Day 258: Leonore, Conclusion

BeethovenCD63For an opera, this is really quite good.

And I say that as an unabashed opera basher.

It’s a rare opera that I can truly say I enjoy.

Beethoven’s Leonore is a rare opera.

Composed in 1805 (Beethoven was 35), Leonore (also known as Fidelio) is his only opera.

Leonore features compelling, dynamic music, a believable story, and – on this edition by Brilliant Classics – superb performances from some of the world’s most famous opera stars.

Part of what I like about Leonore is the music. Usually, operas focus less on the music than they do on the performers’ voices. Not this one. The music is genuinely compelling on its own.

Plus, Leonore is not as talky as some opera. The balance between dialogue and music and singing is just about right. And the voices are superb.

Superb, I tell’s ya!

This is one of my favorite operas. Everything about it is top-notch.

Day 257: Leonore, Beginning

BeethovenCD62I am now listening to Beethoven’s opera.

I’m up to CD 62 and this is the first time voices enter the scene.

There’s a reason for that.

Beethoven only wrote one opera.

Here’s the poop on Fidelio, according to its entry on Wiikipedia:

Fidelio (Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe: Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love) (Op. 72) is a German opera with spoken dialogue in two acts by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is his only opera. The German libretto was prepared by Joseph Sonnleithner from the French of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, which had been used for the 1798 opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal by Pierre Gaveaux, and the 1804 opera Leonora by Ferdinando Paer (a score of which was owned by Beethoven).

The opera tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named “Fidelio”, rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison.

Frankly, I’ve never been a fan of opera. Much (most? all?) of it is dreck.

So, I’m usually wincing by the time one of my musical explorations enters the realm of opera.

Today’s foray into the world of opera is different for several reasons:

1. It’s Beethoven. So the music leading up to the singing is very good. It’s holding my attention.

2. This is Beethoven’s only opera, which gives it the weight of importance (at least in my mind).

3. It’s in German, which is a language that never fails to make me chuckle.

NPR posted a good review/commentary of Beethoven’s Leonore. Here’s an excerpt:

For ages, Leonore was viewed as little more than a flawed first draft of Fidelio. But over the last decade or two, interest in Beethoven’s earlier version has increased, even resulting in several recordings.

Some conductors who have taken interest in Leonore, like Nicholas McGegan (who conducts this concert), feel that the emotional content of Beethoven’s earlier version is more pure, intense and immediate.

The opera is imbued with Beethoven’s vision of freedom from political oppression, sparked by the ideals of the French Revolution. One writer described it as the story of “a woman, disguised as a prison worker, who liberates her husband, and strikes a blow for freedom, feminism, and prison reform.”

This recording is remarkably clear and clean. Every nuance is captured. The performers are superb. And that’s a biggie for me. There’s a certain range of voice that Continue reading

Day 200: Beethoven Symphony 9

BeethovenCD5Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is an unparalleled piece of work.

According to its entry on Wikipedia:

The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (sometimes known simply as “the Choral”), is the final complete symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Completed in 1824, the symphony is one of the best-known works of the repertoire of classical music. Among critics, it is almost universally considered to be among Beethoven’s greatest works, and is considered by some to be the greatest piece of music ever written.

The symphony was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony (thus making it a choral symphony). The words are sung during the final movement by four vocal soloists and a chorus. They were taken from the “Ode to Joy”, a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with additions made by the composer. Today, it stands as one of the most played symphonies in the world.

Although his major works had primarily been premiered in Vienna, Beethoven was eager to have his latest composition performed in Berlin as soon as possible after finishing it, since he thought that musical taste in Vienna had become dominated by Italian composers such as Rossini.[8] When his friends and financiers heard this, they urged him to premiere the symphony in Vienna in the form of a petition signed by a number of prominent Viennese music patrons and performers.

Beethoven was flattered by the adoration of Vienna, so the Ninth Symphony was premiered on 7 May 1824 in the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, along with the overture The Consecration of the House (Die Weihe des Hauses) and three parts of the Missa solemnis (the Kyrie, Credo, and the Agnus Dei).

This was the composer’s first on-stage appearance in 12 years; the hall was packed with an eager audience and a number of musicians.

The symphony is scored for the following orchestra. [Wiki lists the instruments in the article.] These are by far the largest forces needed for any Beethoven symphony; at the premiere, Beethoven augmented them further by assigning two players to each wind part.

The symphony is scored for the following orchestra. These are by far the largest forces needed for any Beethoven symphony; at the premiere, Beethoven augmented them further by assigning two players to each wind part.

Very, very Continue reading

Day 199: Beethoven Symphonies 7 & 8

BeethovenCD4Even when I’m in a shitty mood (as I am right now), I can count on a Beethoven symphony to offer something interesting to discover that’ll lift me out of it.

And Symphony No. 7 in A Op. 92 offered plenty.

For one thing, Movement I (“Poco sostenuto – Vivace”) contained repeating melodies that I found myself listening for.

Movement I is dynamic in a way that I’ve come to expect from Beethoven. But also just as delicate.

But it was Movement II (“Allegretto”) that really caused me to sit up and take notice. I’ve heard this before. Recently, in fact. So I dug around a bit (meaning I Googled) and discovered that it’s part of the score to the Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech. It’s the music playing as the King prepares to deliver his speech to the nation regarding England’s response to Hitler.

Movement II is as brilliant a piece of music as I’ve ever come across. It’s majestic, stately, melodic, intricate, and compelling. I am drawn to it. It is musical magic.

