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Beethoven + Bartok


Program Notes

SAT JAN 27, 8 pm • SUN JAN 28, 2 pm

LOUIS LANGRÉE conductor • OWEN LEE double bassist

BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21

• Adagio molto—Allegro con brio
• Andante cantabile con moto
• Menuett o: Allegro molto e vivace
• Finale: Adagio—Allegro molto e vivace 

KOUSSEVITZKY (1874–1951)

 Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra, Op. 3

• Allegro
• Andante
• Allegro (cadenzas composed by Owen Lee)


BARTÓK (1881–1945)

Concerto for Orchestra

• Introduzione: Andante non troppo—Allegro vivace
• Giuoco delle coppie: Allegretto scherzando
• Elegia: Andante non troppo
• Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto

• Finale: Pesante—Presto

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21

Born: December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Germany | Died: March 26, 1827 in Vienna

Work composed: 1799-1800

Premiere: April 2, 1800, Vienna (published with a dedication to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, one of Vienna’s most prominent music-lovers and patrons).

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

CSO subscription performances: 20 previous subscription weekends 

Premiere: December 1914 (Emery Auditorium), Ernst Kunwald conducting

Most Recent: November 2005, Paavo Järvi conducting. | Seiji Ozawa led the CSO in this work for a special Music Hall concert in March 1983. 

Duration: approx. 26 min.

The energy with which the 22-year-old Beethoven threw himself into Viennese musical life was truly astounding. As he was leaving his native Bonn for Vienna in 1792, one of his patrons, Count Waldstein, inscribed the following in the young man’s book of souvenirs: “With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” Thus, Waldstein became the first person to mention Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the same breath. The prophecy came true: Beethoven soon became the most talked-about musician in the imperial capital, equally famous as a composer and a pianist, courted by the aristocracy and admired by the public.

Beethoven’s first 20 opus numbers, published between 1795 and 1801, covered just about every current genre of instrumental music: two piano concertos, sonatas for solo piano, for violin and piano, for cello and piano, string trios, piano trios, string quartets, a quintet for piano and winds, as well as the Septet in E flat which became the most popular of all his works. One significant type of music was still missing from this list, however, and Beethoven knew he couldn’t fully be an heir of Haydn and Mozart until he had written a symphony.

There is certainly plenty of Haydn and Mozart in Beethoven’s first symphony, finished a few months after his 29th birthday. But the young composer’s originality is evident from every bar of the music. Beethoven clearly took over where Haydn and Mozart had left off; and if he remained within the Classical symphonic framework established by his elders (something he would never do again), he spoke the inherited language in such an individual way that no contemporary could fail to notice the arrival of a major new voice on the scene. 

The First Symphony was introduced at the Court Theatre on April 2, 1800. The program was made up entirely of works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; this was the first time the composers now known as the three Viennese classics appeared together on a concert program, sharing it with no one else.

KEYNOTE. Right at the beginning of his symphony, the indomitable young man made a gesture that has been cited ever since as a sign of artistic independence. The very first chord of the symphony is one that, instead of establishing the home key as one would expect, immediately destabilizes it and leads away from it. This opening sets the stage for a brilliant movement filled with many more musical surprises.

The gently rocking opening theme of the second movement begins with violins only, before the entire orchestra joins in. Haydn and Mozart often left out the trumpets and kett ledrums from their slow movements. Beethoven chose to retain them here, but asked of them something they were not often required to do, namely to play softly. The pianissimo (extremely soft) notes of the trumpets and timpani add a special element of mystery to this music.

The third movement is called “Menuetto” but it is much too fast to be a minuet. It is closer in character to a “Scherzo” (the word means “joke”); in other words, it is one of those witty, humorous fast movements that already appear in some of Haydn’s string quartets and became prominent in Beethoven’s early Viennese chamber works. Beethoven liked to base his scherzos on single musical gestures, often consisting of only two or three notes; the music was full of surprises, sudden key changes, off beat accents, and other unexpected events. This delightful movement is no exception.

