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Program Notes: Beethoven and Prokofiev

Concert Program

Serge Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
Concerto No.2 in G minor for Violin & Orchestra, op.63 1
I. Allegro moderato
II. Andante assai
III. Allegro; ben marcato
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827)
Symphony No.7 in A major, op.92
I. Poco sostenuto – Vivace
II. Allegretto
III. Presto
IV. Allegro con brio

Program Notes

Born in Sontzovka, Russia, April 11/23, l89l; died in Moscow, March 5, l953
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 (1934–5)

“Music,” Prokofiev wrote in a 1934 Izvestiya article, “must be clear and simple, but not hackneyed; we must seek a new simplicity.”  Prokofiev was carefully paving the way for a return to the Soviet Union after a 16-year absence.  His Violin Concerto No. 2 is at the crossroads of this return, with one foot in the West, where it was commissioned, and another in the USSR, where the 43-year-old composer had decided to permanently settle.  The simplicity of language Prokofiev knew he must achieve in his socialist homeland is already to be found in its pages.  It was already present in the first of his two violin concertos (1916-7), a work that demonstrated a true understanding of an instrument Prokofiev did not play.  His reputation while abroad – living an itinerant life, composing and touring as a solo pianist in the United States, Paris and elsewhere in France, London, Southern Bavaria, and points between – was coloured by the edginess, sometime aggressiveness of style of many of the works he had written.  As a pianist he was notorious for his ‘fingers of steel.’  But the contrasts had always existed in Prokofiev’s music: an asperity of style alongside the witty, the grotesque, the lyrical, even the mathematical.

The concerto started life as a ‘Grand Sonata’ for violin and orchestra but soon adopted a traditional three-movement design.  It opens with an eight-bar unaccompanied melody from the soloist who plays almost throughout, with little by way of a contest between violin and orchestra.  The orchestration is similar to that of the composer’s early Classical symphony, though the percussionist has more weapons to hand.  The two principal themes of the opening movement are closely related, the first long, flowing and meditative, generally in the lower register and the second high and soaring.  Sudden shifts in tempo and tonality add to the momentum.  A serene slow movement is framed by a memorable, radiant melody for the violin over a clock-like, pizzicato accompaniment, a characteristic thumbprint of the composer.  The mood comes close to that found in the ballet Romeo and Juliet which Prokofiev was to write the following year.  The finale is lithe and more angular, with an earthy Russian dance-like character.  The liberal accompaniment from the castanets may well reflect Prokofiev’s dry sense of humour – for a concerto whose première was destined for Madrid in December 1935, but whose first movement theme was written in Paris, second movement theme in Voronezh and whose orchestration was completed in Baku.

Born in Bonn, Germany, baptised December 17, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1811–12)

The orchestra is no larger than for his first two symphonies – no third horn as in the Eroica, no trombones as in the Fifth – but Beethoven’s Seventh contains as much spiritual joy, absolute power and assertion of vitality as any symphony written in the 19th century.  The sound is at times monumental, at times elemental, with braying horns at the end of the first movement, imperious drums, dismissive trumpets, agitated strings in the last.  Rhythm is the driving force of the symphony.  And it was Beethoven’s obsession with the dynamic properties of rhythm that led Wagner to call the Seventh ‘the apotheosis of the dance,’ an acknowledgment as much of the power and unity of the symphony as of its distance from the social diversion of dance music.  Unity is consolidated with the working out of each movement’s distinctive rhythm.  Both rhythm and power are evident throughout the quicker movements to the point that Beethoven’s power becomes absolute.  Not all of this assertive, purposeful music made for comfortable listening at the time of composition (nor should it today); even the young Weber cried out against one particularly obsessive passage, saying that Beethoven was surely ready for the madhouse.  “Power is the moral principle of those who excel others,” Beethoven said, to answer all criticism.  “And it also mine.”

It was Napoleon’s, too, until it began to crumble after 1812, the year in which Beethoven completed the Seventh.  The première took place in war-scarred Vienna on December 8, 1813, as a benefit concert for the families of troops wounded a few weeks earlier fighting the retreating Napoleonic army at the Battle of Hanau.  The Seventh offered hope, conviction and a positive message after a decade of economic decline and political turmoil.  Beethoven paired it at the première with his Wellington’s Victory, a symphonic potboiler commemorating another victory over Napoleon’s troops – and a money-maker for the composer.  Marches and music for mechanical instruments rounded out the program, all directed by Beethoven himself at the University of Vienna.  Although Beethoven’s conducting proved distracting and not too helpful, the orchestra was full of Vienna’s finest – violinist Schuppanzigh was at the helm; composers Hummel, Meyerbeer and Moscheles were in the percussion section in the Battle Symphony, with Salieri as a secondary conductor.  The audience enthusiastically demanded an encore of the Allegretto of the symphony at this première.  It’s worth noting that the Allegretto is the most reflective and serious movement of the four, with its shifts from the minor key to the major, unifying rhythmic motif throughout and ten varied settings of a single theme.  It is not the most obvious movement to be repeated.  But the discriminating Viennese again pressed for an encore when the concert was repeated four days later.  Beethoven’s Seventh was successfully launched to a wide audience, well beyond the relatively narrow circle of aristocrats and connoisseurs who had hitherto primarily supported his music.  Beethoven had now become a household name.

©2021 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed: