Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) – Egmont, op. 84 'Overture' (1809)
It is perhaps hard to comprehend why Beethoven, an avid theatre goer and lover, did not write more music for the stage. Even though he was highly drawn to theatre music, Fidelio was the only opera he wrote; his output for the stage is rounded out by incidental music for three theatrical works (Egmont, The Ruins of Athens, and King Stephen), a few assorted overtures and short pieces of little consequence, and two ballets. His first dance piece, Ritterballet, WoO 1, was written as a ghost writer for Count Waldstein, who commissioned the work from the then young composer and presented it in 1791 in Bonn as his own work. By 1801, however, Beethoven had already established himself as a gifted and important composer and no longer needed to write under assumed identities or permit royal patrons to claim the glory for the fruit of his work; that year he was finally introduced as a composer to the Viennese stage with the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Six years would pass before he was to write another piece for the theatre, this time the Overture to Collin’s Coriolan, op. 62.
In 1809 Beethoven received a very important commission, one that would be very close to his heart; the Vienna Burgtheater asked him to provide the incidental music for their revival production of Goethe’s Egmont. Being that Goethe was a man whom he admired above all writers then living, it is not surprising that Beethoven composed one of his most eloquent scores for the occasion. Goethe wrote Egmont in 1775, a year of revolution and the rise of democracy; in Lexington, colonists had fired a shot heard around the world, and in Vienna the beginning of the end of serfdom was marked.
In 1809 Beethoven began composing the incidental music to Egmont under similar disturbing circumstances; the freedom-loving Viennese were now suffering the oppression of the French, the result of a devastating encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven, a democrat in an age of revolution and an indignant spokesman against tyranny, who three years earlier had torn the dedication to Napoleon from the score of his Eroica Symphony after the Frenchman had proclaimed himself emperor, was now swept away by the heroism of Goethe’s drama. In the play, the hero, Count Egmont, foresees the liberation of the Netherlands from Spanish rule; as a result of his own brave stand, he is ultimately executed, yet dies knowing that his martyrdom will eventually lead to the freedom of his people.
Quoting the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Beethoven’s score and particularly the overture represents the composer’s “own delayed reaction to the conquest and occupation of his adopted city by the French and his hopes of being delivered from them.” Like the second and third Leonore overtures, the Overture to Egmont constitutes a powerful orchestral tone poem, written in a compact sonata-allegro form, epitomizing the drama to follow. The overture begins with a sostenuto introduction in F Minor, punctuated by heavy chords in the strings suggesting the cry of the oppressed and the answering crushing power of oppression. In the allegro that follows, the main theme is presented by the cellos in a descending, two-octave march, answered by the violins. This is the theme associated with Egmont himself.
A growing agitation leads to a second theme, which recalls the opening chords of the introduction. The theme is transferred to the horns and trumpets, suggesting an exultant fanfare of freedom. With an extended coda, which is often referred to as the Victory Symphony, the overture ends with a burst of overwhelming triumph.
Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875) – Carmen Suite 1 (1882)
Written in 1873-74, the opera premiered on 3 March, 1875, in Paris; this Suite of extracts was arranged and published posthumously, in 1882. The history of opera is packed with erstwhile successes that fell into oblivion soon after their composers’ deaths. But Carmen illustrates a dramatic reversal of that pattern and has made Georges Bizet a sort of patron saint of posthumous success. It’s not accurate to describe Carmen’s premiere as a total fiasco—it continued for a comparatively decent run—but the reaction was one overall of disappointment and/or shock triggered by its unprecedented aspects.
Bizet died exactly three months after the opening, only 36 years old. Like Jonathan Larson in the 1990s, whose unexpected death prevented him from enjoying the tremendous acclaim reaped by his musical Rent, the French composer would never know of the unimaginably far-reaching “afterlife” that Carmen has enjoyed—including beyond the opera stage, as in these concert excepts, let alone in popular culture. Bizet had started out as a prodigy composer, his gifts acknowledged by well-positioned supporters like Offenbach and Gounod. But he struggled to win over the fickle Parisian public and found it difficult to navigate the maze of producers’ demands as well as public taste.
Bizet was also a victim of bad timing. The economic fallout from France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing Paris Commune of 1871 left its mark on the contemporary French spirit—just as Bizet was entering the prime years of his career. He had banked on the heated story of the free-spirited young heroine and her fatally possessive lover. Its source was a novella published three decades earlier by the French writer and archeologist Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870), a polymath who harbored a special fascination for Spain and Russia (he was an important translator of Russian literature into French).
