Opening Night with Beethoven

2018-09-13 20:00 2018-09-13 22:00 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Opening Night with Beethoven

Beethoven’s first three symphonies are invested with every quality of the human condition, brilliantly illuminating the young composer’s humanist and idealistic beliefs. With quiet suggestions of Mozart and Haydn (who then was at the height of his powers), Beethoven’s 1st Symphony nevertheless asserts the beginnings of his own signature style. His Symphony No. 2, with its bold, dramatic opening and its slow, mournful second movement, is a roller coaster of emotion, full of joy...

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Southam Hall,1 Elgin Street,Ottawa,Canada
Thursday, September 13, 2018

≈ 2 hours · With intermission

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The Beethoven symphonies are central to the life of musicians and audiences. Over the course of these nine masterpieces, Beethoven evolved not just his own music, but revolutionized all of music in a way and at a pace hitherto unprecedented. From the classical strains of his first to the universal themes of his last, there is not a single note out of place, not a single bar wasted, not a single idea unexplored. He challenges the orchestra to be its best. He demands rigour and attention of performers and listeners alike. And why? In order to express, through the abstract language of music, the most fundamental and tangible shared emotions of humankind. Joy, passion, warmth, mourning, hope, loss, melancholy, peace, victory, struggle, solidarity, desperation, reverence, simplicity... I cannot think of a state of mind that is not in one way or another expressed through this music.

As we begin our 50th anniversary season, we also begin our next artistic chapter in a reinvigorated Southam Hall with its glorious new shell and acoustic. I can conceive of no better way to explore every inch of this new space than with a fresh take on this most complete and all-encompassing of symphonic cycles. It is my great privilege to share this new stage with the incomparable musicians of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, who will interpret and form every note of this cycle with passion, detail, verve and love. And it is our great pleasure to share this musical Everest, this cornerstone of artistic output, with you, our dear audience. For 50 years, you have listened and responded. For 50 years, you have been instrumental in thousands of performances in this space. We are deeply grateful to you for that. Here’s to the new season, to the new hall and to a bright future for this wonderful, wonderful orchestra! 

Beethoven fun facts

Last updated: September 11, 2018

Symphony no. 1 – a musical joke?

Beethoven was 30 when his First Symphony was first performed in the Burgtheater in Vienna, and it went where no symphony had ever gone before. Symphonies were seen to be pretty light-hearted works, but Beethoven took this one step further with the introduction, which sounds so musically off-beam it’s often considered to be a joke! 

Ludwig Van Beethoven

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

The year 1800 was a significant one in many ways. Among them, it was the year Beethoven brought out his First Symphony, a landmark event that not only initiated the great canon of nine from this composer, but was to have repercussions on the genre that reverberated across the entire century: larger formal dimensions, an expanded time frame, bolder and more sophisticated harmonic adventures, increased emotional intensity, and an emphatic sense of force and aggressiveness. The NAC Orchestra’s presentation of all nine symphonies in a Beethoven Festival offers an ideal occasion to stand back and consider just what an accomplishment this body of thrice-familiar music really is.

To begin with, every one of these nine works is a masterpiece. Even the “lesser” ones – Nos. 1, 2, 4, 8 – are still greater than the best, or at least the equal, of the symphonic creations of nearly every other composer. Of their total symphonic output, this can be said of only a handful of other names: Schumann, Brahms and Mahler for sure; Tchaikovsky and Sibelius perhaps; and maybe one or two more. Furthermore, no two Beethoven symphonies are remotely alike. There is something innovative, different, unusual, and often controversial about every one of them.

Beethoven notably expanded the instrumental palette of his orchestra. He introduced the piccolo, contrabassoon and trombones into the symphony with No. 5 and used them again in No. 9 (these instruments had already been used occasionally in opera orchestras, but never before in a symphony), and gave the woodwinds much greater prominence, both as soloists and as a self-contained choir, as for example in the opening bars of the first two symphonies. Clarinets are now used in every symphony. (Haydn and Mozart had used them sporadically and only in their last symphonies.)

