What’s in a name—pianoforte, fortepiano, piano? We can all agree that it is a keyboard instrument whose mechanism involves hammers, originally covered with leather, now felt, that strike the strings. Its mechanism differs from its forerunner the clavier, an instrument whose strings are struck by small metal hammers, or the harpsichord whose strings are plucked by crow or turkey quills, now made of delrin.
The piano, an eighteenth century invention, evolved through lots of experimentation with mechanisms to produce a functioning instrument. The Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) is considered the inventor of the piano as we know it today. He called his instrument Clavicembalo col Piano e Forte (keyboard with soft and loud, depending on the force used to strike keys). Because the instrument had the ability to sustain tone and gradations of volume, it quickly gained popularity. By 1768, the piano was used as a solo instrument in concert performances. Three instruments built by Christofori exist in museums today.
To hear the sound of one of these instruments, watch this:
Now, listen to Barenboim play the same sonata on a modern piano:
As you may recall from earlier blog posts, Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 and made his mark in the city, first as a pianist, then a composer. During Beethoven’s Viennese days, the piano drastically changed in character depending on the builder. According to Chris Maene, Belgian piano and harpsichord manufacturer, Beethoven played seven different fortepianos built by Stein(1786), Walter (1795), Erard (1803), Fritz (1811), Streicher (1814), Broadwood (1817), and Graf (1826). Distinct differences in touch, feel, power, and color can be drawn between instruments depending on their maker. These pianos offered specific opportunities and limitations, and the above elements affected the way Beethoven composed for each instrument.
To view photos and descriptions of these pianos, read this article from Pianist Magazine.
In his last decade of life, Beethoven owned two pianos, one built by Broadwood of London and one by Graf of Vienna. Viennese pianos possessed light and speedy keyboard action, allowing rapid execution of notes in clear sharp tones. English pianos had a more powerful sonority: rich, solid, robust resonance. Beethoven’s late sonatas Op 109, 110, and 112, plus Hammerklavier, clearly reflect both a spirit and drama that assures us that he took full advantage of the range and capacities these instruments offered.
To more clearly understand and appreciate the sound of the instruments built for and played by Beethoven, please listen to David Breitman perform Sonata No 15 on a replica of the Walter instrument.
Or Malcolm Bilson performing the first movement of the Tempest.
Or Beethoven’s’ Moonlight Sonata (Anton Walter by Paul McNulty).
Then listen to Murray Perahia performing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, 3rd movement, performed on a modern piano.
As performers, are we obliged to simply play the notes on the page and follow signs of instructions, such a dynamic and pedaling, or do we need to consider the limitations of the instruments dating from the particular period during which the composition was written? Does that knowledge enlighten us as we attempt to communicate that composer’s music to our audiences?
On Thursday, October 15, Grass Roots TV will broadcast our next Music From the Library concert with Amanda Gessler performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Op 109 and 111. Amanda has engaged in scholarly exploration of Beethoven scores—the notes, the dynamic markings, and pedaling—and she has studied with internationally known teachers, most recently Richard Goode of New York.
Amanda’s sharing of her musical talent and knowledge of Beethoven’s music will bring joy to your ears. Tune in to Grass Roots TV, channel 12, to watch the concert on October 15 at 5:30PM. This concert will also be available to view on YouTube and Facebook following the Thursday broadcast.
The Lenore Raphael Quartet will combine sounds of jazz piano, bass, drums, and vibes in the kickoff virtual concert for the Basalt Regional Library, broadcast by Grass Roots TV on September 24, 2020 at 5:30 pm.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with piano, bass, and drums. But the vibraphone?
The history of the vibraphone is interesting, since it is a relatively young mallet instrument, first created by Herman Winteroff in the USA in the early 1920’s. He took a marimba with steel bars, and connected a motor to the cover disks at the upper end of the resonators by means of a spindle to create a ‘vox humane’ or tremelo sound to the instrument. Later a Chicago firm, Deagon, added a damper pedal and adjustable vibration speed. Relatively few changes have been made to the instrument since 1927.
To successfully perform on this instrument, one has to develop a four mallet technique (two mallets in each hand), mallet dampening (attack/release), pedal technique, and develop extensive knowledge of harmonic progressions in order to bring out melodic lines, improvise, etc. The vibraphone is used as a lead or improvisational instrument in ensembles.
