Trifonov Plays Beethoven's Emperor

Program Notes

FRI MAY 3, 8 pm | SAT MAY 4, 8 pm


JOHN ADAMS (b. 1947)

Tromba lontana

BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)

Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73, Emperor

  • Allegro
  • Adagio un poco mosso
  • Rondo: Allegro

ARVO PÄRT (b. 1935)

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

STRAVINSKY (1882–1971)

Symphony in C Major

  • Moderato alla breve
  • Larghetto concertante
  • Allegretto
  • Largo—Tempo giusto

JOHN ADAMS COMPOSED TWO FANFARES: Short Ride in a Fast Machine—which opened our renovated Music Hall and is certainly his most ebullient and well-known work—and the music that opens today’s program, Tromba lontana. This “anti-fanfare” begins with quiet, distant trumpets and winds calling, responding and echoing each other. The mysterious resonances create a beautiful atmosphere of awakening dawn. It is a special pleasure and privilege to welcome, for the first time in Cincinnati, Daniil Trifonov—the “tzar” of pianists who will perform the Emperor of concertos. We are thrilled to add Daniil, who burst onto the classical music scene only a few years ago, to the prestigious list of pianists who have performed this concerto with the CSO. We then move to Arvo Pärt’s musical homage to a great British composer, Benjamin Britten, which opens with a bell emerging from the silence and creating a spiritual invitation to introspection. Finally, we close with Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, which Stravinsky himself conducted at Music Hall in 1940. This work is a result of the composer’s return to a more strict symphonic structure, following the explosion of modernism during his debuts, which culminated with his Rite of Spring.


John Adams

Born: February 15, 1947, Worcester, Massachusetts; currently lives in Northern California

Known for:

  • Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)
  • Nixon in China (1987)
  • On the Transmigration of Souls  (2002)

Tromba lontana (“Distant Trumpet”)

  • Work composed: 1986 on commission from the Houston Symphony Orchestra, as part of its Fanfare Project in celebration of the Texas Sesquicentennial
  • Premiere: April 4, 1986 in Houston, Sergiu Comissiona conducting the Houston Symphony Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 2 solo trumpets, 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 horns, crotale, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, vibraphone, harp, piano, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These are the first CSO performances of Tromba lontana.
  • Duration: approx. 4 minutes

“Incredibly quiet, slow moving, mysterious, almost ethereal” (to quote the composer’s own description), the two “distant trumpets” of John Adams’s “anti-fanfare” weave their way through an extremely delicate orchestral texture in which many different short motifs, all of them repeated over and over again, are superimposed in a number of intriguing ways. I called the work an “anti-fanfare” because, even though it features a pair of trumpets, fanfare instruments par excellence, what they play is more introspective than rousing, and the associations they evoke are dreamlike rather than military.

KEYNOTE. The peaceful music of the trumpets is combined with soft harmonics in the strings, a dense web of whispering and rustling woodwind sonorities, and the constant “ping” sounds of the glockenspiel. Occasionally and unexpectedly, the crotales (small cymbals also known as “antique cymbals”) play single high pitches to add even more diversity to the sound. The vibraphone, sometimes played with a bow and sometimes with mallets, plus the piano and the harp, complete the ensemble with their pulsating rhythms. Tromba lontana is typical if the freedom and orchestral richness Adams has brought to the technique of minimalism, which involves frequent repetitions of the same short motifs. In Adams, the repetitions are less literal than they had been in the “classic” minimalist works of the 1960s; subtle variations are introduced to prevent monotony, yet the uniformity of the mood is preserved throughout the piece.

—Peter Laki

Photo of Beethoven for Program Notes

Ludwig Van Beethoven

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

Major composer for 18th and 19th centuries

Known for:

  • Symphonies No. 1-9 
  • Piano Concerto No. 14 (Moonlight Sonata)
  • Für Elise

Beethoven is known for a composing a vital catalog of music. This is merely a tiny list of popular selections in comparison to the breadth of his work.

Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73, Emperor

  • Work composed: February–October 1809
  • Premiere: November 28, 1811 in Leipzig—Johann Philipp Christian Schulz conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Friedrich Schneider, pianist
  • Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 37 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1897, Frank Van der Stucken conducting, Teresa Carreño, pianist | Most recent: September 2016, Louis Langrée conducting; Emanuel Ax, pianist | The CSO also performed this work in England and France during its 1969 European tour, Max Rudolf conducting; Gina Bachauer and Robert Casadesus, pianists.
  • Duration: approx. 38 minutes

No one knows how Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto came to be known as the Emperor. The composer did not give it that title; he would surely not have chosen to honor Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte, whose army occupied Vienna while he was composing the concerto. Of Napoléon the composer said, “It is a pity that I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music. Then would I conquer him!”

Napoléon’s armies invaded Vienna on May 12, 1809. A week later they seized the island of Loban, near the city. The battle of Wagram took place on July 6, and from then until Vienna surrendered on October 14 hostilities continued in and around the city. Beethoven’s lodgings were in the midst of the fighting, and the noise and commotion often kept him from working on the concerto. At one point he had to seek safety in his brother’s basement. The composer described his difficulties:

We have passed through a great deal of misery. I tell you that since May 4 I have brought into the world little that is connected—only here and there a fragment. The whole course of events has affected me, body and soul. Nor can I have the enjoyment of country life, so indispensable to me.… What a disturbing, wild life around me! Nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts!

Beethoven had been ambivalent about Napoléon for years. It is well known that he originally dedicated the Eroica Symphony to the French general and then angrily tore off the dedication page when Bonaparte declared himself Emperor. Beethoven identified with this powerful, self-made man, but he was repulsed by Napoléon’s willingness to use his strength for destruction and personal gain. The composer was enough of a nationalist to hate Napoléon for invading Vienna, yet at the same time he conducted a performance of the Eroica in the hopes that the Emperor would take it as an homage. He considered accepting a well-paying post at the court of Bonaparte’s brother Jérôme, who had recently become king of Westphalia.

Despite the fact that most of Vienna’s aristocracy had fled the city, several remaining noblemen banded together to offer Beethoven a substantial honorarium not to accept the position in Westphalia. Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Kinsky felt it would be a national disgrace for Beethoven to accept employment at the enemy’s court. The aristocrats drew up a contract:

As it has been demonstrated that only one who is as free from care as possible can devote himself to a single department of activity and create works of magnitude which are exalted and which ennoble art, the undersigned have decided to place Herr Ludwig van Beethoven in a position where the necessities of life shall not cause him embarrassment or clog his powerful genius.

Beethoven was elated. He felt his financial worries were over, and he was able to return to work on the concerto, at least to the extent that the war permitted. He turned down the offer from Westphalia. But his monetary troubles were not at an end. The war led to a devaluation of Austrian currency, so that his annuity became worth far less than his patrons had intended. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the war Prince Lobkowitz went bankrupt. Also, Prince Kinsky died.

KEYNOTE. Some commentators have heard in the Emperor Concerto suggestions of war. Alfred Einstein noted the “apotheosis of the military concept” in what Maynard Solomon later called the “warlike rhythms, victory motives, thrusting melodies and affirmative character.” Einstein attributed the enormous popularity of the work at its first performance to the public taste for military music. Audiences “expected a first movement in 4/4 time of a ‘military’ character, and they reacted with unmixed pleasure when Beethoven not only fulfilled but surpassed their expectations.”

The concerto opens dramatically with the orchestra playing a series of broad, simple chords, each of which the piano extends with wide arpeggios. After three chords the orchestra re-enters with the main theme, and the piano falls silent. Instead of waiting for a dramatic entrance by the solo instrument, as we do in most classical concertos, we await instead a re-entrance. The suspense of waiting for the piano to return injects a psychological tension into the listening process. The piano finally comes back, just after a restatement of the opening chords.

