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MSO Treads Beethoven’s ‘New Path’

Mar. 3, 2010
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Shortly after 1800, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) told a friend he would soon “pursue a new path” in music. Heretofore his output—though quite distinctly his own—was clearly indebted to the Haydn-Mozart tradition. As great as Beethoven’s early works were, his compositions began to reveal more restlessness, more powerful thematic ideas and, in general, a grander scale of utterance.

Within the first few years on the “new path,” Beethoven wrote his masterful Third through Sixth Symphonies, the three Razumovsky Quartets, Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61.

The latter is, in fact, one of the superb achievements of Beethoven’s new direction in music, clearly descended from its Classical predecessors yet far beyond them in scope, setting new standards for compositions of its kind with its great breadth and making possible the subsequent violin concertos of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruch and Tchaikovsky. Indeed, Beethoven biographer George Marek called it “the Mount Everest of violin concertos.”

The D Major Concerto’s monumental first movement is based upon the simple four timpani taps with which it begins (Beethoven showing here—as in the famous opening of his Fifth Symphony—how he can make musical mountains out of molehills). The hymnlike second movement (Larghetto) is one of Beethoven’s loveliest orchestral pieces, eventually leading directly into a glorious Rondo-Finale.

Two years later Beethoven wasn’t climbing a majestic music mountain but tramping through the woods with his Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastoral). In this remarkable work, Beethoven’s love of Nature with a capital “N” is worn on his sleeve. As a boy growing up in Bonn he would walk the local woods with his father—a pastime he would enjoy all his life (he was known to shun umbrellas and instead walk in the pouring rain and commonly rejected living quarters from which he couldn’t see trees).

Thus it was that, in the little village of Heiligenstadt on the banks of the Danube, he set about composing “something in which the emotions are expressed which are aroused…by the pleasure of the country.” Though he didn’t want “program music,” he came rather close, even giving specific titles to each of the Pastoral Symphony’s movements. The opening Allegro ma non troppo Beethoven called “Awakening of serene impressions on arriving in the country.” A tranquil “Scene by the brookside” follows, complete with birdsong. Then comes the “Jolly gathering of country folk” with its rustic charm, eventually giving way to an approaching “Thunderstorm” fourth movement. When this finally passes and the Sun re-emerges, the Finale arrives as a “Shepherd’s song; gladsome and thankful feelings after the storm.”

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is succinctly summed up by musicologist Sir George Grove as “a cheerful, genial, beneficent view over the whole realm of Nature…”

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Edo de Waart performs both these works at Uihlein Hall on March 5-7. Acclaimed Russian violinist Vadim Repin is the soloist in the D Major Concerto.


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