Vaudeville and jazz are responsible for the initial popularity of this instrument. Lionel Hampton (1909-2002) a pianist, drummer known for his double stick tricks, and vibraphonist was first in line to use vibes in his band. When Louis Armstrong (1898-1971) heard Lionel and his California band, he fell in love with the sound and asked Lionel to accompany him on several recordings. During a 1930 recording session, Lionel was asked to improvise vibraphone solos. From that point on, vibraphone was Lionel’s main focus.
The vibraphone’s sweeping success in jazz was next passed to Benny Goodman (1901-1989) who added the instrument to his orchestra. Soon the vibraphone was heard in jazz sextets, quartets, and dance bands all around the country. For a detailed account of vibraphonists and more history about the instrument, read and listen to “Feeling the Vibes: The Short History of a Instrument” from NPR’s Take Five: A Jazz Sampler series.
When listening to NPR’s suggested recordings, note the differences in the performance styles of Lionel, Armstrong, Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, Bobby Hutcherson, and Stefon Harris.
Jazz was responsible for the initial popularity of the vibraphone, but it has found footing in repertoire for orchestra, wind ensemble, and percussion ensemble. Many composers have written compositions for solo vibraphone as well.
Darius Milhaud’s Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone and Orchestra, Op. 278 (1947) is an electrifying composition that affords its listeners the opportunity to hear the contrast of color/timbre between the two mallet instruments, the marimba and vibraphone. I recommend the following YouTube performances for listening/viewing, although the video is somewhat blurred.
As you listen/view, be aware of the demanding four mallet technique, plus dexterity, required for performing this piece. And don’t forget you have a pedal to control as well!
For solo vibraphone repertoire, I suggest listening/viewing a composition entitled Blues for Gilbert by Mark Glentworth—a truly soothing and beautiful sound that will erase your tensions of the day.
I hope this history of the vibraphone will enhance your enjoyment of the Lenore Raphael Quartet virtual performance of songs from the Great American Songbook, including blues, ballads, and up-tempo jazz classics.
"Applaud my friends, the comedy is over..." - On his death bed, Ludwig van Beethoven
During the years 1825-26, Beethoven was in failing health, but he creatively engaged in composing five of the most complex string quartets, plus the Grosse Fugue, recognized at the time.
As opined by Maynard Solomon in Beethoven Essays, “This creativity may have served to ward off death, a counterbalance to the forces of disintegration.” These quartets Op. 127, 130,131,132, 133 (Grosse Fugue), and Op. 135 were received with bewilderment by many. A recorded quote by one musician summarized the bewilderment this way, “We know there is something there, but do not know what it is.”
After listening to Op. 131, Schubert exclaimed, “After this, what is left for us to write?” Wagner declared of the first movement of Op 131, “It reveals the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music.” Stravinsky said of the Grosse Fugue, “An absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”
As I started writing this closing Beethoven blog, it quickly became apparent to me that any comments I might make about any one of these compositions would be superficial and less than inspiring. These works are mystical, poetic, improvitory, complex, simple, full of intense contrast, sublime—all the above.
Upon examination of the late string quartets of Beethoven, the element of contrast seems to dominate. Whether it’s contrast in general character, tempos, dynamics, or texture, the contrasts are dramatic. To illustrate contrast in the overall character of the composition, I think we should compare and contrast Op.131 and 135.
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 131 (1826) seems the most mystical of the quartets. Within the seven connected sections, there are twenty tempo changes. Its structural form alone classifies it as “music for another era.” Its somber key C sharp minor prevails, but the other keys Beethoven explores are quite adventurous.
If we were to choose a lighter quartet of the period, it would probably be String Quartet No. 16 in F major Op. 135 (1826), sometimes referred to as the good natured Falstaff quartet. I challenge you to try tapping your foot in the rhythmically, harshly dissonant scherzo.
To enhance your understanding of these quartets, I encourage you to go on YouTube and listen to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center lectures entitled “The Beethoven Cycle” given by Michael Parloff. Whether you are a musician or a person with deep music appreciation, you will find these lectures give new and exciting insight to some of the greatest music ever written.