Scherzos, like minuets, have middle sections that are traditionally called Trios and introduce new music after which the scherzo proper is repeated. In the Trio of Beethoven’s First Symphony, the harmonies change remarkably slowly; this relative calm contrasts markedly with the hectic pace of the main section. The last movement starts with another delicious Beethovenian joke. The theme of the movement, which starts with a fast upward scale, is born gradually before our eyes (or ears), as the notes of the scale are added, one after the other, in a solemn slow tempo. Once the top note of the scale has been reached, the tempo becomes lively, and there is never a moment of respite until the end.

—Peter Laki


Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra, Op. 3

Born: July 26, 1874, Vyshny Volochok, Russia | Died: June 4, 1951, Boston

Work composed: 1902

Premiere: February 25, 1905, Moscow Philharmonic, Serge Koussevitzky was soloist

Instrumentation: solo double bass, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, harp, strings

CSO subscription performances: These performances are the CSO premiere of the Concerto for Double Bass.

Duration: approx. 17 min.

The legendary conductor Serge Koussevitzky, longtime music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, started his musical life as a virtuoso double bass player and part-time composer. His lushly melodic bass concerto, one of only a handful written for the instrument until recent times, has been taken up by double-bass players everywhere.

KEYNOTE. The shadow of Tchaikovsky and the proximity of Rachmaninoff can always be felt in the three movements of this work. Actually, there are only “two and a half” movements since the first and the third are nearly identical: they begin the same way and only diverge later, producing what seems like a large “A-B-A” form, with the slow movement playing the role of the middle section. The first time around, there is a smooth transition into the intensely lyrical slow movement, played without a break. The second time, the material is slightly expanded with the addition of a brilliant concluding flourish.

Bassist Owen Lee, this weekend’s soloist, adds, “Koussevitzky never composed cadenzas for his concerto, but instead welcomed bassists to compose their own. I have tried to make my cadenzas at the beginning of the third movement blend as seamlessly into the rest of the concerto as possible, hopefully even giving the impression that they were part of the original composition.”

—Peter Laki

Concerto for Orchestra

Born: March 25, 1881 in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania)   | Died: September 26, 1945, New York City

Work composed: 1943 

Premiere: December 1, 1944, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 3 oboes (incl. English horn), 3 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, 2 harps, strings

CSO subscription performances: 16 previous subscription weekends  

Premiere: November 1950, Thor Johnson conducting

Most Recent: September 2007, Paavo Järvi conducting

Duration: approx. 40 min.

Among the many works that Serge Koussevitzky premiered with the Boston Symphony, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra stands out as one of the most beloved classics of 20th-century music, and the crowning masterpiece of Bartók’s American years.

Bartók was 59 years old when he arrived in the United States with his second wife and former pupil, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók. His adjustment to the new environment was made difficult, even traumatic, by several factors. Once the foremost musical celebrity in Hungary, Bartók was, if not entirely unknown in the Western Hemisphere, far from being a household name and had to start a new struggle to relaunch his career.

Bartók was ill-equipped for such a struggle. He was not prepared to make any compromises. He was not interested in university positions because he did not believe in teaching composition. He did concertize for a while as a pianist, mainly in a two piano duo with his wife and, a few times, as soloist in his Second Piano Concerto. Yet his main ambition throughout this period was to continue his research in ethnomusicology. Having learned about Milman Parry’s collection of recordings from Yugoslavia, preserved at Columbia University, he devoted many hours to transcribing these recordings. He received a grant to do this work, but the grant expired before Bartók could finish the project. It was also at this time—late in 1942—that Bartók’s health first began to deteriorate, with fevers, pain and weakness, but with no immediate diagnosis (the first signs of the leukemia that would claim his life in 1945).

The situation was grave indeed when one day Bartók, lying in a New York hospital, received an unexpected visit from Koussevitzky, who commissioned a new orchestral work in memory of his wife and left a check for half the amount of the commission on the composer’s bedside table. (He and everybody else took great pains to conceal from Bartók the fact that the idea of the commission had come from two of the composer’s friends, violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner; had Bartók known this, the commission would have seemed to him a form of charity and he might even have turned it down.) The commission quite literally gave Bartók, who had composed virtually nothing for the last two years, a new lease on life. Work on the score proceededrapidly, thanks in part to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which arranged for Bartók to spend the summer months of 1943 at a private sanatorium in Lake Saranac, New York. Bartók’s health improved, he gained some weight, and the full score of the Concerto for Orchestra was completed by October 8.