But it is not in number or variety of instruments that the Beethoven orchestra is vastly different; it is in the sheer density and weight of sound. Even in the more classically-oriented symphonies there is a sonic force and power emanating from the music that is new, a quality evident in just a single chord (consider the first sounds you hear in Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3). When Beethoven unleashes the full power of his orchestra, the result can be overwhelming; nearly every symphony is filled with passages of shock and awe.

Beethoven also set new records for symphonic length. The shortest of his symphonies (Nos. 1 and 8) nearly equal the length of Mozart’s and Haydn’s longest. No. 2, at just over half an hour, had to date just one equal in length – Mozart’s final symphony, No. 41 (Jupiter) – and with the Third (Eroica) Beethoven broke the record by a good margin, with a symphony clocking in at around 50 minutes. The Ninth lasts over an hour.

Beethoven raised rhythm to the importance of an element in itself. Concertgoers who believe that music must have a nice tune to be viable need only remind themselves that, although the first movement of the Fifth Symphony contains not a single melody, it may well be the most universally recognized piece of classical music ever written. Rhythm is the main driving force behind so many movements in these symphonies, and not just in the scherzos. In the Seventh, all four movements are based on pervasive rhythmic patterns.

Even seasoned concertgoers are eager to hear the Beethoven symphonies again and again, welcoming them back as old friends, eager to delve deeper into their mysterious workings, eager for renewed spiritual nourishment, eager to learn what interpretative insights the conductor will bring to the works and to judge the performances against a background of innumerable previous ones, live and recorded, that the listener may already know. “Masterpieces are capable of infinite self-renewal,” as critic Lawrence Gilman used to say. 


Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21


If Beethoven’s First Symphony, premiered in Vienna on April 2, 1800 with the composer conducting, sounds tame compared to some of his later creations, we must remember to place it in the context of its time. The ambiguous, “off-key” opening to the symphony’s slow introduction was surely an affront to eighteenth-century sensibilities. The finale too begins with a slow introduction; it delivers a different kind of surprise. Here the harmony is “only” once removed from the home key. Following a stentorian unison G for full orchestra, violins tentatively creep up the G major scale, adding a note at a time, trying to get off the ground before the Allegro suddenly takes off in high spirits. 

The joke is so absurd that some early conductors omitted the introduction altogether, lest the audience laugh. The attentive listener, though, will note the structural importance of this passage, for every one of its fragments, especially the full scale, is incorporated in some way or another within the main body of the movement. 

Another element that surely startled, amused, or just plain annoyed early audiences was the title of the third movement, which Beethoven called a Minuet but which sounded nothing like it. The dynamic, pounding, rapid triplet rhythm was eminently undanceable, at least as a “minuet” – that courtly, elegant dance of aristocratic rococo ballrooms. We recognize it today as the first of the scherzos that were to find their way into every Beethoven symphony (either in name or in spirit) except the Eighth, and into those by so many other composers throughout the century. 

The NAC Orchestra interpreted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 for the first time in 1970, under Mario Bernardi’s baton, and most recently in 2013, with Thomas Søndergård on the podium. 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36


For most concertgoers, Beethoven’s Second Symphony is probably the least familiar of his nine works in the genre.Yet, in performance one is invariably left surprised, thrilled and amazed at what a truly unusual work it is. If the Second is somewhat eclipsed by some of Beethoven’s later, still mightier works, it nevertheless makes a compelling case for itself as a masterpiece in its own right. Beethoven conducted the first performance on April 5, 1803 in Vienna.

It crashes in with an immensely powerful outburst from the full orchestra, only to dissolve into utterly gracious lyricism from the woodwind choir. An opening so startling can only herald a work of vast scope and grandeur. The first movement itself is, at about thirteen minutes, the longest single symphonic movement written up to that time; the slow introduction alone lasts longer than some entire movements by Mozart. Then there is all that rough humour, especially in the final two movements. Humour in music was nothing new, of course, but Beethoven’s brand of it – something robust, hearty, even rough and coarse at times, rather than just gently playful – definitely marked him as a musical maverick. Dramatic surprises and absurd incongruities abound. In the Scherzo, for instance (incidentally, the first appearance of this title in any symphony), note the asymmetrical arrangement of loud and soft presentations of the three- note motif (“ha-ha-ha”) as it is tossed about the orchestra, sometimes in shouts, sometimes in whispers – an unsettling effect. Or what about that bizarre “hiccup” that opens the finale and becomes almost something of an obsession throughout the movement? If Beethoven’s First Symphony ushered in a new century, then the Second (first performed exactly three years later) paved the way for a whole new world for the symphony, a world that in many ways today still looks back to Beethoven for its models. 