For all the opera’s associations with Spain, Mérimée’s Carmen may have drawn on a work he had translated from Russian: The Gypsies, Pushkin’s narrative poem from the mid-1820s. Another curious irony is the fact that Bizet himself never set foot in Georges Bizet Seville, in and around which the opera is set. The opera’s tone of obsessive passion and destructive jealousy has nothing in common with the antics of the wily barber Figaro, whose adventures unfold in the same Andalusian setting. After Bizet’s sudden, premature death, his associates determined to salvage the music in the face of Carmen’s poor future prospects onstage.
His friend Ernest Guiraud (a native of New Orleans) composed recitatives to increase Carmen’s potential to be revived elsewhere. (Bizet’s original score followed the conventions of contemporary opéra-comique —which, despite the name, could involve tragedy—in its use of spoken dialogue.) Bizet’s publisher also commissioned two concert suites of six pieces each, which combine instrumental interludes with purely instrumental versions of several vocal numbers. What to listen for Conductors often reorder the pieces comprising the suites (to imitate the opera’s chronological ordering, for example). As published, the Suite No. 1 begins with the part of the Prelude to Act I in which trembling strings introduce darkly intone the ominous Fate motif. In the Aragonaise, Bizet presents one of several Spanish-flavored dances laced throughout the opera. It serves as an interlude between the third and fourth acts, right before the climactic bullfight during which the disgraced soldier Don José— now turned stalker—confronts his ex- lover Carmen. A bucolic, flutesweetened Intermezzo (which is the prelude to the third act) shifts the scene outside Seville to a remote place where Don José, now a fugitive, pursues Carmen. The Marche du Toréador is the musical emblem of José’s rival, the bullfighter Don Escamillo. It appears both in the Prelude to Act I and in the climactic murder scene. The festive cheer greeting the parading toreadors evokes the public spaces in which Carmen’s tragedy plays out.
Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1751) – Adagio in G minor (1708)
The eldest son of a wealthy paper merchant, Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni was born in Venice in 1671. Showing an early proficiency as a singer and violist, the young Tomaso eventually turned his talents to composition, producing both his first opera and instrumental music collection in 1694. Upon his father's passing in 1709, Albinoni — who referred to himself as a "Dilettante Veneto" — was able to become a full- time musician and composer, conceiving both opera and instrumental compositions until his death in 1751. As his operas were never published, Albinoni was mostly revered for his 99 sonatas, 59 concertos and 9 sinfonias, which were, at the time, compared favourably to contemporaries Corelli and Vivaldi.
Following his passing, much of Albinoni's unpublished music made its way to Saxon State Library in Dresden, where it was preserved before being all but completely destroyed in the Allied bombing raids of winter 1945. That same year, the Milanese musicologist Remo Giazotto set out to write a biography of Albinoni and catalogue his remaining works, mining what was left in the Dresden archives. Giazotto published his book, Musico di Violino Dilettante Veneto, soon after and, for all intents and purposes, that would likely have been the last most outside classical circles heard of both subject and biographer. However, four years later Giazotto re-emerged, claiming he had recovered a piece of unpublished Albinoni music from the Saxon State Library: a fragment of a manuscript, likely from the slow movement of a trio sonata or sonata da chiesa in G minor, possibly as part of his Op. 4 set (1708), which consisted of only the basso continuo and six bars of melody.
Giazotto asserted he had completed Albinoni's single movement in tribute, copywriting and publishing it in 1958 under his own name with the mellifluous title Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ on Two Thematic Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni.
Distinct for its descending baseline and earworm-inducing melody, Albinoni's Adagio, as it came to be known, was quick to gain favour with baroque-inclined pop musicians and film music supervisors, who were attracted to the simple topline and minor key gravitas. First appearing as the main theme for Alain Resnais's 1961 film 'L'année dernière à Marienbad,' Adagio became a mainstay in popular culture. Popping up in a variety of popular and varied films, commercials and television programs, such as Rollerball, Gallipoli, and Flashdance.
