Beethoven: Prometheus Overture
Master German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) compositional output was so prolific that scholars have categorized his life and works into three periods: early (formative years up to approx. 1802), middle (1803-1812), and late (1813 on). The ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) was composed around the end of Beethoven’s early period and the beginning of his second period. The work was premiered in 1801 in Vienna. The Creatures of Prometheus was written for the master choreographer at the Court Theatre in Vienna, Salvatore Viganò. The following description of the work appeared in the program at the premiere:
“The foundation of this allegorical ballet is the fable of Prometheus. The philosophers of Greece allude to Prometheus as a lofty soul who drove the people of his time from ignorance, refined them by means of science and the arts, and gave them manners, customs and morals. As a result of that conception, two statues that have been brought to life are introduced in this ballet; and these, through the power of harmony, are made sensitive to all the passions of human life. Prometheus leads them to Parnassus, in order that Apollo, the god of the fine arts, may enlighten them.”
The ballet as a whole was very successful, with twenty-three performances in 1801 and 1802. The overture, however, is what remains famous, and orchestras today still perform it as a stand-alone piece.
The work begins with an extremely dissonant chord, particularly for the time period in which it was composed. Knowing it to be a jarring introduction, Beethoven said it would make enemies of any old-school Viennese whom he hadn’t already offended. A whirlwind Allegro marked by running eighth note figures in the violins follows the slow introduction. Horn-call figures are heard throughout the orchestra, contrasted with more lyrical lines.

 

Beethoven: Symphony No.2 in D major, op.36
Shortly after the premiere of Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus in 1801, Beethoven composed his Symphony No.2 in 1802 and conducted the premiere performance in Vienna the following year. This symphony was composed during the same time that Beethoven admitted his incurable deafness in the famous Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802. Beethoven had become acutely aware of his hearing growing progressively worse and had sought numerous doctors’ advice. One doctor in particular sympathized with Beethoven’s plight and advised a stay in the peaceful, rural town of Heiligenstadt to preserve what hearing he had left. While there, Beethoven composed a letter to his brothers, Carl and Johann, which, upon discovery after Beethoven’s death, became known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. The letter explained how Beethoven’s increasing deafness had led to his social isolation and poorly-perceived temperament. On the verge of suicide, Beethoven brutally recounted how depressed he had become over his illness. He also described his desire to live until he felt his artistic vision was complete. Beethoven never sent the letter. Instead, he continued composing until he passed away in 1827, having produced innumerable works up to his death despite his crippling malady.
This symphony, though certainly full of the strife one would expect from a genius composer with increasing deafness, is overall an optimistic work. It consists of four movements. Movement one begins with a slow introduction that is sweet and joyful, with occasional bold interjections. The Allegro con brio trades off themes between players and features much conversational interaction. This movement projects joy and optimism. Movement two, a typical slow second movement, begins with a beautiful melody in the upper strings that is immediately handed off to the clarinets. The movement plays out gracefully, with lilting melodic lines and gentle accompanimental figures. Movement three, Scherzo, provides a needed break between the two surrounding movements. It is short, sweet, and easy on the ears. Movement four is, like movement one, mostly joyful. Minor and major tonalities are juxtaposed in this capstone movement to create a variety of emotions. However, the prevailing tendency is toward hopefulness, and the movement trips forward at a rapid pace, leaving the listener with a typical Beethovenian ending featuring virtuosic scales and block chords.

 

Beethoven Symphony No.5 in C minor, op.67
It would be difficult to find a more famous piece of music than Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor. Both musicians and non-musicians alike instantly recognize the dramatic opening passage of the first movement. Symphony No.5 was composed in the earlier part of Beethoven’s middle period, beginning with the first sketches in 1804 and finally premiering in December of 1808. The premiere concert at the Theater an der Wien lasted for hours, featuring, in addition to the fifth symphony, Symphony No.6, Piano Concerto No.4, and the Choral Fantasy, op.80, among others. The fifth symphony takes the listener on a journey from strife to victory, alternating between major and minor tonalities throughout the work: movement one, mostly in a minor key, presents strife; movement two is gentler and more hopeful; movement three is dramatic and uneasy, but marches forward resolutely; and movement four concludes the symphony with ecstatic jubilation.
The famous opening motive, three eighth notes leading into a sustained note, is used throughout the entirety of movement one, creating the thematic organicism for which Beethoven was known. Said by one of Beethoven’s students to sound like “Fate knocking at one’s door”, this opening motive repeats relentlessly in different contexts and forms throughout the movement. Movement two consists of a theme and variations, beginning sweetly but then cut off abruptly by a bold and regal theme. Throughout the movement the two temperaments fight each other for precedence, moving through different dynamics, tempi, and harmonies. Movement three, as is typical of third movements in symphonies, is in ternary form. It spins out beautifully, featuring the knocking rhythm from movement one. The different themes provide contrast and variety within the repetitive formal structure. Movement four is as grand as any Beethoven finale. It pushes fervently to the end, concluding with those familiar, spectacular block chords.