In 1970, Karl Münchinger led the NAC Orchestra’s first performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, and Pinchas Zukerman was the conductor for the ensemble’s most recent interpretation in 2017. The Orchestra also performed this work on their European tour in 2000, and their tour to the United States and Mexico in 2003, both times under the direction of Maestro Zukerman.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica”

I. Allegro con brio
II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
IV. Finale: Allegro molto

Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is today considered an established masterpiece of the orchestral repertory but it’s always fruitful to consider—and hear—its significance afresh. Its creation, between 1802 and 1804, was closely connected to events in the composer’s own life—he had just weathered a personal crisis concerning his deafness. Out of his stoic acceptance of his physical condition (the thought process of which he outlined to his brothers Carl and Johann in his famous Heiligenstadt Testament from October 6, 1802) emerged his choice of a heroic subject for this symphony, and more importantly, a new direction in his compositional style to convey it. Beethoven’s novel way of using the components of symphonic music itself (orchestration, structure, melodic and harmonic character, rhythmic movement, etc.) to express a symbolic narrative—in this case, a hero’s journey of facing and overcoming adversity with courage and optimism—imbues an otherwise abstract artform with a new emotional power for audiences.

In this vein, it’s worth mentioning that Beethoven’s creation of this symphony, as various scholars have shown, is bound up with the music of his Op. 43 ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus). Notably, Beethoven used the theme from the ballet’s finale as the first theme for the symphony’s finale. But the ballet’s subject—about the mythic titan, Prometheus, and later stole fire from the gods to ennoble humankind with his gifts of art and knowledge, an act for which he was severely punished—is symbolically reflected in the symphony’s overall narrative arc as well: its four movements can be interpreted to outline, respectively, Prometheus’s struggle, death, rebirth, and apotheosis.

In his “Eroica” Symphony, Beethoven introduced several innovations to Classical symphonic form. Particularly significant is his expansion—and sometimes, disruption—of the formal conventions of each movement in the work. The first movement is substantial in scope, with a central development section that is much longer than the opening exposition, and a coda (closing section) that is almost like another development section. In the second movement, the elegiac funeral march is recapitulated with the addition of a fugato and a surprise episode. The string “chatter” and the first theme of the Scherzo alternate several times, quietly, before reaching a triumphant statement of the latter. And the playful finale’s variations are based on not one, but two themes, with a large central section that incorporates a fugue and a double fugato.

Importantly, these structural innovations serve to accommodate moments of tension that are set up and resolved in the music, thereby evoking aspects of the hero’s journey. For example, new thematic material does not usually appear in the development section of sonata form. However, in the first movement of the “Eroica”, the introduction of a new theme, in the distant key of E minor, seems dramatically inevitable, following a cataclysmic climax ending on a silence; the theme is later recalled in the coda. Sometimes, the resolution occurs in a later movement: the mysterious descent—E-flat to D to C-sharp—in the symphony’s opening theme is finally clarified when its ascending counterpart (which Beethoven labelled “a strange voice” in his sketches)—D-flat to D to E-flat—appears, in the clarinet, then flute, near the end of the third movement. With this aspect resolved, the finale is free to embody the process of creation itself; as noted Beethoven scholar William Kinderman has pointed out, from the bare bones of the bass theme arises a series of variations that “extol the imagination and its transformative possibilities”, which in turn, relate to the myth of Prometheus as the creator of humankind. Such aspects are what give the “Eroica” Symphony its considerable expressive power.

Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD


  • dscf9130-curtis-perry-2-cropped
    Conductor Alexander Shelley