Camille Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op 78 “Organ” (1886)
Ever since its London premiere in 1886, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (nicknamed “the Organ Symphony” for the prominent role that instrument plays in it) has been one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire. It is one of those rare works that instantly entered the canon of masterpieces and has remained there ever since. Its most famous melody, the radiant theme of the finale, has even entered into popular culture: it has been featured in the 1995 movie Babe and at Disney World’s Epcot Center, and has even been adapted as the anthem of the would-be micronation of Atlantium.
Like other modern appropriations of classical music, these ‘bleeding chunks’ of the catchiest part of this symphony are completely divorced from the meaning this music had in its original context. In the case of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony, though, even seasoned concertgoers who know the piece well may not be aware of the cultural allusions that astute audience members would have heard when listening to this piece on the night of its premiere.
The symphony had a troubled existence in 19th century France. After the Revolution of 1789, the symphonies of ancien regime French composers were largely forgotten, and during the post-Napoleonic era, it was opera, in both its grand and comic varieties, that constituted the main musical interest of the French public. Despite the valiant efforts of Berlioz to create a new French symphonic tradition with works like his Symphonie fantastique, symphonic music failed to establish strong roots in France, and even in Berlioz’ own lifetime, his music was sadly more often appreciated in Germany than in his homeland. When symphonies were performed at all, they were usually symphonies by Austro-German composers, especially symphonies by Beethoven. Some even believed that there was something un- French about symphonies in general, and audiences were often skeptical of new French symphonies.
This began to change after the calamitous Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, which brought a sobering end to the Second Empire and at least gave its decadent Offenbach operettas some pause. In retrospect, many felt that France had been somehow weakened by the excesses of grand opera and the frivolity of cancans and champagne. Saint-Saëns’ contemporary Edouard Schuré thus described the French musical public’s post-war desires:
“[The audience] comes searching for edification, comfort for the soul, a better atmosphere. In this compact mass of humanity, you will find in these pensive faces poets...who abandon themselves here to their dreams....You will see here thinkers tired of their thoughts who find again in this vibrant crowd a sort of religious emotion and who ask of the accents of great music a breath of the lost beyond....Here in this profound collection of each inside of himself is produced an instantaneous and mysterious communication of each with all.”
Enter Camille Saint-Saëns.
Saint-Saëns began his career as a child prodigy who could famously play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory; his career as a composer, however, was slower to take off. By the 1880s, he had written a number of successful pieces which had a foothold in the repertoire, but his early symphonies had failed to stick, and it had been many years since he had composed one.
The symphony itself was under attack: in Germany, Wagner had proclaimed that after Beethoven’s Ninth, writing symphonies was futile and that the only way forward was to write music dramas (which he insisted were NOT operas). Although Saint-Saëns did admire Wagner’s music, he was not a fan of Wagner’s musical dogma, which, if correct, would render all of his own instrumental works pointless. He wrote a number of outspoken articles to this effect, but knowing that the battles of music history are fought with notes rather than words, he resolved to compose a symphony—a great symphony—that would revitalize the genre, show that the French could write symphonies, spiritually heal his country and prove to others and himself that he could write a great masterpiece.
When the Royal Philharmonic Society in London commissioned him to compose a new piece (interestingly, the Society had also commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth many years before), Saint-Saëns had found the opportunity he needed. The premiere in London, conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, was a great success, and when the symphony premiered in Paris the following year, the reception was ecstatic. Fellow composer Charles Gounod famously paid Saint-Saëns the highest compliment he could think of by declaring him “the French Beethoven.” The French were ready for a great symphony, and Saint-Saëns had written one.
Part of what Saint-Saëns wanted to prove was that the symphony as a genre was not dead. He wanted to show that composers did not need to resort to words in order to convey meaning to listeners, that a symphony could be just as powerfully moving as a Wagnerian music drama (and much more time efficient). Like Beethoven, he hoped to walk the fine line between absolute music, which has no extra- musical meaning at all (consider a Chopin Nocturne), and program music, which tells a story explicitly indicated by the composer (Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, for example). Even though Beethoven never said what his Fifth Symphony was about, listeners throughout the centuries and across the world have heard in it a journey from the darkness of C minor to the light of C major, a story of heroic struggle and triumph. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony begins in C minor and ends in C major (a choice Saint-Saëns knew would invite direct comparison), but the journey on which he takes us is rather different. Like Beethoven, Saint-Saëns never provided an explicit program for this symphony, but he did leave clues in his score and the program notes he provided for the Royal Philharmonic Society that point toward a very specific theme: Resurrection.