Michael Parloff’s Lecture on Beethoven Quartets Op. 131 & Op. 135:
For listening to these quartets, l recommend Alan Berg Quartet:
In response to the pandemic, all of us have been forced to alter our lifestyle. But keeping music in our lives can bring joy and consolation to all of us during times of change and uncertainty. I hope this series of blog posts concerning the music of Beethoven’s genius has provided both for you. It has provided me the opportunity to re-examine works and renew my appreciation for the genius, Ludwig van Beethoven.
“I wish you music to help with the burdens of life and to help you release your happiness to others." - Quote from a letter, Ludwig van Beethoven
Be safe and stay well,
During the early years of residence in Vienna, Beethoven managed to establish himself as a rising pianist and composer with the music loving nobility. Among this nobility was Count Razumovsky, Russian ambassador to Vienna and musical amateur. Razumovsky had an incredible concert hall for performances in his palace, White Hall, plus a resident private string quartet that was at Beethoven’s disposal for composition experimentation.
In 1805 the Count commissioned Beethoven to write three quartets, which became known as the Razumovsky quartets. These quartets were intended for professional performers, not for amateurs. Their complexity took those who encountered them to unexpected musical places. Beethoven described the Razumovsky quartets as “music for a late age.”
It’s hard to choose just one Razumovsky quartet as a favorite because they’re all unique, wonderful compositions, but finally I chose to focus on String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No 3 (1808) as focus for this blog.
The first movement opens with a slow, somber, dissonant introduction which leads to the bright, cheerful allegro in C major.
The second movement makes use of a descending scale that alludes to a Hungarian scale reminding us of Bartok’s sounds. Razumovsky Quartet No. 3 does not have an explicit ‘Theme Russe’ as appears in No. 1 and No. 2, but the comfortless melodies of this movement evoke a Russian feel—vast and desolate landscapes of the Siberian tundra.
The third movement is a light minuetto trio that provides great contrast to the fugal allegro of the fourth movement. The character of the fourth movement is truly perpetual motion ending with a Mannheim crescendo FFF!
During this same time frame, Beethoven wrote two other string quartets—Op. 74, nicknamed “Harp,” and Op. 95. My colleague, friend, and violist, Jalen Lee, told me that she had performed the “Harp” and agreed to share some thoughts concerning this composition.
As a high school student in Louisville, Kentucky, I had the privilege of playing in a string quartet with three very talented classmates, all of whom have gone on to lives in music—one a fellow at the New World Symphony, one a violin teacher in Urbana-Champaign, and one a frequent performer with indie-Americana group Rebecca Rego and the Trainmen (all among other pursuits). For two years, in between AP classes, we tackled chamber music repertoire that was always a little bit over our heads and formative for us as musicians and as people.
We spent a long time with Beethoven’s Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, the “Harp” quartet. Its first movement exemplifies the heroic qualities found in other middle period works, like a constant contrast between somber and exuberant moods and an ultimately triumphant conclusion. We took to performing that movement at school fundraisers and in the corner of art galleries, my first experiences “gigging.” The movement opens with a somber adagio that is not thematically tied to the rest of the work. It then introduces two primary themes: a lyrical melody, beginning with the first violin in the third bar of the allegro, and a series of interchanged pizzicato figures like the plucking of a harp.
At the end of the first movement, Beethoven masterfully combines the lyrical melody from the allegro with the pizzicato “Harp” motive for a powerful conclusion. The realization that these themes were meant to be played simultaneously all along is a master class in contrapuntal writing and in the management of musical tension. But my favorite thing about this climax is that its melodic drive blossoms not from the first violin or cello as you might expect, but from the inner voices. That heroic line, traded off between the second violin and viola beneath the first violin’s blistering arpeggios, was Beethoven’s gift to a young violist. And although my quartet-mates and I shared many deep adolescent thoughts during that time—from love to punk music to politics—I will always remember those climactic measures of Quartet No. 10 as the most profound conversation we ever had.
Jalen Lee graduated with a Bachelor of Music in 2015 and an Artist Diploma in 2017 from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She studied with Catherine Carroll-Lees and Masao Kawasaki and also attended the Aspen Music Festival as a viola student for several years. In 2017, she was honored to join the Aspen Music Festival’s year-round staff as Manager of Admissions and Student Affairs. Jalen enjoys playing viola with the High Country Sinfonia and teaching young students in the AMFS Beginning Strings program.