The second movement alternates lyric melody in the orchestra with accompanied piano figurations. Eventually the two types of music are combined. The entire movement is understated, in preparation for the dramatic shift in key toward the end. This sudden move forms the transition to the finale.

The piano begins the last movement with the main theme, which contains quirky rhythmic irregularities. These rhythms pervade much of the movement. Of particular interest is the duet for piano and timpani just before the end.

It is curious that Beethoven, who was 39 when he wrote the Emperor, never composed another concerto, although 18 years of life remained to him. His only other attempt was the unfinished Piano Concerto in D (not to be confused with the odd transcription of the Violin Concerto he made for piano and orchestra), of which about 60 pages were scored in 1815. Thus the Emperor is the culmination of Beethoven’s work in a form that places two forces—solo and orchestra—in dramatic opposition. Perhaps the reason he never completed another concerto was because his later works are not based on the confrontation of opposites. The concerto form became inappropriate to his late introspective style.

—Jonathan D. Kramer

Arvo Pärt

Born: September 11, 1935, Paide, Estonia; he currently lives in Berlin

Known for:

  • Fratres (1977)
  • Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)
  • Für Alina (1976)

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

  • Work composed: 1977
  • Premiere: July 4, 1977, Tallinn, Estonia, Eri Klas conducting the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: chime, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 3 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: May 1980, Neeme Järvi conducting | Most recent: March 2008, Paavo Järvi conducting | The CSO also performed this work on its 2008 European tour, Paavo Järvi conducting. Also under Paavo Järvi’s direction, the CSO recorded this work for its 2011 Baltic Portraits CD.
  • Duration: approx. 7 minutes

Pärt’s earliest works, written while he was still a student, are indebted to the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Subsequently, like many of his contemporaries, he abandoned this idiom in favor of a more complex and abstract style. His 12-tone music, dating from the 1960s, includes such avant-garde techniques as serialism, aleatory, massed sonorities and mathematical compositional algorithms. He was one of the first composers to introduce such devices to the musical culture of his native Estonia, which had been cut off from the mainstream of European musical life during its period of Soviet domination. Eventually disillusioned with such explorations, he turned to collage techniques, freely quoting material from such composers as Bach and Tchaikovsky.

After composing the collage work Credo in 1968, Pärt entered a period of relative silence, during which he studied medieval music but composed little. He analyzed Notre Dame organum and the choral music of such composers as Machaut, Ockeghem, Obrecht and Josquin. He wrote countless exercises and also produced film music in order to make a living.

He resurfaced in 1971 with his Third Symphony, which differs significantly from his previous works. Its polyphonic structure contains elements of both medieval and classical-period music. His musical language became for the first time entirely tonal. He abandoned serialism in favor of a more peaceful and introspective type of music. As Pärt had not yet completed his search for a unique and personal voice, he subsequently embarked on a totally new way of composing, as if learning to walk all over again. With the model of Gregorian chant before him, he studied and composed single melodic lines and eventually moved on to the combination of two voices.

In 1972 he produced a symphonic cantata and then entered again into a period of silence. Pärt re-emerged four years later, having found the voice for which he had been searching—the so-called “tintinnabuli” style, of which Cantus is a typical example. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, “tintinnabuli” refers to “small tinkling bells.” This definition is particularly apt for Cantus, which is scored for string orchestra and bell. As choral conductor Paul Hillier explains in his book on the composer:

If a single bell is struck, and we contemplate the nature of its sound—the Klang at impact, the spread of sound after this initial gesture and then the lingering cloud of resonance—what we hear takes us to the heart of tintinnabuli. A finely wrought bell makes one of the most mysterious and creative sounds: a sound that certainly “rings out” and reaches towards us, yet at the same time pulls us in towards it, so that soon we realize we are on the inside of it, that its inside and outside are in fact one and the same.

