September 17, 2004 - Town Hall Seattle
September 18, 2004 - Rialto Theater Tacoma
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica"
Program Notes by Christophe Chagnard
In a grotesque display of blunt irony, both Tchaikovsky's
First Piano and Violin Concertos were described by the highest musical
authorities of the time (Nicolai Rubinstein and Leopold Auer respectively)
as unplayable and not worthy of an audience! Not only did these
erroneous initial judgments contribute much in shaking Tchaikovsky's
creative confidence, they completely failed to grasp the vast new
instrumental horizon these two masterpieces contributed. Although
protracted, history's appreciation in the end revealed these concertos
to be playable indeed (albeit very challenging). They became some
of the most popular and wildly performed works in the genre.
Tchaikovsky's tenacity had also been challenged in his private
life. In a desperate attempt at occulting his homosexuality, he
married one of his pupils in July 1877. Nine months later, in the
midst of a deep depression and suicidal thoughts, he escaped this
impossible union and moved to Switzerland where he took the waters
at Clarens, on Lake Geneva. There, away from public scrutiny, he
enjoyed some of the happiest days of his life. This new state of
salutary bliss was largely enhanced by the visit of a young violin
student, Joseph Kotek, with whom Tchaikovsky had fallen in love
two years earlier. Inspired by his new life, Tchaikovsky took on
composing with feverish intensity, completing the Violin Concerto
in less than three weeks. This burst of emotional creativity inspired
Tchaikovsky to write one his most spontaneous and spirited compositions.
The Violin Concerto's emotional range is wide, with a large scale,
sonata form epic first movement, an introspective poetic song as
second movement, concluding in a spirited folkdance in which the
composer turns to his beloved homeland for inspiration. As noted
earlier, the great virtuoso violinist and teacher Leopold Auer (to
whom the concerto was initially dedicated) turned down the inaugural
performance of the new concerto, describing its difficulties as
unmanageable. It took no less than three years and the courage of
Adolf Brodsky for the concerto to be finally shared with the public
on December 4, 1881 in Vienna. Not only did this milestone of the
violin repertoire prove playable, it ultimately inspired Auer and
generations of the greatest virtuosi who found in this timeless
masterpiece, a quintessential vehicle for their artistry.
These upcoming performances of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto are
a first for both the Northwest Sinfonietta and myself. There are,
of course, many violinists worldwide with the talent and inspiration
to play such a masterpiece and we are particularly proud to bring
to our shores, for his US Northwest debut, Russian violinist Ilya
Gringolts whose striking rendering on his Deutsche Grammophon
recording debut impressed me most.
Destiny missed another promising rendez-vous at the premiere of
Beethoven's Third Symphony whose baffled audience reacted
with a mix of ridicule and perplexity prompting one audience member
to shout from the gallery: "I'd give another kreutzer if they
would stop!!" Such audience response came as no surprise. Beethoven's
new symphonic creation amounted to no less than a quantum leap in
every conceivable aspect. No previous composer of stature or masterpiece
of substance had prepared the occupants of the Theater an der
Wien on April 7, 1805 for the musical hurricane which swept
over them. Eroica was, in the words of Sir George Grove, "the
first obviously revolutionary music."
The idea of dedicating a symphony to a great heroic figure of the
time is said to have come from General Bernadotte, at the time French
Ambassador at Vienna. Beethoven's admiration for Napoleon's republicanism
and challenging of the ancien régime planted the seed
for one of the greatest musical creations of all time. There are
often far-fetched tales surrounding the genesis of masterpieces.
A quick look at the manuscript front page of Beethoven's Third Symphony,
does, for once spare us the agony of speculation. Indeed, Beethoven
initially dedicated his Opus 55 to Napoleon and later, upon receiving
news of the French general's self-appointment as Emperor, crossed-out
the dedication which such rage and vehemence that a hole was left
in its place. Instead, the published version was to read: "Sinfonia
eroica-per festeggiar il suovenire d'un gran uomo." ("Heroic
Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man.") With this
final dedication, Beethoven expressed his nostalgia for Napoleon's
initial vision before becoming the all too predictable prey of self-aggrandizement
and tyrannical ambitions. The noble deed of heroism should also
be taken in its most universal dimension, with the "great man"
as the incarnation of the heroic impulses of manhood.