As reflected in the Jalen’s closing comment, making music in ensemble is a profound conversational experience. For your listening pleasure, I suggest the Orion String Quartet performance of String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59 No. 3.
‘Nature brings about a destruction in order to bring forth anew’, wrote Schiller. Covid-19 has
certainly presented a challenge to the library in bringing forth anew, especially for the live music
series. But the word of the day is JOY!!! I am delighted to announce the Basalt Regional
Library is launching our Virtual Fall Music Series in an attempt to once again provide excellent
music from your library.
In collaboration with Grass Roots TV, we have scheduled broadcasts of local musicians in pre-
recorded concerts to be aired on Thursday evenings @ 5:30 pm, starting in September and
continuing through December, 2020. I will be hosting these concerts filmed in the Community
Room; so instead of coming to the library for a excellent concert, just tune into Grass Roots TV
and enjoy the concert from the comfort of your home.
The series will be initiated by the Lenore Raphael Quartet on Thursday, September 24.
Although Lenore is not a resident of our community, her name is immediately recognized in the
jazz community as an international Steinway jazz pianist of high accomplishments. For several
years, she has been invited annually to perform concerts on our series. This year she will be
joined with the sounds of saxophone, vibes, and drums to bring a unique jazz experience to our
We are fortunate to be able to host Amanda Gessler, pianist, in the performance of
Beethoven’s late Piano Sonatas Op 109 and 111 on Thursday, October 15. Amanda has
recently studied Beethoven’s late piano sonatas under concert pianist, Richard Goode, NYC,
and is presently a candidate for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at University of Colorado
“Broadway to Jazz” will bring early joy to your Thanksgiving holidays on Thursday, November
19. Local performers Cathy Markle, Mike Monroney, David Dyer and Steve Cole will
captivate you with their rendition of songs from Broadway musicals that became jazz standards.
No December can pass without the sounds of the Roaring Fork Youth Orchestra performing
seasonal songs for us. To carry on the tradition, a selected chamber group and their
mentors/teachers will perform the familiar songs from many traditions on Thursday, December
I send my sincere thanks for your continued support of the library’s music series. As I reminded
you in my cancellation statement, ‘without you there would be no series’. Together, let us
continue to meet the challenge of maintaining excellence in the interaction of crisis and
creativity. Please mark your calendars and view our series on Grass Roots TV on Thursdays of
each month at the usual hour, 5:30 pm.
- Charlotte McLain
Violinist Ritchie Zah Reflects on Playing String Quartet Opus 18 No. 6
Music historians credit Haydn as the “father” of the string quartet. Mozart took the genre to new heights, but Beethoven completely transformed it through his skillful use of florid ornamentation, harmonic adventure, and richness of texture.
Beethoven’s early string quartets, Opus 18 No. 1-6, were written between 1797-1800 (age 27-30). At this stage, the writing of string quartets was new to Beethoven and often he was not impressed with his own works. In fact, he frequently re-wrote them. After sending off the first quartet of Opus 18 to a friend he wrote, “Be sure not to pass on your quartet to anyone else.” He expressed difficulty achieving balance between technique and expressiveness.
I have chosen String Quartet in B flat Major, Opus 18 No. 6 as an example of Beethoven’s transformation of the genre. The first movement of the quartet is like a musical tennis match between the four string voices with motives being tossed back and forth like a ball over the net. In the Adagio ma non troppo, Beethoven uses florid ornamentation resembling Bach. The character of the Scherzo is like a playful game between the four instruments. For contrast, the Trio gives the first violin the spotlight with the other three parts providing accompaniment. The last movement is entitled “La Malinconia”. In his book entitled Classical Music, author Philip Downs describes the movement as a musical parable of introspection being overcome by innocent joy. It opens with an adagio followed by Allegretto quasi Allegro. There is alternation of tempos throughout the movement; these changes of tempo and mood form a climatic movement new to the string quartet model.