This quality of sound is carried over into Pärt’s tintinnabuli music intact. We hear individual bells in some pieces, but we may also notice that the music as a whole is somehow similarly structured, that the form of some tintinnabuli compositions…resembles the way (the shape) in which a bell sounds.

Pärt’s tintinnabuli style features widely spaced chords, open intervals and drones. Tintinnabulation evokes the pealing of bells, with complex and rich overtones. More specifically, it involves the predominance of a single triad in one or more voices. Since it is related to sonorities and procedures of medieval music, this music has been quite controversial. It has many followers, who find a purity to which they can relate spiritually. For others, this music is seen as simply old-fashioned.

To this accusation, Pärt responds:

I am not sure there could be progress in art. Progress as such is present in science. Everyone understands what progress means in the technique of military warfare. Art presents a more complex situation…. Many art objects of the past appear to be more contemporary than our present art. How do we explain it? Not that genius was seeing 200 years ahead. I think the modernity of Bach’s music will not vanish in another 200 years, and perhaps never will…. The secret to its contemporaneity resides in this question: how thoroughly has the author-composer perceived, not his own present, but the totality of life, its joys, worries and mysteries?

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and multi-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation.

The critic David E. Pinkerton II has written:

When comparing all of Pärt’s post-1976 works, there is one underlying theme: the noumenal. Arvo Pärt’s approach to religion has given rise to a humbleness in his artistic aims—his is an attempt to fathom what is secret and unknowable, and he is aware that this will be revealed to him in untranslatable musical forms, if at all…. His music is often said to transport the listener to a “moment outside time,” emerging from silence at the beginning of the work and slowly returning to it as the piece closes. Whatever the intention of the piece, many of his works can be said to reflect the inconceivable sadness that Mary and the disciples felt as Christ was crucified before them on the cross…. The melodic figures, restricted to only a few notes, are powerful in that they are filled with both grace and sadness….

Free and random dissonance is no longer tolerated. His goals are now closely aligned with those of the middle ages in that [as musicologists Donald Jay Grout and Claude Palisca explain] ‘The spirit of the music was objective. Composers strove for a cool balance of musical elements within a strong formal framework, an ideal evident in all the essential characteristics of the music…, a playing down of purely sensuous appeal.’ Dissonance in this new style is created through diatonic means, either through close interplay between two or three voices or with the use of carefully constructed pandiatonic tone clusters. The intent is not to be abrasive but rather to convey the sense of suffering that is so apparent in many of Pärt’s works. It has a beauty at once austere and sensuous that seems to be hardly of our time. Yet there can be little doubt that the revelation of his music has been one of the most important factors in the development of a new sensibility in recent music.

KEYNOTE. Bells toll for the dead. Hence it is appropriate that Pärt employed his bell-like tintinnabuli style in the elegaic Cantus, a work conceived in memory of British composer Benjamin Britten. Pärt explains:

In the past years we have had many losses in the world of music to mourn. Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death—December 4, 1976—touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognize the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even, arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music—I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut. And because, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally—and now it would not come to that.

The unworldly starkness of Cantus comes in part from its simplicity of structure. Half the first violins, then half the seconds, then all the violas, then half the cellos, and finally half the basses, play the same melodic line in imitation, with each group of instruments entering at a tempo twice as slow as that of the preceding group. Thus the basses play the line at one-sixteenth the tempo of the first violins. The line itself consists of a series of descents from high A, with each successive descent going one step lower than the preceding one. The remaining string instruments play in so-called tintinnabuli style, which means simply that they play exclusively notes of the A-minor tonic triad. Since the violas play only the melodic line, without tintinnabulation, they may be considered the focal point of the rich texture. The bell’s reverberations ring on at the end, however, once the strings fall silent, providing an after-aura to the entire work.

