Written by Mary Byrne
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)
In his mid-20s, Luigi Cherubini left his home in Florence destined for Paris in the company of his good friend, the violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti. He cannot possibly have known at the time that he would make France his home, and would rise to become one of the country’s most-revered sons. A meeting with Marie Antoinette enabled him to move in the circle of Versailles. When revolution came to France, the ever-pragmatic Cherubini distanced himself from his aristocratic contacts, and wrote music of patriotic fervor. In the new Empire he remade himself once again, embracing its ideals and throwing himself into one of its chief projects: universal music education. As teacher, mentor and Director, he made the new Conservatoire national de musique his chief focus for the remaining half century of his working life.
Cherubini’s opera Médée comes from the early days of the Republic when opera gave up lofty ideals and focussed on human realities of bad behaviour beset by over-wrought passion. Médée tells a tale of betrayal, desertion, abduction, and revenge. Parisian audiences were smitten with Euripides’ Greek saga of the sorcerous Medea and her faithless paramour Jason (of Argonaut fame), who himself steals their children and marries another woman. Medea, undone by Jason’s willful perfidy, plots a murderous and exacting revenge, killing his wife, her own brother, their children, and herself in the process.
The Ouverture starts the opera off in the midst of a life unravelling. Nothing good will come of this story! Powerful, angsty chords open the overture and lead to a restless melody. Even when the music turns sweet, it is a solicitous over-sweetness. Medea’s resolve waivers: a mother’s love nearly takes over. But the course of revenge has been laid and the inevitable will take place, set in motion by the vengeful final chords of the overture.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, op. 15
In 1792 a young pianistic powerhouse, Ludwig van Beethoven, arrived in Vienna bearing infinite potential as a pianist, yet giving almost no indication of latent compositional talent. The pianist was doubtful of his own compositional abilities. He studied with the finest composition teachers until he was nearly thirty, and only at the end of his third decade did he begin to publish his music. In the meanwhile, he was creating a sensation as a lion at the piano, known for reducing the slight, wood-framed Viennese pianos to splinters by the force of his playing. To keep his concerts fresh, he needed music, so inevitably he tried his hand at a concerto for piano.
The Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major, op. 15 was not Beethoven’s first piano concerto: it is likely his third concerto, following a youthful unpublished concerto and the one we now know as the second. In his day, composers did not rush to publish their best music. It was lucrative to hold back the best pieces, gaining revenue from performances and creating news-worthy buzz in order to get more favourable publishing contracts. This practice, however, leaves gaps in the historical record for even so famous a composition as this. It is our best guess that Beethoven first played this concerto on a concert hosted by Joseph Haydn in Vienna in 1795. The formal premiere seems to have come, however, in Prague in 1798. Then Beethoven almost certainly played the piece on a concert he self-promoted in 1800. Only then did he publish the work, later adding a set of cadenzas.
The true joy of the concerto is that we can hear in it both Beethoven’s formidable expressive and technical skill at the piano and his amazing gifts as composer. The first movement is so very pleasant, infused with nobility. Ideas shift across a soundscape, highlighting by turns melodies in the foreground and textures in the background. Free passages loosen the press of time and give foil for the delightfully articulate thematic material. At its splendid midpoint the music nearly disappears, but this is merely a provocative set-up for the no-holds-barred cadenza that closes the movement. The second movement is spectacular in it elegance: here it dances, there it sings, and when you are sure it cannot possibly achieve a more sublime realm, you find yourself amidst ever-lightening shades of delicacy. In wild contrast, the third movement is a rollicking party piece. The brilliant rondo nods to Vienna, to the Turkish Empire, and to Hungary as it dances on its way. Quick-witted musical characterization introduces a cavalcade of revellers. At the peak of the action, suddenly the piano takes a quick cadenza by way of a tiny Alpine call; the oboes answer and, then before you know it, the orchestra takes the final brisk run home.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
No. 3 in a Minor, “Scottish,” op. 56
As a young man of comfortable means, Felix Mendelssohn set off early in 1829 in the company of his life-long friend Karl Klingemann on his required Grand Tour of Europe. The first destination was London, and the experience was – as it was intended to be – transformative. Soon his attention turned north. Mendelssohn found Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands to be intoxicating, especially the ruins of Holyrood Palace and the windswept shores of The Hebrides. At Holyrood, history and the present collided: the past decayed and faded away, while new growth pushed between the fallen stones and a fresh sky replaced the tumble-down roof. He knew instantly that he was observing the first stirrings of what would become his “Scottish” symphony. It began here but took fifteen years to complete, making this – in fact – his last symphony, following both “Reformation” and “Italian” by more than a decade.
Anyone hoping to hear a symphony filled with Scottish melody will be sorely disappointed. Mendelssohn described traditional Scottish music as “vulgar,” so there is little chance he would use any in his symphony. That hasn’t stopped musicologists from trying to identify specific tunes, but in all likelihood they aren’t there to be found. What we do find, however, is an unabashed portrayal of the spirit, people, and landscape of Scotland, all clothed in Mendelssohn’s trademark sparkling orchestration.
The four movements of the symphony are to be played without break and this has an interesting effect on both how the melodic themes are heard and how time seems to unfold. The dark, archaic theme of the Introduction plants the seed for most of the melodies that follow. The instrumental strains of a lone singer preface the fleet first movement of gliding steps and stomping dance. Under glowering skies the rich story begins to unfold. The movement ends with a return of the Introduction, reminding us of bygone times. The second movement snaps along in folk-like measure. It is not unrelenting: rather it speaks of a wide-open exuberant landscape. The slow third movement opens and closes with the same music. Nested inside is a balladic song accompanied by strumming strings, and a funereal march that taunts close at hand. With warriors’ intent the fourth movement takes off in breathless pursuit, tumbling and tripping over intricately contrived passagework and formal counterpoint. Even this, however, is not without its elements of nostalgia and backward looking thematic work. When all seems past, this inexhaustible symphony still has one trick up its sleeve: final triumphant close.