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The Breathing of the World

The Breathing of the World

Wednesday August 16 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $22-$35

Program Notes

The thirty-two piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven remain one of the greatest treasuries in music. Several of the most famous have been given descriptive epithets – not by the composer himself, but by market-savvy publishers or critics: Pathetique, Appassionata, Tempest. Tonight we hear a work based on the first movement of Beethoven’s immensely popular Moonlight Sonata, so-called because the rippling arpeggios of the opening suggested moonlight on water to German critic Ludwig Rellstab, writing in 1832. Beyond its title, this Adagio sostenuto is remarkable for the hypnotic rhythm and slow tempo. Note the treble’s dotted-note rhythm, which lays claim to be the only melody in this most unmelodic of movements.
Starting with a slow movement, for example, may sound fine to our ears, but it was almost without precedent in the classical era. Moreover, the first movement is not in sonata form per se (which should feature contrasting themes in a three-part model of exposition, development, and recapitulation). Rather, it unfolds like a through-composed song without words. Rellstab may have recollected this music while rowing on a moonlit Lake Lucerne, but the tone is more funereal. Credit goes to the great pianist Edwin Fischer, whose interest in this sonata helped uncover a relevant Beethoven sketch. That sketch reveals his model to have been the death of the Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Seen in that light – and not under romantic moonlight – the Adagio gains greater urgency and pathos.
This arrangement for chorus and orchestra was made by Beethoven’s obscure contemporary, Gottlob Benedict Bierey. Bierey was born in Dresden and spent nearly his entire career working in the theater as a composer and stage director. He achieved moderate success with Vladimir Prince of Novgorod, an opera he composed in 1807. His music never entered the standard repertoire, and he is known today mainly – and perhaps solely – because of the four choral arrangements he made of Beethoven’s piano music. These arrangements may seem in bad taste by modern standards, with our conception of the inviolable “work of art.” In the 19th century, however, such arrangements were not remarkable in the least; Beethoven knew about similar adaptations of his music. Bierey retains all details from the original, placing the rippling triplets in the violins and the melody in the winds. He then adds his own choral hymn that accords well with Beethoven’s material, setting the traditional Kyrie eleison from the Catholic Mass:

Kyrie eleison,
Christe eleison
Kyrie eleison.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

It is fair to say, I think, that this adaptation is successful, even if most listeners will still prefer the piano original. Bierey manages to foreground the vocal writing – simple but effective – over those famous triplets. Would this be a staple of the choral repertoire if it had been created entirely by Bierey himself, had Beethoven not been the mason that laid the foundation stones? A fair question….

Zachary Wadsworth’s chamber work Eclipse was commissioned by Staunton Music Festival in 2017. It was premiered at the festival that August in Blackfriars Playhouse. Wadsworth recalls the thoughts running through his mind as he prepared this work, timed to coincide with the full solar eclipse that covered most of North America on August 21, 2017:

While I was writing “Eclipse” (in anticipation of the total solar eclipse), I imagined what the experience of such an eclipse must have been like for ancient people who were given no warning, or who had no scientific knowledge to understand the sudden changes around them. For those people, the experience must have been some mix of awe, fear, and confusion. And after the eclipse ended, they surely must have done a fair amount of soul-searching. I like the idea of these rare astronomical events as markers of introspection. Even if we see an eclipse coming, how can it change us? How can it remind us of our tenuous hold on an impermanent celestial home? How can it deepen our respect for the enormous cycles of the universe around us?
In this piece, the opening music comes before the eclipse, and it expresses brash naiveté. This gives way to the violent and unexpected disruption of the eclipse, featuring some new and novel percussion instruments. Then, as the eclipse ends, the earlier music returns with its brashness transformed into introspection.