To give you deeper insight into the preparation and performance of this composition, I asked Ritchie Zah, violinist and detective with the Aspen Police Department, to share his thoughts and experiences connected to Opus 18 No. 6. Here are his reflections:
Notes from Ritchie Zah
During my career as a violinist I had the pleasure of studying and performing all different kinds of music. One of my favorite genres was the string quartet—small enough to fit into an SUV but sophisticated enough to paint an unlimited array of sound. My fondest string quartet memories date back to my Juilliard days where I was asked to play second violin in a newly formed group with high aspirations.
We began our studies together with the Beethoven String Quartet Opus 18 No 6. As we studied together, we quickly found what I believe to be the greatest challenge in Beethoven’s early works, the blend of voices. Beethoven’s writing was so naturally beautiful that anything short of a perfect blend of sound greatly distracted the listener from being immersed in pure joy. This led to many long rehearsals where we would go note by note to match vibratos, bow strokes, and bow pressures to create a perfect blend of sound. To give you an idea of how precise we needed to be, our coach, Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard String Quartet, constantly told us to imagine our left hand finger pads touching each other’s finger pads as they landed on the fingerboard. This initially made for an odd goal to aspire to but gave us goals to strive for as we matured.
While learning this work, I remember working on the fourth movement’s chorale-like opening where we began experimenting with our vibratos. After many hours of rehearsing, we could not find a frequency or width of vibrato that we could all agree upon. To further my unofficial position as the odd man out—literally, since the rest of the group was all girls—I suggested that we get rid of vibrato all together. Once the questioning looks and eye rolls were over, we proceeded to try it. The eeriness and rawness of a non vibrato chorale was suspiciously satisfying. Here we were, Master of Music candidates at the Juilliard School, realizing that vibrato was not always necessary! It just goes to show you are never too old or too experienced to learn something new!
Ultimately, our group performed the Beethoven String Quartet Opus 18 No 6 amongst many other pieces during our time together. The studying and performing of each piece brought us closer together and by the time graduation rolled around, I found myself sad to see the group disband due to everyone pursuing different post Master of Music degrees. We had grown close from the hours we spent together rehearsing. The girls had started to include me in a few gossip sessions to the point where I felt like I had become one of “the girls.” I even managed to get some good gift ideas vetted for my now wife! In reflecting back on the good times I shared with my quartet, I feel that the world could be a better place if everyone had a string quartet of their own. Thanks for the memories ladies!
Ritchie Zah divides his time between his work as a detective with the Aspen Police Department and his teaching and performing as a versatile and top-notch violinist. He has held concertmaster positions with the Juilliard Orchestra and Shepherd Symphony at Rice University and has served as assistant concertmaster of the Aspen Chamber Symphony. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in violin performance from the Juilliard School and is an avid musician pursuing solo and chamber music performance. He also teaches private students in the Roaring Fork Valley and has taught in the Aspen Music Festival's summer PALS program and the Beginning Strings Program.
I leave you with this recommendation for your listening pleasure.
Until next time!
David Dyer Interviews Vocalist Jeanette Thompson
The music world affords performers the opportunity of making friends far and wide. David Dyer, featured in last week’s blog post, was privileged to befriend Jeanette Thompson during her years as a student at Aspen Music Festival and School, and he has maintained that friendship for thirty-two years.
Presently, Jeanette is a full-time lecturer in Vocal Performance at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami. She received her Bachelors of Music from Florida State University, a Masters of Music from Rice University, and is an alumna of Aspen Music Festival and School.
Professor Thompson has been lauded throughout the world as a singer with great depth, warmth, beauty, style, and heart. She is known as an outstanding vocal pedagogue. Her career has taken her to concert halls and opera houses too numerous to mention here. Just to give you a glimpse of her accomplishments, her Carnegie Hall debut was singing Verdi’s Missa da Requiem.
David arranged an interview with Professor Thompson concerning her performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 Here is David’s interview:
Notes from David Dyer, Aspen's Piano Man
Hello Valley Music Lovers,
The phenomenon of “late Beethoven works” staggers the imagination of most of us. In this blog post, we offer some observations concerning Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. This symphony represents Beethoven taking his greatest creative risk in symphonic writing. The first movement depicts a journey from chaos to order, almost like the birth of music itself. The second movement brings delight to the ears with its scherzo-like movement. All this energy is followed by an adagio with a melody that is unsurpassed in beauty. The immense finale, including vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), chorus and orchestra, is a symphony within a symphony.