The circumstances in Beethoven's life in the year 1802 were tragic.
Having reached the inescapable conclusion that his deafness was
not only ineluctable, but isolating him further each passing month,
Beethoven drafted his heartbreaking "Heiligenstadt Testament"
in which he contemplates suicide as the ultimate appeasement to
his suffering. It must have taken a formidable will to live and
faith in the creative urgency of his musical genius, confined to
experience his creations only within the intimate folds of his erupting
mind. The "Eroica" Symphony is no less than an existential
"coup d'état" through which he chose to "seize
fate by the throat" as he once wrote to his doctor. By rejecting
his social nadir and embracing the creative zenith to which he was
destined, Beethoven becomes the hero himself, incarnating the notions
of courage and uncompromising commitment he so admired in the young
What made this page of symphonic heroism so remarkable and so avant-garde?
Its size: No symphony ever written came even close to these 50 minutes
of astonishing inventiveness. In the first movement alone where,
traditionally the exposition exceeds the development in length,
the proportions are dramatically inverted. Here the exposition counts
155 measures vs. 243 for the development. The coda, which should
stand as a brief concluding gesture, is nearly the length of the
Its sound: Apart from the use of 3 horns instead of the traditional
2, there is nothing remarkable in Beethoven's choice of orchestration.
The wind section is similar in scale to a Haydn or Mozart late symphony
and the strings must have called for medium forces usually associated
with private concerts. What is rather bewildering is the revolutionary
treatment of such traditional forces. Never did an orchestra produce
such a furry of sounds for such a sustained period of time. The
orchestral palette is the most diverse and daring it had ever been.
Its structure: In addition to the enormous scale of the first sonata-form
movement described above, Beethoven makes the unprecedented choice
of a "Funeral March" for the second movement. (A tribute
to heroic sacrifices in the name of freedom and an ominous foreshadowing
of Napoleon's fall as he later described it.) Moreover, the usual
sonata or variation forms usually associated with slow movements
are here replaced with a rondo form in which the lengthy opening
theme recurs between original episodes. With the third movement,
Beethoven achieves what had been one of Haydn's unfulfilled ambitions:
replacing the traditional Minuet with a form worthy of the ever-growing
surrounding movements. This Scherzo was inspired by an old Austrian
folk song and marks the first emancipation of the third movement
as a full-fledged component of the expanding symphonic form.
Its harmonic boldness: Never since Mozart's Jupiter Symphony
did a composer so daringly shatter the harmonic rules and expectations
of his time as Beethoven did in this symphony. There is, throughout
the entire work, a constant tension between unrelated keys (such
as the first movement's oboe 2nd theme in E minor and the early
2nd horn entrance in the tonic key against the violins at the recapitulation).
Such a level of blunt dissonance must have sounded nothing short
of defiant to an early 19th Century audience.
Its originality: I have already described the striking uniqueness
of the second and third movements. There is scarcely a moment in
the Finale that is not of overwhelming novelty and which was never
to be duplicated. It is a massive free variation form based on an
English contredanse of which Beethoven was particularly fond. (He
had used it in the finale of his ballet Die Geschöpfe des
Prometeus, in the Variations for Pianoforte Op.35 and
as the seventh of his 12 Contredanses for Orchestra.) Through
the complex workings of fugal episodes, inverted counterpoint, fugues,
dramatic tempi fluctuations, and one of the most exhilarating codas
ever written, Beethoven concludes his odyssey in the spirit of the
great discoverers, leaving us to revel at the realization that it
is indeed a bold new world which the master has laid before us.
Romain Rolland equated this symphonic journey to "Columbus'
caravel, the first to reach an unknown continent."