Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770,
and died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827.
Leonore Overture No. III, Opus 72b (1806)
The first performance of the Leonore Overture No. III took place in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien on March 29, 1806, as part of the premiere of the revised version of Fidelio.
Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, occupied a special place in the composer’s heart. In his Will, Beethoven said of his beloved work: “before all others I hold it worthy of being possessed and used for the science of art.”
The creation of Fidelio (called Leonore by the composer) was hardly an easy process. Toward the end of his life, Beethoven confessed to his friend, Anton Schindler: “Of all my children, (Fidelio) is the one that caused me the worst birth-pangs, the one that brought me the most sorrow, and for that reason, it is the most dear to me.” Beethoven composed at least three versions of Fidelio. The Leonore Overture No. III premiered as part of a revised version of the opera, first performed on March 29, 1806.
Beethoven’s Fidelio is based upon a work created during the French Revolution by lawyer and writer Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. It was a story that greatly appealed to Beethoven, a fierce advocate of democratic ideals.
Fidelio takes place in 18th-century Spain. The evil governor Don Pizarro has imprisoned the nobleman Don Florestan for daring to speak out against the corrupt regime. In an attempt to rescue her husband, Florestan’s wife, Leonore, disguises herself as the young man, Fidelio. This allows Leonore to gain employment at the jail where her husband is imprisoned.
When Don Pizarro learns that the benevolent minister, Don Fernando, is coming to inspect the prison, he vows to kill Florestan, thereby concealing evidence of his wrongdoing. Leonore discovers her husband in a dungeon. She places herself in front of Florestan, and holds Pizarro at bay with her pistol. The sound of trumpets heralds Don Fernando’s arrival. Fernando soon learns of Pizarro’s misdeeds and orders him imprisoned. Florestan and all the political prisoners are freed, and Leonore is hailed as their savior.
The Leonore Overture No. III begins with an extended slow introduction (Adagio), featuring a portion of Florestan’s prison aria, “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir gefloh’n” (“In the spring days of life happiness has flown from me”). The principal Allegro section features the introduction and development of the Overture’s central themes. At the climax of the development section, Beethoven provides one of his most dramatic effects. An off-stage trumpet twice sounds, heralding the approach of the minister, Don Fernando. A recapitulation of the principal themes leads to a series of quiet ascending figures by the strings, masterfully building the suspense almost to the breaking point. The tension is released by the breathless rush of activity in an overwhelming Presto coda, featuring blazing versions of the opening theme and a transformation of Florestan’s lament.
Approximate performance time is fourteen minutes.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37 (1803)
The first performance of the Third Piano Concerto took place in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien on April 5, 1803, with the composer as soloist. It was as a pianist that the young Ludwig van Beethoven first ascended to prominence in Viennese musical circles. Audiences accustomed to the elegant and refined brilliance of such virtuosos as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) were stunned by the elemental force of Beethoven’s attacks upon the delicate fortepianos of the day.
Composer Anton Reicha recalled an incident in which he served as page-turner for Beethoven during a performance of Mozart concerto:
He asked me to turn pages for him. But I was mostly occupied in wrenching the strings of the pianoforte which snapped, while the hammers stuck among the broken strings. Beethoven insisted on finishing the concerto, and back and forth I leaped, jerking out a string, disentangling a hammer, turning a page, and I worked harder than Beethoven.
Of course, Beethoven’s keyboard performances consisted of far more than displays of brute strength. Pianist and composer Carl Czerny recalled that audience members were reduced to tears by the sheer eloquence of Beethoven’s powers of improvisation, “for apart from the beauty and originality of his ideas, and his ingenious manner of expressing them, there was something magical about his playing.”
Beethoven was the soloist in the world premiere of his Third Piano Concerto. The concert, which took place at the Vienna Theater an der Wien on April 5, 1803, also included a performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony, as well as the world premieres of his Second Symphony and the oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives. The concert was far from a total success, the result of limited rehearsal time, particularly for a program featuring such a generous amount of new material. Over time, of course, the Third Concerto has become one of the mainstays of the piano and orchestra repertoire.
There is no question that Beethoven intended the Third Piano Concerto to display his unique talents as a concert pianist. The stormy opening movement (Allegro con brio) looks forward to another work in the key of C minor, the immortal Fifth Symphony (1808). The second-movement Largo evokes first-hand accounts describing Beethoven’s ability to move audiences to tears through the sheer beauty of his playing. The finale (Rondo: Allegro), on the other hand, reveals a lighter, even more humorous side of Beethoven that is too often overlooked.
Approximate performance time is thirty-six minutes.
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92 (1812)
The first performance of the Seventh Symphony took place in the Hall of the University of Vienna on December 8, 1813, with the composer conducting.
Beethoven completed his Seventh Symphony in 1812. The work received its premiere on December 8, 1813, at the grand Hall of the University of Vienna, part of a concert presented for the benefit of wounded Austrian and Bavarian soldiers. Beethoven himself served as conductor. Because of Beethoven’s participation in the concert and its philanthropic mission, several of Vienna’s eminent musicians agreed to play in the orchestra. The concert proved to be one of the great public triumphs of the composer’s career. The audience insisted upon an encore of the Seventh Symphony’s Allegretto. By popular demand, the entire concert was repeated four days later, raising another considerable sum for the wounded soldiers.
Still, Beethoven’s reliance upon the briefest of rhythmic motifs — often presented with relentless, and even frightening energy — inspired some negative reactions. Musician Friedrich Wieck, father of Robert Schumann’s wife, Clara Wieck Schumann, attended the first rehearsal of the Beethoven Seventh. Wieck recalled that the general consensus among musicians and laymen alike was that Beethoven must have composed the Symphony, particularly its outer movements, in a “drunken state.” German composer Carl Maria von Weber, after hearing the Symphony for the first time, reportedly stated that Beethoven was now “quite ripe for the madhouse.”
On the other hand, the great German opera composer Richard Wagner, in one of the most famous appraisals of a Beethoven Symphony, lauded the finale as the “apotheosis of the dance.” Almost two centuries after the premiere, Beethoven’s Seventh continues to amaze audiences with its dramatic fire. It remains one of the most powerful symphonic creations.
The first movement of the Seventh opens with the most ambitious slow introduction of any Beethoven Symphony (Poco sostenuto). At the conclusion of the introduction, the flute ushers in the first movement’s principal quick-tempo section (Vivace) with a sprightly dance, based upon a rhythm that forms the nucleus for the remainder of the movement. The second movement (Allegretto) opens and closes with a foreboding chord, framing a solemn march. The third movement is a robust Scherzo (Presto; Assai meno presto), featuring a central Trio that begins in more tranquil fashion, but soon proceeds to its own grand statement. The Finale (Allegro con brio) moves at a breathless pace from start to finish. It is not until the terse closing measures that the whirlwind of activity slams to a stunning halt.
Approximate performance time is thirty-two minutes.
Beethoven Blockbusters plays Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park on July 25.