This evening we’ll hear one of the greatest works in the piano repertoire, Beethoven’s regal “Emperor” Concerto. Bernstein’s early ballet, Fancy Free, displays many of the characteristics his music would draw upon in the decades that followed. Two shorter French works, both from the second decade of the 20th century—Schmitt’s Rêves and Ravel’s La valse—make up the second half.
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770; Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827; Vienna, Austria)
First performance: 28 November 1811; Leipzig, Germany
Last MSO performance: January 2011; Edo de Waart, conductor; Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 38 minutes
“We have been suffering misery in a most concentrated form,” wrote Beethoven to his Leipzig publisher in July 1809. “What a destructive and disorderly life I see and hear around me: nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.” As the Napoleonic Wars swept across Europe, Beethoven remained in Vienna, even as others had fled the city in droves. Archduke Rudolph—with the aid of his friends Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Kinksy—had recently pledged to support the composer for life, as long as he remained in Vienna or its environs.
Into this dim scenario, Beethoven’s final piano concerto was born. It gives us pause to imagine that something so edifying and exhilarating could arise from such circumstances. The premiere, two years later, was entrusted to the 25-year-old church organist Friedrich Scheider; by 1811, the master had virtually given up public performances due to his substantial deafness. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny gave the Vienna premiere three months later on 12 February 1812.
The concerto’s “Emperor” nickname is sometimes attributed to Johann Baptist Cramer, a pianist and music publisher whom the composer held in high esteem. Perhaps Cramer meant it in the sense of something noble and uplifting. Regardless, the sobriquet probably didn’t please Beethoven, who had scratched out the dedication to Napoleon on the title page of his Third Symphony—after the despotic man proclaimed himself Emperor in 1804.
A single majestic E-flat major chord, tutti, opens the concerto, followed by a cadenza-like outburst from the soloist. We can only imagine what the audience must have thought of so audacious and iconoclastic a gesture that November night in Leipzig. Before settling into the grand first theme, Beethoven grabs our attention with three assertive chords, each followed by a statement from the soloist. The orchestral exposition then sweeps forward as the piano remains silent. This large-scale movement is longer than the following two movements combined, but Beethoven’s mastery in expanding the classical structures he inherited from Haydn and Mozart makes it easy to follow.
The Adagio is surely one of the master’s most inspired, time-stopping creations. Muted strings play a melody of otherworldly beauty and tender melancholy; the soloist answers with quietly descending triplets. Following a series of trills from the piano, listen for the songlike main theme’s second phrase: In his book The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross cites this as a source for “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s West Side Story.
The rondo finale follows without a pause, as the soloist tinkers with the makings of a new melody, then rushes headlong into the main theme; the orchestra seconds the motion. This brilliant music traverses a generous sampling of keys, textures, and melodic permutations until it exhausts itself near the end; the piano and timpani are left alone to reach the final exhilarating measures.
Recommended recording: Murray Perahia; Bernard Haintink, Concertgebouw Orchestra (Sony Classical)
(Born 25 August 1918; Lawrence, Massachusetts; Died 14 October 1990; New York, New York)
First performance: 18 April 1944; New York, New York
Last MSO performance: MSO premiere
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, wood block, suspended cymbals, cowbell, triangle), piano, strings
Approximate duration: 25 minutes
At age 25, Leonard Bernstein became an overnight sensation after being called upon to fill in for an ailing Bruno Walter at a New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall on 14 November 1943. His career continued to skyrocket when he conducted the inaugural performance of his “Jeremiah” Symphony in January 1944 and the premiere of Fancy Free, his first ballet, just three months later.
A collaboration with dancer/choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-1998)—the two would later work together on the shows On the Town and, most significantly, West Side Story—who first brought the idea to Bernstein, Fancy Free was just the sort of light-hearted anodyne the wartime public needed. Bernstein summed up the ballet’s story in a program note:
The curtain rises on a street corner with a lamp post, a side street bar and New York skyscrapers pricked out with a crazy pattern of lights, making a dizzying backdrop. Three sailors explode on the stage. They are on a 24-hour shore leave in the city and on the prowl for girls. The tale of how they first meet one, then a second girl, and how they fight over them lose them, and in the end take off after still a third, is the story of the ballet.
