his piano in the city, the plan was to compose a symphony in his head on the grounds that “thematic material composed without the piano was often better.” And just as we owe Le Tombeau de Couperin to two composers, so Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony has its own guiding spirit in the background: Joseph Haydn (1732–1809).
Prokofiev had studied Haydn’s music in Alexander Tcherepnin’s conducting classes at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, during which he “gradually developed a taste for bassoon playing staccato and flute playing two octaves above it.” When the idea of a “Classical symphony” came to him five or six years later, the style of Haydn provided familiar territory for the “difficult journey without the piano.”
There’s no laborious imitation, however. Prokofiev aimed to write the kind of music he believed Haydn might have composed had he still been alive in 1917: retaining his style, his classical signature, but “accepting something of the new at the same time.” But he waited until he was confident his idea was beginning to work before he dubbed it the “Classical Symphony”: “for the fun of it, to ‘tease the geese,’ and in the secret hope that it would prove me right if the symphony really did turn out to be a piece of classical music.”
He was proven right, and in more ways than one. Not only is the symphony a witty encapsulation of the Classical style of the 18th century, but it is classical—a classic—in its evident ability to withstand the destroying hand of time.
In some ways the Classical Symphony is more classical than any symphony of Haydn. Prokofiev was able to adopt a style that had been thoroughly documented, analyzed and codified in the intervening century. The orchestra—pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets; timpani and strings—and the proportions and structure of the music are all within the Classical tradition.
The first movement (Allegro) reveals Prokofiev’s delight in wind and string instruments playing at the tops of their registers (the flute plays, it seems, two octaves higher than everyone!). The effect is delicate and transparent, conveying the graciousness of a past style, even though such extremes would have been unheard of in Haydn’s time.
The intricate Larghetto suggests the sarabandes of Claude Debussy, paving the way for the French rococo flavor of the third movement. Prokofiev must have been fond of the sprightly Gavotte: he transcribed it for piano (his usual method of composition thus reversed) and later included it in his Romeo and Juliet ballet. The symphony then ends with the fast and furious Finale, rejoicing in its wit and levity. Haydn circa 1917 would have recognized a kindred spirit.
First performance: April 21, 1921, in Petrograd, Prokofiev conducting
First SLSO performance: December 7, 1928, Emil Oberhoffer conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: November 29, 2015, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 15 minutes
Paul Lewis CBE is one of the foremost interpreters of the Central European piano repertoire, his performances and recordings of Beethoven and Schubert, in particular, receiving universal critical acclaim. In 2016 he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to music, and the sincerity and depth of his musical approach have won him fans worldwide.
This global popularity is reflected in the world-class orchestras with whom he works, including the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony, NHK Symphony (Tokyo), the Royal Concertgebouw and Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestras, and in the U.S., the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony Orchestra where he was the 2020 Koussevitzky Artist at Tanglewood. This is his SLSO debut.
He took part in the BBC’s three-part documentary Being Beethoven and performed a Beethoven concerto cycle at Tanglewood in 2022. In addition to the BSO, he has performed the cycle with orchestras worldwide, including Camerata Salzburg, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Orquestra Simfònica Camera Musicae, São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, and Royal Flemish Philharmonic, and he was the first pianist to play the complete cycle in a single season at the BBC Proms in 2010. He is currently performing a four-program Schubert sonata series in 25 venues and festivals around the world (2022–2024).
In addition to his award-winning Beethoven and Schubert recordings, his discography features composers such as Haydn, Schumann, Mussorgsky, Brahms, and Liszt. As chamber musician, he is a regular at Wigmore Hall, and he works closely with tenor Mark Padmore, performing recitals and recording three Schubert song cycles.
Paul Lewis is Co-Artistic Director of Midsummer Music in Buckinghamshire, UK. He also gives masterclasses around the world alongside his concert performances. He himself studied with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London before studying privately with Alfred Brendel. In 2021 he became an Irish citizen.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.