Speaking of the second movement (can I hear something remarkable, or can I hear something remarkable?), its entry on Wikipedia says this:

The Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, is a symphony in four movements composed by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1811 and 1812, while improving his health in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice. The work is dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries.

At its première, Beethoven was noted as remarking that it was one of his best works. The second movement, Allegretto, was the most popular movement and had to be encored. The instant popularity of the Allegretto resulted in its frequent performance separate from the complete symphony.

And this, later in the Wiki entry:

The piece was very well received, and the second movement, the Allegretto, had to be encored immediately. Spohr made particular mention of Beethoven’s antics on the rostrum (“as a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder … at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air”), and the concert was repeated due to its immense success.

See? The second movement was an instant hit. It struck me that way, too. A remarkable composition, the most achingly beautiful I’ve ever heard – possibly the Continue reading

Day 198: Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 6

BeethovenCD3So famous is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that people around the world can identify it by its initial four notes.

In fact, an entire book has been written about that quartet of notes: The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination by Matthew Guerrieri.

From Guerrieri’s exceptional book:

The pitches of the opening phrase produce their own ambiguity, albeit one that, given the symphony’s familiarity is, again, well-nigh impossible to recapture. The Fifth is in C minor, a key forever associated with Beethoven in his most heaven-storming moods. But, strictly speaking, C minor is not actually established until the seventh measure of the first movement. Beethoven exploits a quirk of music theory concerning the triad, one of the basic building blocks of Western music: a stack of three notes, the first, third, and fifth notes of the major or minor scale. If you take away one of the notes of a triad, it starts to, in effect, gesture in two directions at once. So the first two pitches of the Fifth Symphony, G and E-flat, might be two-thirds of a C-minor triad, or they may be two-thirds of an E-flat major triad. The second pair of pitches, F and D, could be part of a dominant-seventh chord built on G (the most basic harmonic antecedent of a C minor), or part of one built on B-flat (the most basic harmonic antecedent of E-flat major). From a music theory standpoint, the opening passage is playing fast and loose with the symphony’s key: until the cellos and bassoons anchor the motive with a sustained middle C in the seventh bar, there’s no way to tell whether the piece is in a major or a minor key. (From pages 12, 13.)

That’s fascinating. I had no idea. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I suggest you buy this book.

Back to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Arguably, this symphony is so famous that it’s become infamous. By that I mean it’s almost a caricature of itself, a parody. People rarely know it past those iconic first four notes.

And that’s a shame because Symphony No. 5 in C. Minor Op. 67 is Continue reading

Day 197: Beethoven Symphonies 2 & 4

BeethovenCD2Like yesterday’s CD, today’s offering of Beethoven symphonies (No. 2 and No. 4 this time) are mature, melodic, dynamic, remarkably listenable, and enjoyable from start to finish.

And, like yesterday, I have to admit I had no idea Beethoven was this good.

I’m sure Schroeder (from Peanuts fame) would cluck his tongue at my ignorance regarding his favorite composer.

But I can’t know everything about everything. I mean, come on.

I’m only human.

Beethoven’s symphonies are both dynamic and delicate, with boisterous passages as well as gentle ones. Plus, the choice of instruments and what they play is masterful. I find myself leaning forward to hear every note.

I didn’t do that with Haydn. (Well, maybe once or twice.)

I did it with Mozart. A lot. But rarely with Haydn.

And, so far, I’m doing it with every composition from Beethoven.

According to Wikipedia, “Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36) is a symphony in four movements written by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1801 and 1802. The work is dedicated to Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky.” Which means Beethoven was 32 when he finished Symphony No. 2. (And 33 when it premiered.)

From its entry on Wiki:

Beethoven’s Second Symphony was mostly written during Beethoven’s stay at Heiligenstadt in 1802, at which time his deafness was becoming more apparent and he began to realize that it might be incurable. The work was premiered in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on 5 April 1803, and was conducted by the composer. During that same concert, the Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives were also debuted. It is one of the last works of Beethoven’s so-called “early period”.

For example, Movement III (“Scherzo & Trio: Allegro”) from Symphony No. 2 in D. Op. 36 is particularly captivating. Lots of clever little Continue reading

Day 196, Part 2: Beethoven Symphonies 1 and 3

BeethovenCD1The premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 took place on 2 April 1800.

Beethoven was 30 years old.

According to its entry on Wikipedia,

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, was dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an early patron of the composer. The piece was published in 1801 by Hoffmeister & Kühnel of Leipzig. It is unknown exactly when Beethoven finished writing this work, but sketches of the finale were found from 1795.

The symphony is clearly indebted to Beethoven’s predecessors, particularly his teacher Joseph Haydn as well as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but nonetheless has characteristics that mark it uniquely as Beethoven’s work, notably the frequent use of sforzandi and the prominent, more independent use of wind instruments. Sketches for the finale are found among the exercises Beethoven wrote while studying counterpoint under Johann Georg Albrechtsberger in the spring of 1797.

The beginning of the twelve-bar introduction of the first movement is sometimes considered a “musical joke”. For example, the English musicologist Donald Tovey has called this work “a comedy of manners”. In fact, Symphony No. 1 can be regarded as a result of Beethoven’s bold musical experimentation and advancement which he presents five years after Haydn’s last symphony and twelve years after Mozart’s final Jupiter Symphony.

Fascinating. I had no idea Beethoven was so heavily influenced by Haydn and Mozart.

I can tell from the first few bars of Symphony No. 1 that this is a very mature composition, quite solid, and absolutely listenable. In fact, Continue reading