—Jonathan D. Kramer

Igor Stravinsky

Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia

Died: April 6, 1971, New York

Known for:

  • The Firebird (1910)
  • The Rite of Spring (1913)
  • Petrushka (1911)

Symphony in C Major

Work composed: 1938–1940: the first movement in Paris, 1938; the second at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in the French Alps in 1939; the third in Cambridge, MA during the fall and winter 1939–40; the fourth in Hollywood in the summer of 1940

Premiere: November 7, 1940 in Chicago, Igor Stravinsky conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

CSO notable performances: 3 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1940, Igor Stravinsky conducting | Most recent: April 1985, Bernard Rubenstein conducting

Duration: approx. 28 minutes

The Symphony in C marks a pivotal moment in Stravinsky’s long career as a composer. It was composed just before his third and final emigration, when—after living in Russia, Switzerland, and France, he moved to the United States in September 1939, sailing three weeks after the start of World War II. It is symbolic that he entered America with a symphony, a genre he had not cultivated since an early student work (the Symphony of Psalms is a different matter). With the choice to write the symphony “in C” (the tonality that, in its major form, has no flats or sharps and is, thus, at the beginning of every study of classical harmony), it was Stravinsky going back to basics, and reconnecting with the world of Mozart and Beethoven, during times that were particularly trying for Stravinsky: within the space of a year, he lost his daughter Lyudmila, his wife and his mother, and was himself hospitalized for tuberculosis.

But Stravinsky would not have been Stravinsky if that had been all he did. At this point, the composer had been working in a multitude of “neo-Classical” styles for almost 20 years, meaning that he was appropriating, and putting new spins on, elements from several centuries’ worth of music history, from the Baroque to Romanticism. In paying homage to Viennese classicism, he also takes a detached look at that tradition, “disrupt[ing] its classical purity,” and creating “a new means of achieving the classical values of order, clarity, balance, and formal beauty,” in the words of analyst Martha M. Hyde.

The history of the Symphony in C is inseparable from one of Stravinsky’s closest friends and musical associates, the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). As recent research by musicologist Kimberly Francis has shown, Boulanger worked indefatigably on Stravinsky’s behalf to secure funding for the symphony and later to edit the score, and even though her efforts at funding fell through and she never completed the editorial work, their countless conversations about the piece during the fateful summer of 1939, which Stravinsky spent at Boulanger’s country home in France, contributed greatly to the progress of the composition.

KEYNOTE. Much of the symphony’s thematic material is built out of the three-note motif B-C-G, heard right at the outset. In the first movement, Stravinsky follows the rough outlines of sonata form, but his approach has something “cubist” to it in that the emphasis is more frequently on fragments, considered in isolation, than in the context of the overall direction. Beethoven’s First Symphony in C major has been said to have been Stravinsky’s model, but in the place of Beethoven’s goal-oriented inevitability, we find a more episodic structure here, with the focus on being in a certain place, rather than inexorably moving toward a culmination point.

The second movement is a Larghetto concertante, in which different instruments or instrumental groups take turns as soloists. The melodic lines are generously embellished with fast sixteenth- and thirty-second notes. After a more agitated middle section with a more angular melody in which the solo trumpet emerges as a protagonist, the opening material returns, with even more ornamentation as before.

There is no pause between the Larghetto and the following Allegretto, which fulfills the role of the Scherzo in the four-movement symphony scheme. It is filled with typical Stravinskyan displaced accents and asymmetrical ostinatos. Distinguished from the main section by its slower tempo and more sparing orchestration, the “Trio” offers more mixed meters and nervously repeated short motifs. A modified return of the main section is followed by a coda featuring the horns and trumpets.

The last movement begins with a curious low-pitched duet between two bassoons in a slow tempo—a murky opening, contrasting with the bright and vigorous theme of the subsequent fast section, full of energy, yet making room for a brief lyrical melody played by the oboe. The ominous slow music returns mid-movement, as a brief respite in the middle of the dynamic activity. However, the high energy gradually dissipates toward the end, and the symphony concludes with the woodwind and brass recalling the opening three-note motif in a series of solemn, but surprisingly understated chords.

—Peter Laki