“For every oboist, the ‘Eroica’ Symphony is an important piece. It’s full of beautiful and challenging solos, and Beethoven tests us non-stop for instrumental control, rhythmic precision, tonal beauty, and stamina. He often chooses the solo oboe as the voice to introduce new themes, and in the ‘Eroica’, the oboist encounters a great variety of different characters in each of the four grand movements. To me, the oboe suggests a solemn, rich mezzo-soprano voice in the famous solo at the opening of the elegiac funeral march, and by contrast, a carefree child’s voice in a skipping tune in the brilliant scherzo. Finally, in the last movement, when the frenetic activity suddenly comes to a halt, the oboe leads the woodwinds in a tender, noble chorale, one of the most magical (yet instrumentally difficult) moments of this epic work.”
“When training to become a horn player, Beethoven's Third Symphony becomes a part of your journey. It is asked for at almost every orchestral audition, all around the world. So, from one of the highest to one of the lowest notes of the instrument’s register, you start playing these lines very early on, listening to recordings, and looking at scores, until it becomes a part of you. It has always been my favourite Beethoven symphony. Beethoven’s use of three French horns is a special feature of this symphony. The most significant part for the horn section is the Trio in the Scherzo, and it’s a passage I particularly like. It’s challenging because the parts are in the extreme registers for the instrument, in particular, very high for the first horn and very low for the second horn.”
What does “innovation” mean in the context of orchestral music? Tonight’s NAC Orchestra program, conducted by Pietari Inkinen, gives us an opportunity to reflect on this question. A theme that binds the three works you’ll hear is the necessary role of the past in the forging of new aesthetic directions, whether the composer was writing music in the early 1800s, the 1860s, or 2019. Indeed, each piece shows how musical tradition and innovation can coexist in imaginative ways.
Wagner’s opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, is about this very theme: a talented but inexperienced young songwriter must learn from masters of a tradition to create a winning song. Through his trials, we learn that new creative paths are best forged in balance with a deep knowledge of the past but also that we should never hold established rules so rigidly as to make no room for the new. Serving as a musical “snapshot” of the entire opera, the Act I Prelude embodies this idea, in the way Wagner ingeniously presents and juxtaposes “traditional” and “innovative” musical themes.
Similarly, Avner Dorman’s Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra considers, in the composer’s words, “how a modern-day concerto could reflect both a long musical tradition and our present time.” Written for Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth, the score evokes a drama between the nostalgia-seeking soloists and the modernistic orchestra. A co-commission by the NAC Orchestra, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, it receives its Canadian premiere tonight.
Although now one of the most established works in the orchestral repertory, Beethoven’s Third Symphony marked, at the time of its creation, a major turning point in the purpose and meaning of the symphony as a genre. In “Eroica”, Beethoven showed how symphonic music – its character, orchestration, rhythmic movement, and structure – could embody narratives and associations – in this case, the heroic ideal. This development gave abstract Classical symphonic form a new emotional power for audiences – we identify with the hero’s journey as we listen to this work.
Tonight, you’ll see in this program book a fresh format for the content. The aim is to give you insights into the music by communicating about context and listening in different ways, and through multiple voices, including those of living composers and the Orchestra’s musicians. We hope that it enhances your experience of this concert.
Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley is a musicologist, active in the public sphere as a writer, speaker, and researcher. | Twitter: @hanchanhartley
By Hannah Chan-Hartley
Q: What are your main influences and inspirations as a composer?
A: A broad musical tradition and heritage, especially early music and post-1900 music. Music from West Africa and South India. Mathematical structures and ideas. Poetry.
Q: What are currently your main compositional interests?
A: How sound is organized in time (i.e. rhythm) is always a central focus. In recent years, I’ve written more vocal works (mostly opera) and I’m always interested in expanding my sound palette.
Q: What is your view on the role and responsibilities (e.g. creative/political/social) of the composer today? How do you try to meet these goals in your work?
A: I’ve written works that address political and social issues as a way to personally make more sense of the world and these issues. I think, as a composer, I have the opportunity to share my works and allow other people to perhaps use music to help process some of these issues that may be difficult to deal with using only words.
Q: Could you give us some insight into how you compose?
A: Coming up with materials is fairly intuitive for me. I like to improvise and lose myself in the moment – and when the result is exciting for me (especially after a day or two), I tend to continue to work on those ideas. Structuring a piece is a much more intellectual and controlled process. I like to use mathematical ideas as well as visual graphs for structure and development. I like to try to understand what it is that I value about certain musical elements and explore the possibilities of that idea.
Q: How important is it for you to closely work together with the artists performing your work? What does the term “interpretation” mean to you?
A: I enjoy working with performers and I find that it improves my skills as a composer. I learn more about the instrument or voice I’m writing for, and I appreciate the insights specific performers have gained in their years of experience. I believe that a piece of notated music should allow for a variety of interpretations. Music that can be reinterpreted continues to evolve in meaningful ways beyond the point when the composer draws the final bar line.
Q: What in your view is the relationship of the listener to your work?
A: While I compose, I am the listener – I don’t try to guess what a theoretical listener would gravitate towards or think. So, in some ways, I identify with the listener while I work. During a performance, I hope that the music touches the listener in a meaningful way.
Q: Describe this work using three to five adjectives.
A: Rhythmic. Expressive. Exciting.
Q: Describe your artistic goals for this composition. What would you like listeners to know about what you sought to accomplish in creating this work?
A: I really wanted to write a piece that would capture the musical personalities of Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth, the personalities of their instruments, and the unique interaction between two soloists sharing the stage, their lives, and competing for attention as soloists. I worked closely with them on their parts and I learned a lot about both instruments, both soloists, and the way they interact.
