Programme Guide

In 1997 the Berliner Philharmoniker gave their annual European Concert in the magnificent surroundings of the Opéra Royal in the Palace of Versailles. By way of a tribute to this spectacular example of Baroque architecture Daniel Barenboim opened the programme with Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, followed by Mozart’s C major Piano Concerto K. 415, in which Barenboim himself was also the soloist. Finally came Beethoven’s Eroica.

The musical genre of the tombeau (literally, a grave or tombstone) is a feature of the French Baroque and was intended as a way of paying homage to a famous musician, usually adapting original music by the composer who was being honoured in this way. Ravel followed this model in Le Tombeau de Couperin, citing dance movements from the Concerts royaux by François Couperin (1668–1733), even though he described the suite as a “homage directed less in fact to Couperin himself than to French music of the eighteenth century”. In spite of this, his work clearly wears the musical garb of the twentieth century.

Unlike Couperin, who spent more than twenty years serving the Sun King, Mozart felt oppressed by the intellectual and mental confines of the Salzburg court and settled in Vienna as a freelance musician following his spectacular dismissal. “This is undoubtedly the land of the keyboard!” In 1783 he introduced three new piano concertos to Viennese audiences. Among them was K 415 in C major. He wrote to inform his father that all three works were “a happy medium between what is too difficult and what is too easy – they are very brilliant – pleasing to the ear – and natural without descending into vapidity – there are passages – here and there – from which connoisseurs alone can derive any satisfaction – but these passages are written in such a way that non-connoisseurs, too, cannot fail to be pleased by them, even though they don’t know why.”

Beethoven’s Third Symphony, conversely, was most certainly not felt to be “pleasing to the ear” when it was first performed in Vienna in 1805. Listeners complained that it contained too much that was “strident and bizarre”, while one critic even described it as “morally corrupting”. Today it is regarded as an undisputed masterpiece from a period in Beethoven’s life in which he himself felt that he was writing music “in what is really a completely new manner”.

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