History of the Music
History of the Music
By Jeff Counts
Duration: 42 minutes in three movements.
THE COMPOSER—LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)—Beethoven’s compositional output was defined by alternating periods of dearth and plenty. 1806 was one of the good years. In truth, it was an incredible year, arguably one of the most impressive stretches of sustained creativity by any artist ever. Looming deadlines, both self-imposed and not, can be wonderful motivators, but you must possess uncommon skill and will to succeed under that kind of pressure. Skill was never an issue for Beethoven and, in 1806, he had the determination to match it. The legendary clutch of works from that year included the “Razumovsky” Quartets, the “Appassionata” Sonata, the 4th Symphony, the 4th Piano Concerto, and the Violin Concerto.
THE HISTORY—Like almost everything Beethoven composed in 1806, the Violin Concerto was written in a hurry. The premiere date was set for December 23 of that year, and by most accounts, he barely got it done in time. In fact, a legend persists about Beethoven finishing the score just two days before the concert, a close call that required the soloist to sight-read the finale in front of the audience. That story may not be true, but it is certainly possible. Beethoven was a tireless revisor, who often made corrections right up to the last possible moment, and the concerto’s dedicatee was apparently a brilliant technician, fully capable of surviving such less-than-ideal scenarios. Franz Clement was the music director and concertmaster of the Theatre an der Wien orchestra. Only in his 20s at the time of the concerto collaboration, Clement had been a child prodigy with a great deal of performance charisma. Beethoven heard him play when he was 14 and had kept professional track of him thereafter. The manuscript of the concerto’s violin part makes it unclear how much advice the composer ultimately took from his soloist (a regular feature of these sorts of partnerships), but there was plenty of mutual respect between the two musicians and the concerto played to Clement’s strengths as a graceful, peerless virtuoso. Given the panicked leadup to the downbeat, however, the premiere was not a big sensation. Clement did his best to champion the work for a few more years, but it did not enter the standard repertory for decades. It was simply too inscrutable and too difficult for anyone but him. The eventual acknowledgment of the Violin Concerto’s masterpiece status came thanks, in part, to another young superstar. Joseph Joachim performed the supposedly “unplayable” work (at age 13!) under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn in 1844, bringing it back into public attention for good.
THE WORLD—Elsewhere in 1806, the Napoleonic Wars raged, Lewis and Clark began their journey home from the Pacific Ocean, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, and Britain established Cape Colony in present day South Africa.
THE CONNECTION—Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was last heard on a Masterworks concert back in 2017. Thierry Fischer conducted and Augustin Hadelich was soloist.
“Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran” and “Zion Park et la Cité céleste” from Des Canyons aux étoiles...
Duration: 8 and 11 minutes.
THE COMPOSER—OLIVIER MESSIAEN (1908-1992)—Though he is still perhaps one of the most unclassifiable composers of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen’s two consistently abiding influences—his deep Catholic faith and love of birdsong—provide a semi-stable foothold for explorations of his life’s work. “I speak about faith to those who have none,” he told an interviewer shortly before his death, “I give bird songs to those who have never heard them…” Messiaen believed birds to be creation’s greatest musicians and found in their complex vocalizations a depthless font of spiritual expression. Their world, the awe-inspiring natural world, contained all the great mysteries of God and virtually every piece he wrote was a humble attempt to understand them.
THE HISTORY—The commission from the prominent American arts patron Alice Tully in 1971 to commemorate the upcoming bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t initially very appealing to Messiaen. On paper, it certainly does not seem like the kind of subject he would have been drawn to, but Tully convinced him to say yes. His approach to the project was, of course, oblique and idiosyncratic in that he did not seek encouragement from the famous document itself or any other important founding letters. Messiaen instead consulted an encyclopedia and found, in photos of the glorious red-rock formations of Utah, a collection of prehistoric cathedrals that suited his personal convictions, and the scale of American uniqueness, perfectly. He arranged a trip to see the landscape for himself in the spring of 1972 and his journals from that time depict a devoutly observant man in awe of everything he saw and heard. The result was Des Canyons aux étoiles... (1974). Part western travelogue, part birding trip, part metaphysical transition from terrestrial dust to cosmic light, Canyons is a 100-minute suite of rapturous experiences, ranging in seemingly random order from a single bird to an unspeakably magnificent celestial city. “…it is above all a religious work,” he wrote, unsurprisingly, “a work of praise and contemplation,” while also adding that “The majority of the birds are from Utah and the Hawaiian Islands. Heaven is symbolized by Zion Park and the star Aldebaran.” In Movement VIII—Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran—we are transported to the literal heavens and the red principal star of the Taurus constellation, while in Movement XII—Zion Park et la Cité céleste—Canyons comes to its triumphant close as “The bells ring out heralding the ultimate joy” of reaching the “celestial city” at last.
THE WORLD—Elsewhere in 1974, (like Nixon) Israeli leader Golda Meir resigned, as did Willy Brandt in West Germany; the Terracotta Army was discovered in China; and the “Rumble in the Jungle” occurred in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
THE CONNECTION—Des Canyons aux étoiles...was last performed by Utah Symphony in 2007 under the direction of Keith Lockhart.