Beatles & Beethoven Programme Notes

An invasion of British and Viennese proportions opens our banner 55th Season with the effervescence of The Beatles and the power of Beethoven!

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Symphony Series 1 – Beatles & Beethoven

The Beatles Medleys
No rock group of recent memory has had nearly as palpable a cultural impact as The Beatles. Reared in Liverpool, England’s early 60s skiffle scene, the Fab Four took their sound to unparalleled international heights, inspiring a fan frenzy known as Beatlemania. Beginning in the mid 60s the band paralleled their success with ground-breaking experimental endeavours, expanding the boundaries of pop production by such means as the incorporation of Indian instruments and multitrack recording. By the time they broke up in 1970, the Beatles had recorded over 300 songs; a canon of material indispensible to the modern listener.

In The Best of The Beatles, Calvin Custer focuses on works of the Beatles’ later period, kicking off with the emotional earnestness of Got to Get You into My Life‘s Motown-inspired brass. A piano and cello duet emerge with a slow and sensitive rendition of Michelle, broadened by the ensemble. The clarinets announce the end with the quirky opening of When I’m 64, a melodic line that they carry over from the original 1967 recording of the piece.

Robert Lowden’s Remembering The Beatles spans the course of the Beatles’ output, beginning with a mournful string rendition of Yesterday. The drum kit launches into Eleanor Rigby, whose melody is treated in the brass before the strings renew Yesterday’s melancholia. A cheery drum fill begins A Hard Day’s Night, calling to mind the youthfulness of the group’s early days. Singing strings inspire introspection in a rendition of Fool on the Hill, a mood felt in the trumpet’s subsequent solo in Something. Concluding the medley is Please Please Me, a return to the early Beatles emotional pop singles decorated with orchestral effect.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major
Ludwig van Beethoven began sketches for the Fourth Piano Concerto in 1804, placing it chronologically in his prolific middle period. It is among many of Beethoven’s pieces dedicated to Archduke Rudolph Hapsburg-Lothringen, the youngest son of Austrian Emperor Leopold II, who was the composer’s closest patron, his student, and friend. The concerto was first premiered for a private circle of aristocrats at the home of Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz, one of the greatest musical patrons of the Viennese classical period.

The concerto is better remembered however for its public premiere in Vienna, featuring Beethoven as soloist in his final performance alongside an orchestra due to his increasing deafness. This was at the infamous benefit concert of December 22, 1808, a four-hour event unparalleled for the bulk of material Beethoven premiered. Despite its great programme the concert was a disaster, as an unrehearsed orchestra performed in an unheated concert hall for an unenthusiastic audience. At one point Beethoven was even forced to stop and scold the orchestra whilst conducting his Choral Fantasy after they skipped a repeat he failed to indicate.

The first movement begins with the piano’s graceful chordal introduction, setting both the mood and tonic key of the piece. The orchestra picks up and elaborates on this passage’s sense of serenity throughout their extended tutti. In this movement Beethoven contrasts the piece’s deliberate moderate pace and the running virtuosity of the piano’s decorative line.
Beethoven’s suggestion that all is well in the close to the first movement is upended by the second movement’s opening emotional gravitas. Here, yet again, the piano’s initial sombre line is slow and chordal, eventually erupting calamitously after a wistful exchange with the stern strings of the orchestra. This exchange is meant to call to mind a heartbroken Orpheus pleading with spirits of the underworld for the return of his beloved Eurydice.

Beethoven does little to prepare us for the oncoming third movement, starting instantly upon the second movement’s close with a jolly orchestral line. Tensions in the piano line are resolved effortlessly with simple gestures, as though Beethoven were winking to clue us in on a joke. The close of the piece recapitulates this movement’s opening theme at a dancing pace, leading us to a declarative close.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor
The cultural fascination that surrounds Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has not been consistent over time. Another middle period work composed 1807 – 1808, it was also on the programme of Beethoven’s aforementioned benefit concert. Despite the initially lacklustre reception, in subsequent years the piece has come to be considered a definitive work of the classical repertoire. Here Beethoven uses the heroic forcefulness and extended orchestral range to capture his symphonic ideal. It is for these components that Beethoven is considered one of the foremost symphonic composers of all time.

The first movement begins with the easily recognizable weighty eighth-note motif that Beethoven himself is alleged to have described as “fate knocking at the door”. Fate proves to be a persistent caller, as the motif is passed around between parts and the whole orchestra for the entirety of the movement, and more subliminally throughout the symphony. This is not to say however that the entire first movement’s character is severe, as the second theme gives a serene respite.

Beginning in the relative major key of E-flat, the second movement is a tender contrast to the first. After starting the sweet skipping theme in low strings and passing it between all parts the entire orchestra builds it into something akin to an anthem in terms of dynamic pride, perpetuating the peaceful-bold contrast through the course of the movement.

The third movement returns to the minor key, using a cryptic scherzo introduction to delay the adamant main theme of the horn section. A flowing C major trio juxtaposes the sternness of this scherzo portion of the movement in a much more contrapuntal texture. The scherzo returns quietly in the pizzicatos of the string section, precipitating a slow build that does not pause to enter the fourth movement. However, despite its ecstasy, the fourth movement is not on totally even ground. Beethoven leads us through a return of the transitional theme of the third movement, finally setting it aside for the insistent close of the last movement’s recapitulation.

Notes by Zain Solinski