Robbins choreographed the ballet and danced one of the sailor roles. Given by the Ballet Theatre (later to become the American Ballet Theatre) at the old Metropolitan Opera House, attendance broke box-office records there. The house seated 3,300 people, yet standees were three-deep at every performance. Fancy Free’s run was extended for two additional weeks, followed by a nationwide tour. “Fun?,” Bernstein later wrote to Aaron Copland. “I’ll say! I’m still not over it.”
Fancy Free’s jazzy score is chock-full of energetic, frequently complex, rhythms. Brass and percussion are often at the forefront, and splashy piano solos tie the dances together. Bernstein draws not only from the jazz idiom, though: listen, too, for angular Stravinsky-like patterns and the oom-pah-pah of vaudeville. This inspired score presages many of the styles and melodies the maestro would use across the ensuing decades—as well as just a few months later in On the Town, itself inspired by Fancy Free. Fans of the former will sure hear how the ballet’s cheeky main theme begat the “Great Lover” theme of the musical.
Recommended recording: Leonard Bernstein, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
(Born 28 September 1870; Blâmont, France; Died 17 August 1958; Neuilly-sur-Seine, France)
First performance: November 1918; Paris, France
Last MSO performance: MSO premiere
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam tam), 2 harps, strings
Approximate duration: 9 minutes
The American conductor JoAnn Falletta once referred to Florent Schmitt as “the most important French composer you’ve never heard of.” His music, she said, “moves beyond Impressionism into a lush and tangled world of dark poetry and sumptuous story telling. Rhapsodic, brooding, and startlingly beautiful, Schmitt’s language is deeply personal—passionate, yet extraordinarily detailed, sophisticated, and elusive.”
Schmitt studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Massenet, Fauré, and Dubois. He was a charter member of Les Apaches, a group of French artists, writers, and musicians founded at the turn of the 20th century. He also counted among his friends composers from other countries who had been drawn to the musical life of Paris—Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Falla, Villa-Lobos, and Delius, among others.
Schmitt began work on Rêves (“Dreams”) in 1913—the same year Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was premiered. The work lasts less than ten minutes, yet it embodies every aspect of Falletta’s description of Schmitt’s music. As Phillip Nones noted, “The reveries in this music are not ‘sweet dreams’ at all... Schmitt has conjured up a highly hallucinatory dream-sequence—one that contains a healthy dose of ominous foreboding to go along with the magical atmosphere.” Indeed! As you listen, close your eyes and see if you don’t agree.
Recommended recording: David Robertson, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo (Valois)
(Born 7 March 1875; Ciboure, France; Died 28 December 1937; Paris, France)
First performance: 12 December 1920; Paris, France
Last MSO performance: May 2015; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, tambourine, tam tam, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, castanets, bass drum, antique cymbals), 2 harps, strings
Approximate duration: 12 minutes
La valse is Ravel’s masterfully evocative homage to the Viennese waltz. He provided a brief programmatic description:
Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The sight of chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.
Composed at the behest of Sergei Diaghilev, La valse was not what the Ballet Russe impresario expected. “This is not a ballet,” he opined. “It is a painting of a ballet.” Diaghilev refused to stage it, and he and Ravel never worked together again. Undeterred, the French master published the opus as a “choreographic poem for orchestra.” It was finally presented as a ballet in 1926 when Ida Rubinstein’s troupe presented it in Antwerp. Two years later, they introduced it to Paris, and gave the premiere of Bolero two days later.
In a 1937 tribute to Ravel, following the composer’s death, the French musicologist Paul Landormy said of La valse: “[It is] the most unexpected of the compositions of Ravel, revealing to us heretofore unexpected depths of Romanticism, power, vigor, and rapture in this musician whose expression is usually limited to the manifestations of an essentially classical genius.”
Recommended recording: Charles Dutoit, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (London)