Composer-in-residence Anders Hillborg gained his first musical experience singing in choirs and in various forms of improvised music. From 1976 to 1982 he studied composition and electronic music at Stockholm’s Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Gunnar Bucht, Lars-Erik Rosell, Arne Mellnäs and Pär Lindgren. Since then Hillborg has primarily been a full-time freelance composer. His sphere of activity is extensive, covering orchestral, choral and chamber music as well as music for films and pop music. Hillborg’s works have been performed by all the major orchestras of the world, including the Philharmonic Orchestras of New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Chicago Symphony, among others. He has worked with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Alan Gilbert, Gustavo Dudamel, mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and soprano Renée Fleming.
The Breathing of the World was composed in 2019 on commission from conductor Gary Graden. Originally scored for mixed choir, cello, and soprano saxophone, tonight’s premiere performance replaces saxophone with clarinet. According to Hillborg, Breathing is intended to be played in an auditorium with reverberance, such as a large church or cathedral. Hillborg describes his own text as “nature-lyrical,” with an undertone of melancholic reflection on the state of our planet. In form, the work flows continuously between several different ideas, creating a feeling of four different sections.
The opening portion sets out the expanded tonal sense that Hillborg relishes; his chromatic progressions and hushed mood convey an invocational tone. Clarinet and cello provide minimal accompaniment to the voices, which are used at times in purely instrumental fashion. This treatment is even more pronounced in the next section. Unfolding as a massive crescendo-decrescendo, it begins with “In the wind that whispers…” Every aspect of the texture begins to burst with life, epitomized in striking improvisatory flourishes from the clarinet. The section comes to a close on clarinet cadenza and resurgence of the initial textures, gradually morphing into a passage for a lone soprano soloist. By this point Hillborg’s message has grown more tender and poignant: “See, the ocean waters flows like tears.” The section culminates with a radiant sonic outpouring at the “touch the sky,” with sopranos ascending to high C above a rich vocal harmony.
At the end, a brilliant new idea arrives, heralded by rippling triplets in the clarinet and a sustained melody in the cello. Clarinet and cello have now become integral partners in the conversation. Hillborg’s lush harmonies fill the score with light and color, but every moment serves the powerful and – one feels – deeply personal connection the composer feels to his text.

Born in Marseilles and educated at the Paris Conservatory, Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was steeped in the rich tradition of 19th-century French music. However, it was his part-time work as personal assistant to poet and writer Paul Claudel that helped drive his music in exciting new directions. Claudel served as France’s ambassador to Brazil between 1917 and 1919, providing Milhaud with ample firsthand experience of South American culture. His works just after returning to Paris nearly burst with the sounds and colors of Rio. Then, in 1920, Milhaud discovered jazz while on a trip to London, and he made a pilgrimage of sorts to Harlem in 1922 in order to continue that exploration. The following year he attempted to infuse what he had observed in a new ballet based on African mythology. During this period, non-European cultural treasures still exerted profound influence on the creation of new art and music. Milhaud’s ballet, lasting about 15 minutes and organized in five sections, was commissioned by a Swedish version of the Ballets Russes. The company, called Ballet Suédois, responded to current demand for elements of African and African-American exoticisms. Originally scored for full orchestra, Milhaud himself made this arrangement of The Creation of the World for piano and strings.
The first movement (Prélude) betrays very little of Milhaud’s obsession with jazz. Undulating figures and generally homophonic textures create a rich backdrop with bare hints of a clear melody. The only touches of jazz may be found in the rhythm. After a quiet D minor ending, the Prélude gives over to a Fugue that starts in cello and viola. Here, as if Bach woke up one morning in New York City, the sounds running through Milhaud’s head from his recent travels stride forth in all their glory. The Fugue falls victim to a whirlwind of improvisation, and the short movement wedges outward to a pianississimo conclusion. The ensuing Romance calls to mind Gershwin’s Second Prelude for piano (written in 1926); blue notes and swaying harmonies ooze the dreamy world of the big city at its ease.
A more original sound greets us in the percussive and fitful Scherzo, which wonderfully merges the primitivism of Stravinsky with the syncopated swing of jazz. The fifth and final movement opens in the reposeful world of the Prélude and Romance before springing to life in a rhythmic tour de force. Milhaud moves back and forth between thematic ideas, but at the end it will be lyrical jazz that carries the day. Chromatically sliding chords reach full cadence, capped off with a lovely major 7th chord on D. Absent the ballet choreography, we can’t grasp what all this has to do with The Creation of the World. If nothing else, we note that in Milhaud’s newfound religion, this was clearly the dawn of a new era.