The first and most important clue is the specter of the Dies Irae, which haunts every movement of the symphony. The Dies Irae (“day of wrath”) is part of the traditional Catholic mass for the dead, and its text discusses the Day of Judgment:
Dies iræ, dies illa Solvet sæclum in favilla, Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus, Quando Judex est venturus, Cuncta stricte discussurus!
Tuba mirum spargens sonum, Per sepulchra regionum, Coget omnes ante thronum.
Mors stupebit et natura, Cum resurget creatura, Judicanti responsura.
The day of wrath, that day Will dissolve the world in ashes As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How much tremor there will be, when the Judge will come, investigating everything strictly!
The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound through the sepulchres of the regions, will summon all before the Throne.
Death and nature will marvel, when the creature arises, to respond to the Judge.
Enlightened and progressive as the Royal Philharmonic Society was, it began printing program notes for its audiences in 1869, and asked Saint-Saëns to provide some for his new piece. In his notes, Saint-Saëns describes this music as “sombre and agitated in character,” and this theme dominates the tempestuous first movement.
Respite comes with the Adagio, the gorgeous theme of which is described by Saint-Saens as “extremely quiet and contemplative”. The tranquility of the Adagio is, however, disturbed by a return of the Dies Irae theme, which Saint-Saens describes as “bringing back vague feelings of unrest, augmented by dissonant harmonies”.
The words of the Dies Irae were set to a plainchant melody most likely during the 13th century, and this melody became a symbol of death and the apocalypse.
The second half of the symphony begins with a scherzo that is by turns both demonic and mischievous, during which the Dies Irae theme also reappears, “more agitated than its predecessors” the message is clear: death has been somehow redeemed, transfigured. Further adding to the heavenly atmosphere are the glittering piano arpeggios accompanying the theme (interestingly, Saint-Saëns noted that he used piano in place of the harp – a more traditionally “heavenly” instrument). Immediately following is a variation of the theme for organ, punctuated by trumpet fanfares that recall “The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound / through the sepulchres of the regions, / will summon all before the Throne.” The unconventional use of the organ itself, more often heard in churches than in symphonies, also lends a religious air to the music. The intense struggle that follows includes a return of the Dies Irae theme in its original minor form that is ultimately vanquished by the major version, like the archangel Michael casting the devil out of heaven
The End of the World, Or a New Beginning?
Could this be a musical depiction of the apocalypse and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth? Contemporary commentators such as Emil Baumann often resorted to religious language when describing this symphony, and in our own time Watson Lyle, author of Camille Saint-Saëns: His Life and Art, even went so far as to say that the appearance of the major version of the Dies Irae theme”...is as if we gazed upon a profile of the Christ, in bas-relief of snowy marble...” Did Saint-Saëns intend this to be a religious work? Saint-Saëns may have taken inspiration from Christian eschatology, but his aim was most likely not to retell a story, but to show the spiritual power of music.
Like Beethoven, he wanted his music to serve as a metaphor, and despite several highly evocative moments, there is no literal “story” that goes with Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. One could try to impose a narrative onto the symphony (and some of his contemporaries did), but the result would certainly be unsatisfying. The symphony unfolds according to its own purely musical logic: its melodies and phrases are dictated by what sounds and feels right rather than by specific narrative actions or events. Although Saint-Saëns would later become the first composer to write an original film score, here he did not write film music.
This begs the question: if this music is a metaphor for resurrection and victory over death, then what is being resurrected? The French nation from the ashes of war? Saint-Saëns’ career? The genre of the symphony itself? The answer is likely both all and none of these. Saint-Saëns realized that the power of symphonies comes from their ability to communicate emotions in their purest forms, allowing listeners to experience them unencumbered by characters, plots and settings they may or may not relate to. Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony lived up to its composer’s lofty ambitions. Its premiere began a second golden age of French symphony writing, and symphonies by Franck, Chausson, d’Indy and Dukas soon followed in its wake. Furthermore, this symphony can be seen as a landmark in a trend that lead to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), in which their composers aimed to depict their respective visions of death and the afterlife. Regardless of one’s own beliefs (or lack thereof), Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony has left audiences feeling spiritually renewed from 1886 to 2020, whether they be in London, Paris, Tokyo, Caracas, or even Salt Lake.