How Beethoven Pushed A Whole Century Over The Brink

E. T. A. Hoffmann, perhaps the most influential writer of early Nineteenth Century Europe, took a listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and proclaimed that the Romantic Era had arrived in music. (Hoffmann’s work is the basis of Tales of Hoffmann, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, and other music, but his work extended to law, literature, music and every other art form.) He knew what he was talking about, though he probably missed by just a bit – Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”) can be seen in retrospect as the breaking point.

Revolution was in the air (e.g. American, French), and the Age of Enlightenment, where rationality was the dominant paradigm, was evolving into a new fascination with self, nature, nationalism, and fantasy. Music began to explode with new sounds, new obsessions, new and more democratic audiences, and a new cult of the personality. The matinée idol superstar and the music of searing internal self-expression took hold.

All of this came to mind as I was writing the program notes for the opening Peninsula Symphony concerts in October, drawing comparisons between Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Fanny Mendelssohn, the three composers on these programs. They couldn’t be more different in temperament, but they have the same assumptions about what a composer is supposed to do – express something personal and powerful, using every resource available in the orchestral tool-kit.

When Beethoven, already the most important composer in Europe, let loose his fury and outrage against Napoleon Bonaparte for proclaiming himself Emperor, thus betraying his announced democratic beliefs, he elevated music to a political/social importance unimaginable up to that moment. The Eroica Symphony broke from the past in the scope of sounds it unleashed and the larger purpose it served. Beethoven made himself a public personality and produced an expectation that music could influence the world, not just the elite aristocratic audience who were previously entitled to know music. It did not take long for such rock-star personas as Paganini, Berlioz, and Liszt to bring the focus on themselves and their personal virtuosity, paving the way for even more dramatic color and Freudian introspection in the music of Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

Fanny Mendelssohn (like her brother Felix) was not such a volatile celebrity, but she focused on that most personal of art forms, the song. She poured her inner feelings into her music, including chamber music, piano works and a few marvelous orchestral pieces like the Overture in C, in addition to those touching songs.

But Tchaikovsky was a volcano of inner torment, wrestling with his own demons and his battles with his place in music and society. His “Eroica moment” was the Fourth Symphony, crashing in the first two movements on rocks of self-doubt and pain, righting himself in a light-hearted third movement scherzo, and at long last, finding renewal in a victory over his demons in the triumphal fourth movement.

All of this comes into focus on our October concerts, as we hear that charming and personal Fanny Mendelssohn overture, and then experience the grandeur and power that Jon Nakamatsu brings to the Emperor Concerto, still a mighty challenge to any 21st Century piano virtuoso. Finally, Tchaikovsky’s most adored and mesmerizing symphony, his Fifth, offers symphony musicians and audiences a wallop of emotion and lyricism. It’s a roller coaster of passion and excitement. I can’t wait.

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