Conventional thinking about the Fourth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) holds that it is a minor work in comparison to its fellows in his symphonic output. Coming between the mighty “Eroica” (the Third Symphony) and the inspired Fifth Symphony, the Fourth could hardly be blamed for being somewhat marginalized. Reactions to the Fourth have always been split. Carl Maria von Weber shot spiteful arrows at the work, whereas Felix Mendelssohn treasured the work highly enough to own the autograph score, now housed in the Berlin State Library. There is also the trend among scholars and critics to divide Beethoven’s symphonies into those of great importance: No. 1 because it was first; No. 3 because of its scale and connections to Napoleon; No. 5 for sheer intensity of motivic development; No. 7 for its funeral march and rhythmic sophistication; No. 9 for its choral finale. That scenario leaves the even-numbered symphonies out in the cold, though the nicknamed “Pastoral” (No. 6) at least redeems itself by virtue of its programmatic structure. Let us see if there is any merit to this generalization; or might we seriously need to reconsider Symphonies No. 2, 4, and 8?
When Beethoven created his Fourth Symphony in B-flat Major, Op. 60, he was very much in peak form. For confirmation of that opinion, simply consider the works published immediately around the Fourth: the “Appassionata” Sonata (Op. 57), Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 58), the three “Razumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59), and the Violin Concerto (Op. 61). Moreover, evidence shows that the Fourth Symphony took shape while Beethoven was also deeply involved with the Fifth. He finished the “Eroica” in 1804, and drafts for the Fifth Symphony already date from 1805. For various reasons, he paused work on the great C-minor Symphony in order to write the one in B-flat heard tonight. It may have something to do with a specific commission made in October 1806 by Count Oppersdorf, for whom Beethoven chose not to offer his Fifth. There may also have been musical reasons – ideas that Beethoven wanted to explore, but which would not work well in the conception of the C-minor symphony – for he often worked on multiple works simultaneously. Finally, there is a powerful motivation related by the English historian Sir George Grove: love. Beethoven had many loves in his life, few that were reciprocated and none that ever seriously eased his loneliness. Grove points to the composer’s engagement in spring 1806 to Therese von Brunswick as the essential clue to understanding the abundant joy, the “grace and beauty” found in the Fourth. Intriguing as this may be, we must note that Grove’s facts are in error. Beethoven was never engaged to Therese, though he did have strong feelings for her. Grove’s error probably hinges on a document that notes the engagement of Beethoven’s brother around that same time. Thus imminent nuptials cannot explain the radiant nature of Ludwig’s work.
The first movement opens with a striking slow introduction generally trending toward B-flat minor. Melody is replaced here by hesitant chromatic steps and a gradual coming to life. In the final bars of the introduction, Beethoven overcomes all barriers to forward progress and the Allegro reaches liftoff falling two fortissimo chords. The first theme offers infectious good cheer. A new idea, begun in the winds, ushers in a second key area. Across the entire exposition Beethoven allows a genial, bustling tone, though barely below the surface contrapuntal games are at work. This is true particularly in the charming development section, which brings together ideas from the introduction and the main themes. At the end, without noticing, we have landed in the dominant of a very remote B major. But by virtue of chromatic sleight-of-hand, we return to the tonal home base of B-flat major as if by fiat. Those who know Beethoven will enjoy the familiar timpani roll that underlies this retransition. The movement certainly projects less storm and strain than its mighty companion (the Fifth), but that hardly makes it any less polished or pleasing – just different.
The Adagio movement elicited Grove’s misguided explanation in a specific love affair, but he was surely correct to perceive a striking beauty in the main theme. On the other hand, this is not a simple love song by any stretch of the imagination, and the presence of brass and timpani bear this out. The recurrent short-long rhythmic motive heard in the lower strings adds an unsettling urgency that the soaring strings and winds must counteract. The tension between these forces builds to a powerful outburst on the minor tonic chord (E-flat minor) that sets off a pseudo-Baroque descending chromatic progression. Listen as the strings fall by step over one and a half octaves. Of course, the first theme will eventually return – imminently, in fact – but such moments show how Beethoven could manipulate the spaces between the conventional “signposts” in classical form.
The following movement is marked Allegro vivace, but it could easily have been titled a Scherzo (less so a Minuet, given Beethoven’s fast tempo marking). It combines a galloping opening gesture with the call-and-response playfulness of rising and falling lines passed between the winds and the strings. As a result, the grandiloquent cadences cannot avoid sounding a bit “much ado about nothing.” The normally scaled-back Trio section ends up being not so scaled-back. After the opening bars, the full orchestra gradually returns, ushered in by an insistent, noodling figure in the strings. Who would find such a work out of place in, for instance, the third movement of the mighty Eroica?
Beethoven begins the robust Finale in strains of radiant optimism. Not unlike certain moments of the Pastoral Symphony to come, he allows several massive chords to come raining down upon the sunny scene for brief moments. There is such ease to how the music progresses between presentation and development, between ebullience and storm. Need we remind ourselves that Beethoven was essentially completely deaf by this point in time? And yet his incredible sense for pacing is unhindered. A final downpour brings the music to a halt just before the short coda sprints to a rousing finish.
From first to last, there is so much to admire in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Of course it lacks certain features that, when present, have contributed to the outsized reputation enjoyed by the other symphonies. It does not have the tragic-to-triumphant arc of the Fifth or the choral “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth. But as purely instrumental music, this is as fine as it gets. We encounter Beethoven in good spirits in the Fourth Symphony, which is saying something given the personal setbacks that surrounded its genesis. But if sunlight pervades these pages more often than clouds, is that any reason to find it less compelling as a work of art?

© Jason Stell, 2023

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