To give you some insightful reflections on this monumental composition, I called upon my friend, David Dyer, known as Aspen’s Piano Man, a man with ubiquitous presence in the music world of this area, to share some of his thoughts concerning this symphony. He is known as pianist, organist, conductor and director in the field of musical theater and cabaret since 1980. Given David’s experience conducting vocalists and instrumentalists combined, he is the perfect choice to offer his personal reflections on Beethoven’s masterpiece. Here are his thoughts:
Personal Reflection on Symphony No. 9
When I received a request from Charlotte McLain to participate in the Beethoven blog series, I didn’t give it much credence, as her email arrived on April Fools’ Day, and I assumed it was a little joke. She later set me straight! The idea seemed a little daunting, as I have not made my living in the classical realm, yet she assured me I likely had the proper credentials to participate. So here I am!!! And I get to tackle Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in Dm, Opus 125!
I set about the task by revisiting and listening to several recordings. My first thought was OMG!!! This music is massive and overwhelming! It’s beyond me! I’ve had the good fortune to hear it live several times, and each time I’ve come away with different thoughts and ideas. It is serious music and it speaks to my soul on the deepest of levels. I’ve had a lengthy association with Beethoven as both a player and consumer of his work. I played Minuet in G in my first piano recital. I studied many of his sonatas throughout university, and as a theory student I orchestrated a few of them. As I’ve gotten older and widened my listening tastes, there have been times when I’ve questioned if his work still resonates in me in the same ways. We as listeners are now used to such a wider palette of sounds, rhythms, harmonies, moods, meters and the like, that I have sometimes been guilty of thinking that I’ve outgrown my taste for Beethoven. And then I hear the music and I am once again mesmerized, moved and impressed by his genius. I still believe he is a master of great brilliance.
On my most recent visit to the whole work, I was struck by the seriousness of the first two movements. The imaginative development of the rich themes leaves us with deeply stirring music. I was particularly struck by the emotional release I felt at the start of the third movement, with such a stark contrast of the previous two movements. For me, the vibrant fourth movement always inspires.
I share a final personal impression of the piece. I have listened to several renditions of the work, and I must say the Bernstein Berlin performance has raised every hair on my body more than a few times. I believe he was such a powerful and expressive conductor, and I could not help but be in awe of his prowess on the podium in this performance, especially under the circumstances that inspired and informed this particular rendition. I was alternately blown away by him and the music, but in the end, I realize it’s about the music. It’s always all about the music.
Beyond anything I share here, I urge you to discover and rediscover the amazing beauty and majesty of this great work on your own. I believe it remains timeless and fresh.
David's recommendation for listening:
Next week’s blog will feature David’s interview with his friend Jessica Thompson, who has sung the soprano solo part in Symphony No.9 several times. The interview will give us a peek into the vocal challenges of this work as she experienced performing it under different conductors.
Notes from Cellist & Conductor Wendy Larson
Hello Music Lovers of the Valley,
This Bits of Beethoven blog post will examine the symphonic writings of Beethoven during the middle period of his life, sometimes referred to as the “heroic period”. I have chosen to focus on Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67. This symphony reflects Beethoven’s resolution quote, “I will grapple with Fate; it shall not overcome me.” Victory is symbolized by passing from C minor in the opening movement to the brilliance of C major in the last movement.
To help us more clearly understand the magnitude of this symphony, I have asked Wendy Larson, cellist and former conductor of the Symphony of the Valley, to share with you her challenges and rewards in conducting this work. Here are her reflections.
Conducting Beethoven's 5th Symphony
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 was written between 1804 and 1808. The symphony’s four-note opening motif, in particular, is known worldwide. It appears frequently in popular culture, from disco versions and rock and roll covers, to uses in film and television. Even school children who know nothing about this work can hum them with ease.
When I was pondering the performance of this symphony with my amateur community orchestra, I took many things into consideration; the ability of the players, their playing experience and music maturity. Could this little orchestra really do justice to this monumental piece? I came to the conclusion that it was accessible and playable by them.
I saw the player’s eyes light up with excitement when I made the performance announcement and passed out the scores at the first rehearsal. They embraced this incredible opportunity with enthusiasm and motivation. They practiced more on their own, took their parts to their private music lessons for instruction, and listened to different orchestral recordings to absorb the appropriate performance style.
Notes from Roaring Fork Valley Musician Nancy Thomas
Hello Music Lovers of the Valley,
In earlier blogs, I discussed some of the most familiar and monumental piano sonatas of the early, middle and late periods of Beethoven’s life. Now we will move on to a discussion of his symphonic writings, starting with the early period. Beethoven had moved to Vienna to establish himself as a virtuoso performer and composer. He seemed to quickly grasp the wave of the future in symphonic writing as seen in the strength of his writing for winds, brass and strings, and the overall expansion of the form through clever manipulation of harmony, texture and varied melodies. We will start with a look at Symphonies No.1 and No. 2.
To explore these compositions, I thought nothing could be more informative than to ask an orchestral performer to discuss the subject with us. I chose Nancy Thomas, violist/violinist, teacher and former Festival Orchestra member and editor for AMFS to do the honors. Nancy, a longtime Aspen resident, has contributed much to the cultural life of this valley. She will share with you her various stages of developing an appreciation and love for Beethoven, an appreciation that continues to grow even now. Enjoy!
Beethoven and Love in the Time of Coronavirus
Ever since Charlotte McLain first proposed her Basalt Library project dedicated to the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, I’ve been revisiting my sense of this giant musician and his music. My assignment is to discuss the First and Second Symphonies, and the Coronavirus has forced upon me the time to think. If I seem to ramble, perhaps it’s the quarantine.
I confess I haven’t always loved Beethoven. An appreciation of the power and beauty of his music came on only gradually. I was raised in a musical household. My mother taught piano and was an accomplished early music performer. And my father, a scientist in his working life, was a good amateur violinist and pianist. So it’s not the case that I didn’t hear Beethoven, I did. I just wasn’t drawn to his music.
An affinity for Beethoven had to come about slowly, over time, with direct experience. I’m pretty sure I played Beethoven at Interlochen National Music Camp, which I attended for two summers (1951 and ’52). Beethoven, however, couldn’t match Smetana’s Moldau, nor soon after, Britten’s Enigma Variations, with its gorgeous viola-charged variations. I was being drawn into music, to its power to move, but Beethoven still stood on the sidelines.
During my freshman year at the University of Michigan (1955), I encountered for the first time the Ninth Symphony. I sang soprano in the chorus. What can I say? I did not understand the Ninth. Beethoven took the sopranos up into the stratosphere and then just left us there to screech! Painful. What was that about? But there was drama, that’s for sure.
Next, as a music literature major I had an unforgettable yearlong seminar on the Beethoven String Quartets, with Oliver Edel, the cellist of the resident Stanley Quartet. The discussions put meat on the bones. My first two summers in Aspen, (1961 and ’62), our student quartet coached Opus 18, no. 6 and Opus 59, no. 3 with Claus Adam, cellist of the Juilliard Quartet. The detail and refinement that this master musician and inspiring teacher offered us were a revelation. I was hooked!
The Ninth Symphony came up again, with the Nashville Symphony in 1966. In rehearsal the conductor Willis Page, himself a bass player, threw a tantrum with the basses. Blustering that they were playing way too loud at their solo entrance in the last movement, he jumped off the podium and stormed back to the section, grabbed the principal’s instrument, and yelled and demonstrated. Mission accomplished! In the performance the basses played pianiss-issimo at that spot. Was it out of fear or inspiration, who knows? The ethereal effect made for a memorable moment. Beethoven was made indelible.
As for the early Symphonies, I believe I first encountered them in an unusual context. I played them with my dad in an arrangement for 4-hand piano. It was a stretch, what we could muster, with Dad on the bass and me on the treble.
I recently assembled a list of the nearly 60 conductors I’ve played under as a student, as a professional freelancer and orchestra player. I have vivid memories of performances of particular works under particular conductors. What explains then that I don’t recall when, where, or with whom I’ve played Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies? Nonetheless, the power of Beethoven must have somehow embedded itself in me. Today, I am thrilled by the beauty of these two masterful symphonies.
For two sterling interpretations of Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies, give a listen to Leonard Bernstein’s performance with Vienna Philharmonic and Roger Norrington’s with Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. From Bernstein, the dramatist, and Norrington, the classicist, you may be surprised to hear how their restraint and expansion play out.