Beethoven's Second Symphony

Program Notes

The rippling strains of Strauss’s Don Juan open today’s concert, followed by Ligeti’s avant-garde-but-traditional Violin Concerto. After intermission, we’ll enjoy Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, a watershed in his compositional output.


Don Juan, Op. 20

Richard Strauss
(Born 11 June 1864; Munich, German; Died 8 September 1949; Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany)

Composed: 1888

First performance: 11 November 1889; Weimar, Germany

Last MSO performance: September 2005; Andreas Delfs, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, triangle), harp, strings

Approximate duration: 17 minutes

Richard Strauss was only 24-years-old when he composed the tone poem Don Juan, his first important work. He cited Nikalaus Lenau’s (1802-1850) German verse play as his source of inspiration, but we should also duly note that Strauss had conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Munich not long before he set to work on Don Juan. Strauss prefaced the published score with excerpts from Lenau’s poem; they include such intriguing lines as “The charmed circle of many kinds of beautiful, stimulating femininity... I should like to traverse them in a storm of pleasure, and die of a kiss upon the lips of the last woman.” Lenau’s verses are more like reflections on amorous pursuits than lists of the titular character’s womanizing conquests. 

The swirling, energetic opening theme is meant to portray Don Juan himself. This motif soon yields to a romantic melody, first introduced by a solo violin. A gentle oboe suggests a nighttime assignation. Insistent horns then break the mood as they intone a bold, self-assured theme. Melodies are restated and mingled together, always borne along by the composer’s matchless orchestration. 

In Lenau’s poem, Don Juan, tired of chasing women, allows himself to be defeated in a duel. Strauss’s tone poem depicts this with a piercing stab from the trumpets. He drops, trembling, to the ground. The mood becomes quiet and forlorn, signifying the protagonist’s imminent demise; it’s a disconsolate ending rather than a fortissimo finale. The music’s final phrases grow ever softer, concluding with what sounds like the last breaths of a dying man. Don Juan’s life was over, but Strauss’s magnificent career had just begun.

Recommended recording: Edo de Waart; Minnesota Orchestra (Virgin Classics)


Violin Concerto

György Ligeti
(Born 28 May 1923; Târnăveni, Romania; Died 12 June 2006; Vienna Austria)

Composed: 1990-92

First performance: 8 October 1992; Cologne, Germany (revised version)

Last MSO performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1st doubling alto flute and treble recorder, 2nd doubling piccolo and descant recorder), oboe (doubling soprano ocarina), 2 clarinets (1st doubling E-flat clarinet and sopranino ocarina, 2nd doubling bass clarinet and alto ocarina), bassoon (doubling soprano ocarina), 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion (suspended cymbals, crotales, chimes, gong, tam tam, wood block, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, whip, whistle, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba), strings

Approximate duration: 28 minutes

The Romanian-born, Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti (pronounced “LEE-guh-tee”) is considered one of the most important avant-garde composers of the latter part of the 20th century. Ligeti, who emigrated from Hungary to Austria in 1956 (later becoming a citizen there), is perhaps best-known in this country from Stanley Kubrick’s appropriation of snippets of his music in the films 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut.

Ligeti’s family was Jewish. His education was interrupted in 1944 when he was sent to a forced labor brigade; his younger brother was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, and both of his parents to Auschwitz. He and his mother were the only two who survived. After the war, he returned to school, graduating from Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy in 1949. (Zoltán Kodály was one of his professors there.) Following the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956, Ligeti fled to Vienna with his wife Vera, only returning to Hungary 14 years later, to judge a competition in Budapest.

His music is some of the 20th century’s richest. It is hard to categorize, because Ligeti’s creativity is overwhelming in its variety and expressive power. He resisted the system-for-system’s sake approach of his contemporaries—whether Cage’s chance, Xenakis’s stochasticism, or Boulez’s version of 12-tone composition. This mean that, in practically every new piece he set down, he had to find a new kind of expression.

