Christian Thielemann conducts Beethoven’s “Eroica”

17 Jan 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann

  • Franz Liszt
    Orpheus, Symphonic Poem No. 4 (13 min.)

  • Hans Werner Henze
    Sebastian im Traum for large orchestra (20 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op. 55 “Eroica” (56 min.)

  • free

    Christian Thielemann in conversation with Amadeus Heutling (27 min.)

For these concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Christian Thielemann programmed three orchestral works that refer to literary or mythological figures in completely different ways. There’s Hans Werner Henze’s orchestral piece Sebastian im Traum, premiered in 2005, based on a poem by Georg Trakl. As the composer himself notes, his music tries to “follow the traces of the poet’s words (as someone with a movie camera tries to capture the course of events or as another perhaps takes down the communication of subject matter in shorthand)”. The piece, to which Henze gave the subtitle Salzburg Night Music, is full of allusions “to the rustic Baroque, to the biblical, to the wooden crucifix, to the nearness of death, to the moonlight, to Traklish evening sonatas”.

This concert also includes two works that refer to the legends of the ancient world: Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem Orpheus, composed precisely 150 years before Henze’s composition, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica, bearing witness to the composer’s grappling with a symbolic figure of the European enlightenment: Prometheus. It was no coincidence that Beethoven based the finale of his Third Symphony, originally titled “Bonaparte”, on a melody from his ballet music The Creatures of Prometheus, which premiered in 1801: for – as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later remarked – Napoleon also brought to mankind “light: a moral enlightenment.”

Composers’ Dreams

Music of Franz Liszt, Hans Werner Henze and Ludwig van Beethoven

Hans Werner Henze wished that “music were a part of man’s everyday life” because there would “certainly be less aggression and much more equality and love on earth; for music is a means of communication and understanding, a means of reconciliation”. Henze’s belief in the peacemaking nature of his artistic métier invoked a philosophical discourse that is more than 2,000 years old. Since Plato’s day philosophers have discussed whether and how music has a pedagogical influence on its listeners or can even make them better human beings. Not until the age of biography and the feuilleton did writers counter with the question of whether conclusions about the world view of composers could be drawn from their musical works. In 1903, for example, Romain Rolland declared: “Beloved Beethoven! ... An atmosphere of courage emanates from his personality, a love of battle, the exultation of a conscious feeling of the God within.” Rolland was undoubtedly referring to Beethoven’s adoption of progressive ideas, which is confirmed in his writings; Rolland’s character study of the composer seems to be based equally on a personal interpretation of Beethoven’s music, however. The dialectical connection between the character and music of a composer, his biography and his oeuvre is not resolved in this concert of works by Franz Liszt, Hans Werner Henze and Ludwig van Beethoven, but can perhaps be elucidated and enhanced from several standpoints.

An Overture as Symphonic Poem – Franz Liszt’s Orpheus

Franz Liszt composed a good dozen symphonic poems between 1847 and 1882. Orpheus is by far the briefest of these works. This is explained by the fact that Liszt did not initially conceive the 10-minute work as an independent composition. As music director at the Weimar court, he rehearsed performances of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice at the end of 1853 and, during the preparations for the premiere, decided to frame Gluck’s work with an orchestral prologue and epilogue of his own composition. Liszt later had his overture to Orpheus and Eurydice published as a symphonic poem.

Although Gluck insisted that an overture should musically anticipate the action of the opera which follows it, Liszt took a different approach. His Orpheus does not depict a dramatic struggle or follow a dramaturgy which brings light into the darkness but proves to be an apotheosis – shimmering in every conceivable orchestral colour and sounding like chamber music at times – of the legendary hero of classical mythology idealized as a symbol of humanism. What the music cannot depict, however, are Liszt’s disturbingly prophetic fears, voiced in the preface to the score, that “those times of barbarism may return, when furious passions, avenging themselves for Art’s contempt for their coarse desires, destroy it”.

A Poem in Music – Hans Werner Henze’s Sebastian im Traum(The Dream of Sebastian)

Although Hans Werner Henze devoted his life entirely to music, he had a strong affinity with other art forms and drew a great deal of inspiration for his compositions from them. In a work such as his orchestral composition Sebastian im Traum, written in 2004 and based on a poem by Georg Trakl, Henze seems to adopt the idea of the “renewal of music through its more intimate connection with poetry”, which Liszt had called for nearly 150 years earlier, in his own unique fashion. Henze wrote: “It deals with nocturnal images of the countryside around Salzburg, of the visions of childhood, and of the morgue, with decay, autumnal reveries, angels and shadows. The music tried to follow the traces of the poet’s words (as someone with a movie camera tries to capture the course of events or as another perhaps takes down the communication of subject matter in shorthand), and it has a deep relationship to Salzburg – predominantly referring to my protracted stay there in the summer of 2003, to the (Catholic) melancholy there, to the Salzburg temperatures and perfumes, to the rustic Baroque, to the biblical, to the wooden crucifix, to the nearness of death, to the moonlight, to Traklish evening sonatas.”

There is a smooth transition between the three sections of Henze’s 15-minute composition, which perfectly captures the text of the poem in music. For example, Trakl’s lines “Er aber war ein kleiner Vogel im kahlen Geäst / Die Glocke lang im Abendnovember” (But he was a small bird amid bare branches / The bell tolling long in the November evening) take on a compellingly evocative musical form towards the end of the first section of Henze’s instrumental setting (high woodwinds, high strings, harps – low woodwinds, low strings, percussion), without ever being depicted literally in the music, however. If a (cultural) political statement by the venerable composer is encoded in this hypersensitive music, then it is that of the extremely refined aesthetic of the fin de siècle.

A Prometheus Symphony, “Written for Bonaparte” – Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony

In 1804 Ludwig van Beethoven noted the words “Written for Bonaparte” on a copy of the score of his Third Symphony, until then entitled Sinfonia grande. After Napoleon crowned himself as Emperor – an act construed by Beethoven as a betrayal of the ideals of the French Revolution – the name Bonaparte did not appear on the printed score. Beethoven instead dedicated the work, now entitled Sinfonia eroica, “to celebrate the memory of a great man” (per festiggiare il sovvenire di un grand uomo).

The story of the composer’s fit of rage, during which he reportedly tore the original title page of his Third Symphony in two at the news of Napoleon’s coronation, has been recounted many times. Less widely known are the thematic connections of the “Eroica” to the ancient myths of Prometheus. The son of the Titan Iapetus supposedly stole fire from the gods, later formed humans out of clay and breathed life into them. During the Enlightenment and the Romantic period, the figure of Prometheus was often used to illustrate themes of current interest. Prometheus’s conflict with the gods was interpreted as a symbol of revolutionary protest against existing authorities, the theft of fire was understood as a metaphor for the cultural progress of mankind, and the ability to give life to inanimate matter was regarded as a sign of boundless creativity.

Beethoven grappled with this “symbolic figure of the Sturm und Drang movement” (Ernst Pichler) in 1800, while working on his ballet music The Creatures of Prometheus. Since Constantin Floros’s discovery of the inner coherence between the ballet and the Third Symphony, musicologists have regarded this work as crucial to Beethoven’s development as a composer. Without giving a programmatic interpretation of the four movements of the “Eroica”, the following parallels can be drawn to scenes from the ballet. The brief fugato in the development section of the first movement of the symphony bears a motivic relationship to the Danza eroica in the score of Prometheus. The musical characters of the Marcia funebre and scherzo of the “Eroica” reveal another similarity with the ballet: in the Creatures of Prometheus a tragic scene is followed by a playful scene. Finally, the use of a bass figure from the finale of the ballet in the last movement of the “Eroica” again clearly indicates the inherent connection between the two works. The relationship of the “Eroica” to the Prometheus ballet is by no means inconsistent with the interpretation of the work as the “Napoleon symphony”, however, since Napoleon was repeatedly hailed as a new Prometheus during the 19th century. Five years after Napoleon’s death, for example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe asked: “What has he brought to mankind like that Prometheus? – He has also brought light: a moral enlightenment.”

Mark Schulze Steinen

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Christian Thielemann has been principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since autumn 2012 and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival since 2013. He previously was general music director of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. He held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from 1997 to 2004. Thielemann has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he is particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic. He has been a regular conductor at the Bayreuth Festival since his debut in the summer of 2000 (Die Meistersinger), and was named musical adviser of the festival in 2010. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertoire are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. Made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2011, he has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Franz Liszt College of Music in Weimar and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently with two programmes in December 2012, when he conducted works by Verdi, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Liszt.

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