Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ensemble Epomeo: Beethoven at the Beginning

Mount Epomeo
On the isle of Ischia near the harbor of Naples, Italy, is a mountain that overlooks the location of a summer music festival where in 2008 three string players formed a trio. This mountain is called Mount Epomeo.

Now you know.

The string trio named for this mountain will be stopping by the slightly less picturesque shores of the Susquehanna River to play for Market Square Concerts on Sunday afternoon at 3pm at Temple Ohev Sholom, just below Seneca and Front Streets.

(And while we may be basking in the balmy mid-50s at the time, the weather regardless is a far cry from our last scheduled concert which, by the way, due to thirty inches of snow, had been rescheduled to April 6th at 7:30 at Market Square Church. My pre-concert talk will begin at 6:45.)

Ensemble Epomeo
On this weekend's program, Ensemble Epomeo will play an early work by Ludwig van Beethoven, his String Trio in E-flat, Op. 3; a rarely-heard work by the less well-known Hungarian composer, Leo Weiner; and the concert will open with selections from “Signs, Games and Messages” by another Hungarian composer, György Kurtág who just turned 90 this past Friday, where the trio will be joined by Nicholas Hughes as narrator.

The concert will open with a “Young Artists Performances” by cellist Eliana Yang, 16, first-prize winner of 2015's Vivace Competition in Philadelphia, playing the Prelude to Bach's 3rd Suite for Solo Cello.

(You can read separate posts about Leo Weiner here; and György Kurtág, here.)

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So let's begin with Beethoven.

This is, in a sense, “Beethoven at the Beginning,” or very near it. We tend to think of this monolithic superhero, Beethoven the Titan, the creator of some of the greatest statements about art and humanity – the “Choral” Symphony, the “Eroica,” the Late Quartets – the giant who overcame deafness to leave the world some of the greatest music ever written (even without a public relations agent, Beethoven would be a tough act to follow).

But while there's Beethoven of the Epic Romantic Era, there's also Beethoven, the Final Stage of the Classical Era, the student of Haydn (and one who almost studied with Mozart), writing his first quartets and symphonies to break away from the 18th Century.

And even before that, there is Beethoven exploring his world and absorbing everything his predecessors had achieved before, eventually, creating his own voice.

Here is the Ensemble Epomeo playing the opening of the 1st Movement from Beethoven's Op. 3 String Trio (disregard the initial graphic):

This is not Beethoven storming the heavens. It's not even Beethoven showing how he will in future be storming the heavens, as he did with his Op. 1 Trios and the Op. 2 Sonatas. This is Beethoven looking back, even if "back" is the recent past, the past of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who had died on December 4th, 1791.

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Beethoven arrived in Vienna a few days before his 22nd birthday, mid-December 1792, with plans to study with Haydn whom he'd met when the Grand Old Man traveled through Bonn on his way to and from London.

Now, young Beethoven made the 550-mile trip from Bonn to Vienna again, having traveled there once already (perhaps he actually did meet Mozart, that was the plan; but Mozart died before Beethoven could return to study with him), traveling over some of the worst roads in Europe at a time when French troops roamed the Rhine Valley – in the months after Beethoven left his hometown, Napoleon's army gained control of much of that region.

When Beethoven stopped at the customs house inside the gates of Vienna on that damp December day so the police could check his papers, he discovered his name (which in Bonn had been pronounced “Biet-hoffen”) would be pronounced “Be-toof-en” in Vienna. He had with him a bundle of manuscripts, high hopes and very little else.

He had been given a six-month leave-of-absence. In fact, he will remain in Vienna the rest of his life. But at the time, who knew?

Primarily, he would become a pianist-who-composed and he soon earned a reputation for being an improviser to be reckoned with. A man named Czerny (whose son would later study with the adult Beethoven) met Abbé Joseph Gelinek, one of the best known pianists of the day, on his way to play a “piano duel” (in the days before reality TV) at the Imperial court, playing against some young foreigner (“I'll fix him,” he told the elder Czerny). The next day, Czerny Sr. once again saw Abbé Gelinek who admitted defeat at the hands of a young man “who must be in league with the devil! I've never even heard Mozart improvise so admirably.” He described him as “a small, ugly, swarthy young man with a willful disposition. His name is Beethoven.”

Studies with Haydn did not go well. In fact, things were considerably cool between them. When Haydn left for his second trip to London, Beethoven studied with a couple other teachers (one of whom admitted to finding mistakes in the young man's exercises that Haydn had missed).

Haydn, of course, was the Greatest Living Composer and his string quartets and symphonies were the models against which any young composer's works would be judged. This is one reason Beethoven waited until 1800 to publish both his first string quartets and his first symphony, the year he would turn 30 – a late age for someone to be making their first marks on the public, considering Mozart had died at 35.

But Beethoven kept himself “on plan.” Though Haydn was his teacher, he was also his chief rival, so the young man wanted to avoid the numerous “student works” that would fail by comparison (Beethoven would have a similar effect on Johannes Brahms over fifty years later). His first published works were not the first works he composed – he calculated the impact his three Piano Trios Op. 1 would make on Vienna's music-loving public in 1795 and it's interesting to read, among the list of subscribers purchasing his new scores (the printed first editions were sold by subscriptions to patrons) would be some of the major names supporting Beethoven's career for the next three decades including Prince Lichnowsky, Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky, even Haydn's employer, Prince Esterházy.