The Violin Concerto synthesizes Ligeti’s avant-garde explorations with more traditional melodic and formal conventions. You’ll hear microtonality—which requires the principal violinist and principal violist to retune their instruments—and rapidly changing textures. As Allan Kozinn noted in The New York Times (14 November 2005), “Other influences jostle for the spotlight as well, including Hungarian folk melodies, Bulgarian dance rhythms, references to medieval and Renaissance music, and solo violin writing that ranges from the slow-paced and sweet-toned to the angular and fiery. Depending on your tolerance for non-sequiturs, it could seem either hopelessly diffuse or amusingly omnivorous.”

The soloist opens the concerto with a repeated pattern; the harmonics of the solo violin and the two “mistuned” orchestra members clash constantly. Accented notes from the marimba and xylophone punctuate the texture. In the second movement, the solo violin sings a Hungarian-spiced “Aria,” and is soon joined by the viola, then flutes and double bass. A distinctive feature is the use of hocket, a medieval practice in which a single melody is shared between two or more voices. The third-movement Intermezzo is the shortest of the five; here, the soloist plays a soaring melody in the violin’s high register against the rapidly descending scales of the orchestral strings, creating a thick-textured canon. 

A passacaglia is a set of variations over a ground bass. (Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, is a classic example.) The ground bass need not stay in the lowest voice, and such is the case in the fourth movement, where the soloist plays mostly high, long-held notes against a slowing ascending chromatic scale. The finale brings together elements from the previous moments: the shimmering harmonies; the high, slow-moving melodies; the rhythmic complexities; the Hungarian folksong. Likewise, the soloist’s madly virtuosic cadenza, newly written by Thomas Adès, incorporates music heard earlier; it is brutally silenced by a high-pitched woodblock, stopping the concerto dead in its tracks, with the flutes having the brief final word.

Recommended recording: Saschko Gawfiloff; Pierre Boulez, Ensemble InterContermporain (Deutsche Grammophon)


Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770; Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827; Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1801-02

First performance: 5 April 1803; Vienna, Austria

Last MSO performance: February 2013; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 32 minutes

Beethoven spent the summer of 1802 in the village of Heiligenstadt (now part of larger Vienna). It was a musically prolific time for him, and there he put the final touches on his Symphony No. 2. But the 31-year-old master was already aware that his hearing was beginning to deteriorate. In October, as he prepared to return to central Vienna, he carefully wrote a document to his two brothers describing his depression, but declaring he had now rejected the idea of suicide. This “Heiligenstadt Testament” is a heartbreaking testimony to the despair that frequently overtook him during this period in his life.

It is an affirmation of Beethoven’s genius—as though one were needed—to realize that the Heiligenstadt Testament and the “richly textured, emotionally vital” (P.G. Downs) Symphony No. 2 co-inhabited the brain of their creator: the self-confidence evident in the latter is worlds away from the despairing mood of the former. (Sidebar: In his book Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven (2007), F.M. Mai states the composer had bi-polar disorder.)

In his Second Symphony, Beethoven employs the instrumental forces and the layout of Haydn’s last 12 symphonies—with a slow introduction and rondo finale. “Although Haydn could never have written this work,” states Beethoven scholar Joseph Kerman, “it stands as a final ideal realization of the concept of a large piece which he had developed.” 

The 33-measure introduction is slow and dramatic, abundant in the sort of powerful music the master would continue to exploit throughout his life. The Allegro con brio’s main theme is presented in the lower strings; clarinets, bassoons, and horns intone its martial-like second theme.

The second movement is a large-scale sonata form, “one of the most sensuous of all Beethoven’s Larghettos” (Lewis Lockwood). Its lyricism prompted Donald Francis Tovey to call it the touchstone of what is beautiful and childlike in music. In place of Haydn’s minuet-and-trio—employed by Beethoven in his own Symphony No. 1—Beethoven opted for a scherzo; in so doing, he forever changed the standard symphonic layout. 

The fiery rondo-finale is, to our ears, unadulterated Beethoven. To his 1803 audience, though, it must have been shocking—bizarre, even—what with its relentless energy that suddenly stops, its breaks in texture and continuity, its in-your-face sense of humor. Beethoven led the first performance of his Op. 36, on a Viennese concert that included the premieres of his Piano Concerto No. 3 and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. The concert received mixed reviews, but reportedly was a box-office success, a combination not unheard-of even today.

Recommended recording: Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Archiv)