In opting for a five-movement form with a central slow movement and two quasi-scherzos in second and fourth place, respectively, Bartók returned to a compositional design he had first discovered in his early Suite No. 1 for Orchestra 40 years earlier and used again in his String Quartet No. 4 (1928). It was one of several symmetrical structures he favored in his large-scale works, one that afforded a great deal of diversity in character organized around a single governing principle.

KEYNOTE. The first movement opens with a slow introduction whose chains of ascending fourths, played by cellos and basses, create the impression of a world being born out of primeval chaos. The first “concertante” solo, for flute, still has something indecisive to it, but the second, for three trumpets, is a fully formed idea that borrows its formal structure (though not its actual melody) from Hungarian folksong. The tempo gradually increases and reaches Allegro vivace; the fast section is dominated by two themes, both of which, like the theme of the introduction, are built on ascending fourths. This energetic music is only temporarily interrupted by a lyrical interlude in which the oboe and the harp seem to carry on an intimate conversation.

The second movement, Giuoco delle Coppie (“Game of Pairs”), opens and closes with a brief snare drum solo. Five pairs of wind instruments play their themes in parallel intervals; we hear, in turn, two bassoons in sixths, two oboes in thirds, two clarinets in sevenths, two flutes in fifths, and finally, two muted trumpets in major seconds. A short brass chorale functions as middle section before a full (varied) recapitulation.

The third-movement Elegy opens with some ascending fourths that clearly allude to the first movement’s slow introduction. The glissandos on the harp and the soft woodwind figuration recall the “Lake of Tears” scene from Bluebeard’s Castle. The middle section of the Elegy is based on the same quasi-folksong we heard in the introduction to the first movement. The movement ends with a haunting piccolo solo, after which the boisterous string unisons of the fourth movement come as quite a jolt.

Bartók told his pupil György Sándor a little story he had associated with the fourth-movement Intermezzo interrotto (“Interrupted Intermezzo”). The composer apparently imagined a young man serenading his sweetheart, only to be brutally interrupted by a drunken mob.* (Bartók’s thinking of a serenade was evidently influenced by Debussy’s piano prelude La sérénade interrompue.)

There are some clues in the movement, however, that reveal a meaning running deeper than the story would suggest. Many people think that the beautiful cantabile of the violas is a rhythmically modified version of a melody from a popular Hungarian operetta, Zsigmund Vincze’s A hamburgi menyasszony (“The Bride from Hamburg”): “Hungary, you are beautiful....” It is quite obvious that the real subject of the movement is Bartók’s nostalgia for his native land. The disruption of this melody by a trivial little tune has given rise to a great deal of commentary because Bartók appeared to be parodying a prominent passage from Shostakovich’s Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony, which had recently created a sensation in the United States. In his book My Father, Bartók’s younger son Peter relates how Bartók listened to the radio broadcast of Shostakovich’s Seventh and objected to what seemed endless repetitions of the same theme. (It is not clear whether the similarity to the song “Da geh ich zu Maxim” from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow was intended by either Bartók or Shostakovich.)

It should be noted that Shostakovich had a special reason to repeat his melody so many times: the theme, variously referred to as the theme of war or fascism, supposedly portrayed the advance of the Nazi army which interrupted peaceful life in Russia, just as its Bartókian parody represented a “drunken mob” interrupting a peaceful serenade. But we have no reason to think that Bartók knew about the intended meaning of the Shostakovich theme.

The finale belongs to the type of last movements inspired by the spirit of folk-dance Bartók used at the end of many of his major works. After the opening horn fanfare, the violins start a perpetual motion in rapid sixteenth-notes that runs through almost the entire movement. In the central section, a large-scale fugato (a section based on imitative counterpoint) unfolds. After a recapitulation which includes a brief lyrical episode in a slower tempo, the final crescendo begins, leading to a powerful climax at the end of the composition.

* Sándor shared this story with the conductor Ferenc Fricsay, who published it in German in his book Über Mozart und Bartók. Copenhagen and Frankfurt: Wilhelm Hansen, 1962, p. 59–61. Quoted in English in David Cooper, Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. Cambridge Music Handbooks, 1996, p. 54–55.

—Peter Laki