Q: What is the orchestra’s role in this work? What do you consider special about composing music for the orchestral medium?
A: The orchestra is, in many ways, “the world” around the soloists in the piece. Sometimes, it supports them; sometimes, it’s in conflict with them; sometimes, it’s supporting one soloist and not the other; and at other times, it goes about its way regardless of what the soloists seem to want. I love using the variety and power of the orchestra, so I always try to find as many colours and unique combinations as I can, while always being aware of the specific idiomatic properties of each instrument and their limitations. Since this is a concerto and the solo instruments are not particularly loud, the orchestra’s power in this piece is mostly reserved for tutti sections when the soloists are either not playing or are doubling the orchestra.
Born in Leipzig, Germany, May 22, 1813
Died in Venice, Italy, February 13, 1883
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) is the second opera, following Tristan und Isolde, that Richard Wagner composed while he was taking a break from working on his monumental four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). He completed the opening Prelude in 1862, five years before he finished the entire opera; it was premiered on November 1 that year, before a small but enthusiastic audience at a concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus.
This Prelude is unique among those for Wagner’s operas because it encapsulates the main musical themes and dramatic arc of the opera, thus offering a preview – a musical “trailer” – of the entire work. The individual themes are first presented in turn; each has its own character and meaning, often multi-layered, which will develop further interpretative depth during the progress of the opera. According to Wagner’s own program note to the Prelude from 1863, the opening theme, for example, is a grand depiction of Nuremberg and its guild of mastersingers, yet we may also hear in its stilted manner a critique of their pedantic obsession for their song-writing rules.
The fanfare-like “King David” motif (Theme 3), one that “follows the rules”, celebrates the most popular of the mastersingers, Hans Sachs. By contrast is the melody from the Prize Song (Theme 5) of the young knight, Walther von Stolzing; it does not follow the mastersingers’ established criteria, but its originality, tempered by a respectful nod to tradition, wins Walther the title and the hand of his lady love, Eva.
The final section of the Prelude features brilliant contrapuntal writing, with the main themes appearing simultaneously; listen for the opening “Nuremberg” theme and the Prize Song melody, combined with a compressed, parodic version of the “King David” motif. Wagner described this moment as “The love song rings out in the strains of genuine master song: poetry and pedantry are happily reconciled.”
KEY MUSICAL THEMES
Here are the main themes you will hear, in order of appearance, in the Act I Prelude:
A DRAMATIC SNAPSHOT
Set in mid-16th century Nuremburg, the plot of Die Meistersinger revolves around the city’s guild of mastersingers, of which the most famous is Hans Sachs. A young knight, Walther von Stolzing, is in love with Eva, the daughter of a mastersinger, but he can only marry her if he wins a song contest. After failing to be accepted into the guild with a highly original, but rule-breaking song, Hans Sachs, who sees in Walther a genius, decides to renounce his own love for Eva, and help Walther win the contest by guiding him in the proper way to write a song. Walther triumphs with an innovative song and Hans Sachs expounds on honouring both tradition and innovation in the progress of art.
– Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 14, 1975
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR
“The piece follows a general fast-slow-fast three-movement structure. There are contrasting themes in each movement, and each movement develops these themes throughout the form. The soloists begin the piece almost wistfully, with a certain sense of nostalgia for older concertos. Against that longing for the past, the orchestra pushes for modern rhythms, harmonies, and orchestral colours.”
“In the first movement, the soloists oscillate between fighting against the orchestra and joining its exciting harmonies and rhythms. While the orchestra adopts some of the older materials that the soloists present, it ultimately engulfs them with its drive.”
“At the outset of the second movement, the soloists try again to return to the past. They play a sweet melody in octaves accompanied by a simple Alberti bass, and for a period of time, this seems to work. Yet this time, it is the cello who strays away from the original theme. The soloists no longer appear as a unified group; their conflict leads to an intimate duet. At the conclusion, the conflict subsides, and the soloists seem to find a new way to coexist, with the orchestra now in support of their reunification.”
“The third movement is both energetic and expressive, and all voices seem to have found a way to cooperate and exist together. The two main themes no longer yearn for the past, now allowing a playful interplay between the soloists as a group with the orchestra. Each of the soloists gets the opportunity to shine individually, at times with interjecting allusions to the past (quotes and misquotes alike). By the conclusion, this nostalgia has passed, and in its place is an acknowledgement – a tribute, celebrating the relationships, the individuals, and the history of the concerto.”
Baptized in Bonn, Germany, December 17, 1770
Died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is today considered such an established masterpiece of the orchestral repertory that perhaps it would be fruitful, in the context of tonight’s program, 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, character, etc.) to express a symbolic narrative – in this case, a hero’s journey of facing and overcoming adversity with courage and optimism – imbues this work with an emotional potency that continues to draw audiences to it.
In his “Eroica” Symphony, Beethoven introduced several innovations to Classical symphonic form. Particularly notable 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 development section that is much longer than the exposition, and a coda that is almost equal to the length of the recapitulation. 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 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 coda 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.” Such aspects are what give the “Eroica” Symphony its considerable expressive power.
“EROICA” AND THE PROMETHEUS MYTH
Along with the biographical context concerning the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven’s creation of this symphony, as various scholars have shown, is also bound up with the music of his Op. 43 ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus). Most notably, Beethoven used the theme from the ballet’s finale as the main theme for the symphony’s fourth movement. But the ballet’s subject – about the mythic titan, Prometheus, who 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.
– Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley