Bernard Haitink conducts Beethoven and Wagner

06 Oct 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink

Mihoko Fujimura

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    Richard Wagner
    Siegfried Idyll (version for 13 instruments) (21 min.)

  • Richard Wagner
    Wesendonck Lieder (orchestrated by Felix Mottl and Richard Wagner) (26 min.)

    Mihoko Fujimura Mezzo-Soprano

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op. 55 “Eroica” (59 min.)

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    Bernard Haitink in conversation with Matthew Hunter (14 min.)

“Written for Bonaparte” are the words Beethoven pencilled in 1804 on the title page of his Third Symphony, hitherto known as a Sinfonia grande. After Napoleon had himself crowned emperor – which Beethoven took to be a betrayal of the ideals of the French Revolution – the name of Bonaparte no longer appeared on the printed score. Instead, the composition, now named Sinfonia eroica, celebrated “the memory of a great man”. Much has been written about the fit of rage in which Beethoven reportedly scratched out the dedication upon learning of the imperial coronation.

Less well known are the Third Symphony’s connections to the Prometheus myth. Beethoven’s first grappled with the subject of the ancient Greek bringer of fire, an important symbol for the Enlightenment, in his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, premiered in 1801 in Vienna. Can it be coincidental that he took up a theme from that work in the Eroica’s finale? Surely not, stated none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe five years after Napoleon’s death: “What has he brought to mankind like that Prometheus – he has also brought light: a moral enlightenment.”

By contrast, the two works chosen by Bernard Haitink for the first half of his concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker inhabit an utterly private world. Richard Wagner wrote the Siegfried Idyll on themes from his music drama by that name in 1870 as a 33rd birthday present for his wife Cosima, while his Wesendonck Lieder of 1857-58 – adumbrating music from Tristan and the Ring – bear witness to an amour fou between the composer and the author of the songs’ texts, poetess Mathilde Wesendonck.


Symphonic Works by Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven

Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll

On the morning of 25 December 1870, her 33rd birthday, Cosima Wagner was awakened by the sound of ravishingly beautiful music coming from the vestibule of the villa at Tribschen. Several motifs sounded familiar, reminding her of the opera Siegfried, which she had heard during its composition the previous year. In this form, however, everything appeared in a new guise; it was something quite extraordinary. When the music had died away, her loving husband entered the room with the children and handed her the score. The title page bore the dedication “Tribschen Idyll with Fidi’s bird song and orange sunrise, presented as a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima by her Richard.” “Fidi” was a pet name for their 18-month-old son, Siegfried; the “bird song” referred to the forest scene with the blackbird’s song in the opera Siegfried. The “orange sunrise” might have recalled a morning during the summer of 1864 at Lake Starnberg, where Cosima and Richard consummated their union, but was probably an allusion to the first rays of the sun over Mount Rigi, which was the crowning touch to Siegfried’s arrival on 6 June 1869.

Thirteen musicians from the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra were engaged for this premiere. The conductor Hans Richter had rehearsed the Siegfried Idyll, as it was later called, and had also learned to play the trumpet in order to make the Siegfried theme resound properly. The following year Wagner presented the work publicly in Mannheim with a larger ensemble – against the wishes of Cosima, who wanted to preserve this intimate love music as a private work.

... and his Wesendonck Lieder

The house at Tribschen, near Lucerne on Lake Lucerne, where Wagner lived with his family for six years from 1866 until their move to Bayreuth, was his third residence in Switzerland. Zurich had been his retreat since 1849, with changing addresses and interrupted by many journeys, until the merchant Otto Wesendonck made a half-timbered house available to Wagner and his wife, Minna, as a refuge. The house was adjacent to the villa built by Wesendonck in 1857 in the Enge district of Zurich, and this proximity made it almost inevitable that Richard’s interest in Otto’s artistically inclined wife, Mathilde, gained libidinous impulses. And where else could Wagner give expression to this triangular relationship, if not in a musical drama? It was to become his most revolutionary stage work: Tristan und Isolde.

The material had interested him for quite a few years, but now, inspired by reality, he was compelled to begin work on Tristan. Setting Siegfried aside, he completed the libretto on 18 September 1857 and started composing the music on 1 October – with Mathilde taking a keen interest. She received the sketches for the first act of Tristan on the last day of the year, with a dedication: He, Richard, laid at her feet what Tristan and Isolde lamented, their weeping and kissing – “that they might praise the angel who raised me so high”.

This was preceded by even more direct evidence of their spiritual kinship. On 23 December Wagner engaged musicians to play a work for solo violin and chamber orchestra as a birthday serenade for Mathilde: the orchestrated version of the song Träume (Dreams), which he had composed three weeks earlier for one of her poems. The music was quite familiar to Mathilde, since Wagner had improvised it during one of their evenings together, as the musical setting for lines from Tristan. Two other songs – Der Engel (The Angel) and Schmerzen (Sorrows) – were completed before Mathilde’s birthday, followed by Stehe still! (Stand Still!) and Im Treibhaus (In the Greenhouse) in February and May of 1858. The orchestral version of the Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme und Klavier (Five Songs for a Female Voice and Piano) was not performed in public until after Wagner’s death. Felix Mottl orchestrated the songs in 1893, retaining Wagner’s original birthday version for Träume.

“I have never done anything better than these songs, and few of my works will bear comparison with them,” Wagner wrote in his Venice Diary in 1858. Without reservation, the Tristan score is comparable. Describing Träume and Im Treibhaus as “studies” for Tristan, he himself pointed out the close ties between them, which can also be found in the other songs, however. The aural impression is dominated by countless suspensions – both in the vocal declamation and the accompaniment, integrated into a fabric of suspended harmonies, deceptive cadences and dazzling modulations – giving a transitional character to consonance when it occurs, since the “not yet” immediately becomes a “no longer”. Through their direct association with Tristan, the Wesendonck Lieder signal the abandoning of a harmonic centre in favour of endless transition, and thus Wagner’s step over the threshold to new music.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica

In his 1870 essay on Beethoven, Wagner made several noteworthy statements about the Third Symphony: “Now from such of Beethoven’s letters as have been preserved, and the uncommonly meagre information regarding the outer life ... what possible conclusion can be drawn as to the connection of any particular events with his musical creations, and the course of development perceptible therein? Supposing we had all possible information about special facts before us . . . even then we should see nothing beyond what is contained in the account, for instance, that the master had at first designed the Sinfonia eroica as an act of homage to young General Bonaparte and inscribed his name upon the title-page; and that he had subsequently struck out the name, when he heard that Bonaparte had made himself Emperor. ... what aid can such a plain indication give us in judging of one of the most wonderful of musical creations? Can it explain a single bar of that score? Is it not sheer folly to think seriously of making such an attempt?” translated by Edward Dannreuther, 1903

One hundred forty-two years after Wagner’s comments, the awe he expressed plays a less dominant role, no longer hindering a purely musical deciphering of the work. What if we were to explain this sprawling E-flat major symphony as Beethoven’s self-portrait? All the “abnormalities” displayed in this music – the use of 3/4 time in the opening movement, the reduction of the second theme to two bars, the introduction of two additional themes and another new idea before the recapitulation – can be interpreted as expressions of the will of an artist who was able to create himself and the world on his own terms. Implicit in the work is his struggle against obstacles, the greatest of which was the onset of deafness in 1802, in the midst of his work on the Eroica. The Marcia funebre documents his struggle against depression, so to speak. After the C major trio, an elaborate harmonic dialogue between all the participants develops out of the E-flat major theme (returning in inversion), making the lament swell to an accusation. Not until the final bars, with their gradually disintegrating melody, does it come to rest.

The contrast between propulsive vigour and elegiac colouring continues to pervade the work. The development of the Scherzo is equally “non-conformist” – 92 bars of shadowy pianissimo, then a sudden fortissimo tutti outburst, followed by an episode in the countryside during the trio and a completely unexpected alla breve section in the reprise. In the Finale Beethoven returns to an idea he had used several times before, as though he had exhausted his reservoir of innovations in the first three movements. The theme occurs in the ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus, in the Variations for Piano, op. 35, later called the “Eroica Variations”, and, even earlier, in a Contredanse from 1795. The symphony goes far beyond the previous works, however, not only because a new march theme is added in the sixth variation. At the close a vehement, electrifying coda resounds – a “triumphant éclat” crowned by the last 21 bars in E-flat major.

Helge Jung

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Bernard Haitink, born in Amsterdam in 1929, is one of today’s most celebrated conductors with an international conducting career that has spanned more than five decades. He was at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw for more than 25 years (1964 – 1988), and subsequently held posts as music director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (1987 – 2002), the Dresden Staatskapelle (2002 – 2004) and as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2006 – 2010). In addition, he was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic (1967 – 1979) and music director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1977 – 1988) and the European Union Youth Orchestra (1994 – 1999). He is conductor laureate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bernard Haitink has received many international awards in recognition of his services to music, including both an honorary Knighthood and the Companion of Honour in the United Kingdom, and the House Order of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands. He was awarded the Hans-von-Bülow-Medal by the Berliner Philharmoniker and named Musical America’s “Musician of the Year” for 2007. A regular guest with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in 1964, he last appeared with the orchestra in March 2011 conducting two programmes: Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 and works by Witold Lutosławski and Johannes Brahms.

Mihoko Fujimura was born in Japan and studied at the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo and at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Munich. After several successes at international singing competitions, she was an ensemble member of the opera Graz from 1995 to 2000. In 2002, she received international attention at the Munich Opera Festival and the Bayreuth Festival. Since then, Mihoko Fujimura has been a regular guest at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Teatro alla Scala, Bavarian State Opera, Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin and at the Festival in Aix-en-Provence. At the Bayreuth Festival, the mezzo-soprano appeared for nine seasons in a row as Kundry, Brangaene, Fricka, Waltraute or Erda. Her repertoire also includes roles such as Idamante (Idomeneo), Carmen, Eboli (Don Carlos) and Amneris (Aida). As a concert singer, Mihoko Fujimura has appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras and regularly works with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Myung-Whun Chung, Christian Thielemann and Fabio Luisi. Her concert repertoire includes, among others, Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Mahler’s vocal symphonies and song cycles. In addition, the singer regularly gives recitals with conductor and pianist Christoph Ulrich Meier. This will be Mihoko Fujimura’s first guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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