His next salvo the following year was a set of three piano sonatas Op. 2 (dedicated to Haydn out of regard for his standing in Vienna, but, Haydn noted, not dedicated to “his teacher” Haydn). These also were calculated for maximum impact. With these two sets of works, Beethoven announced his arrival, the appearance of a serious contender as a great composer of the future.

So what was Beethoven ready to challenge the listening public with in his next opus?

Looking ahead to the works Beethoven would compose in the next five years, it was as if he made a concerted effort (no pun intended) to build a portfolio: four piano trios; ten piano sonatas; “accompanied sonatas,” two with cello, three with violin; even an operatic scene with “Ah! Perfido!” written while studying with Antonio Salieri in 1795-96 but not published until 1805; and two Mozartean piano concertos (the B-flat probably written before he left Bonn but re-worked and published after the more brilliant, newer C Major).

His chamber music, mostly composed for the amateur market (the “do-it-yourself” entertainment industry of the day), ranged incrementally from five string trios (without piano) to a quintet for piano and winds, modeled after one of his favorite works by Mozart, to the Septet for string and winds of 1799 which wasn't published until 1802.

Beethoven in 1800 or 1801
By 1800 he had composed six string quartets and a symphony, no longer the journeyman composer in Haydn's shadow but now competing on an equal level. And how timely, too, because it was generally conceived that Haydn, now in his late-60s, was no longer likely to compose more string quartets and symphonies, focused as he was on his great choral works at the close of his career (in fact, he wrote nothing in the last six years of his life).

Before 1800, Beethoven also produced a String Quintet, Op. 4, but that was a reworking of an earlier wind octet (itself not published until 1830 somehow as Op. 103), dinner music written in Bonn – and a piano duet sonata (the “four-hands” variety so popular among household music-making), his Op. 6. These could be works “published primarily to make money” as well as “to please the public” rather than to “impress the public and secure a reputation.”

If you look at the list in chronological order (not published order), the first composition Beethoven published without a piano part was this Op. 3 String Trio published in 1796. There was the Serenade in D, Op. 8 for String Trio of 1797 and the set of three string trios, Op. 9, completed and published in 1798, the year he began writing the Op. 18 String Quartets which were completed and published in the auspicious-looking year of 1800.

Once he started publishing string quartets, then, Beethoven never again wrote another string trio.

This has given rise to the view that the trios are studies in how to write for strings, the medium being less challenging than a quartet (not just the addition of a fourth player). But perhaps it's also a medium free of the historical baggage of the great (and daunting) quartets by Mozart and Haydn - and after 1800, that didn't matter any more.

In most biographies of Beethoven, the string trios are passed over as an “up-beat” to the significant works of his early Op. 18 Quartets. And even there, the very first of these, the Op. 3, is usually seen as an even smaller up-beat to the Op. 9 set.

This may be music intended for a stylish dinner party rather than a concert – instead of the usual three or four movements of a concert sonata-form piece like the Piano Trios and the Piano Sonatas, this is a divertimento in the “old style” with six movements including two minuets.

This may not be new ground that Beethoven is breaking – or even exploring – but it is Beethoven gaining experience in mastering the style of the composer he would have preferred studying with: Mozart.

Who could doubt Beethoven didn't have in mind the great Divertimento in E-flat, K.563 by Mozart, a string trio, which had been written only in 1788, four years before Beethoven arrived in Vienna, a year after Mozart died. Beethoven wouldn't have been "competing" with Mozart as he would've been with Haydn: would the Vienna public have appreciated a new work in the style (if not the quality) of Mozart? 

With no manuscript copy that shows any specific dates on it, it is generally believed Beethoven's trio was begun while he was still in Bonn (while he's primarily known as a pianist, he also played the violin well enough to be in the Court Orchestra in Bonn) and that it was probably completed before 1794.

There are tons of early works Beethoven composed which he never sent to his publisher – these are those “WoO” pieces as in “work without opus” number – which included numerous piano pieces and “miscellaneous piece for courtly entertainment” that, in order to protect his future career, never saw the light of Viennese day.

But this piece, this E-flat String Trio, Beethoven must have thought differently of – it might seem to be a “study,” one of those “go-and-do-likewise” kind of assignments – but on the whole it brings to mind the statement Count Waldstein, one of Beethoven's Bonn patrons, told him following news of Mozart's death and before he'd left for Vienna:

“May you receive the spirit of Mozart through the hands of Haydn.”

Perhaps, if he realized he wasn't getting this “spirit” from his teacher the way he'd hoped, he decided to do it on his own, by studying Mozart's own works and learning directly from them.

Here, the Grumiaux Trio plays the complete String Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3, by Ludwig van Beethoven (with score, for those who like to follow along):

While Beethoven may be a familiar name to most concert-goers, even an experienced music-lover (at least in Harrisburg) may be more curious about the other composers on the program.

Stay tuned.

- Dick Strawser

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