Beethoven and the Power of Four Notes

Unknown-20“Long…short, short, short…” This is the spirited little cell that quietly opens  Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. The entire piece grows from this almost sneaky opening in a way not unlike the famous, ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

As you listen to the first movement, notice all the ways these four notes return. Sometimes they’re hidden or played in quiet pizzicato. At other times you’ll hear the motive in the entire orchestra as a noble proclamation. This motive is tossed and turned throughout the  development section (beginning at 7:06). Then, listen to the way we get back home to the recap, again with these four simple notes (9:27). Along the way, we hear elements that would have shocked the first audiences, like the sudden, far out key change to E-flat major for the second theme (1:18).

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 was written between 1796 and 1797 and dedicated to the Countess of Bratislava. Beethoven gave the first performance on a piano tuned a half step too low (He transposed the entire concerto to C-sharp on sight)!

Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin and the London Symphony with Sir Colin Davis:

  1. Allegro con brio 0:00
  2. Largo 14:32
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando 25:09

“Badly Written” Tchaikovsky: The First Piano Concerto

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Clumsy…badly written…vulgar…with only two or three pages worth preserving.

That was the harsh assessment of Tchaikovsky’s friend, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, following a private reading of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 on Christmas Eve, 1874. Rubinstein went on to call the piece “worthless” and “impossible to play.” But Tchaikovsky refused to “alter a single note” (he later made a few revisions in 1879 and 1888) and the concerto now joins a long list of beloved war horses prematurely deemed “unplayable.” The violinist  Leopold Auer had a similar, if slightly less devastating reaction to the Violin Concerto.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto breaks the rules. It opens with an unabashedly expansive melody in the “wrong” key of D-flat major. Beyond the first movement’s introduction, this powerful theme isn’t heard again, but it opens the door for all that follows. As Kenneth Woods points out, the concerto develops from motivic cells present in this memorable opening “seed.”

In the second movement, a series of instrumental voices, each with its distinct persona, contributes to the musical conversation. First we hear the solitary flute against the backdrop of spare pizzicati. We step into a warm new world with the first statement of the piano. Listen to the velvety descending string line and the bassoon in the background. Before the movement is over, the oboe, horn, and cello have contributed to the conversation.

One of my favorite moments in this concerto comes at the end of the final movement (beginning around 38:20, below), as our sense of expectation is stretched almost to its breaking point. As the bass and tympani hold a dominant pedal, the violins search for the theme we know is coming (38:38). At 39:31 the final notes of the piano’s dramatic cadenza seem to be leading a clear tonic resolution. Another composer might have given us that clear downbeat resolution. But, because of the harmony of Tchaikovsky’s theme (beginning on the dominant), the triumphant orchestral tutti begins and for a split second we’re still hanging on the dominate.

Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on New Years Eve, 1988:

  1. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito 0:00
  2. Andantino semplice — Prestissimo 24:40
  3. Allegro con fuoco 33:18

Additional Listening

  • a younger Martha Argerich and then another performance from a few years later. At the end of the second performance the audience and conductor Charles Dutoit urge a clearly annoyed Argerich to play an encore and she gives in with a magical performance of Schumann.
  • Eugene Istomin with the Philadelphia Orchestra

Music and Humor

images-6Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny.

To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and sincerity. The title of the series seems misleading because the adults in the audience were clearly learning as much as the children.

Bernstein’s episode inspired me to think about other examples of musical humor. Mozart’s A Musical Joke and Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians quickly come to mind. Here are a few more. In the thread below, add your own favorites.

Haydn’s Jokes

Franz Joseph Haydn’s music is full of humor, from the “Farewell” Symphony’s long, final diminuendo to a jarring fortissimo in the otherwise elegant Andante of the “Surprise” Symphony. Like all comedy, the element of surprise is a key ingredient. Throughout his life, Haydn was employed by aristocracy. He seems to have enjoyed keeping his employers on their toes with occasional, unexpected jokes.

The String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 is nicknamed, “The Joke.” Listen to the final movement, played here by the Buchberger Quartet and you’ll hear why:

Comic Voices in Early Beethoven

Last month, I pointed out some of the humor in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The final movement of Piano Concerto No. 1, a giddy, wild romp, contains similar comic elements. Unlike the elegant rondos of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s humor comes with a ferocious, gruff growl, especially in the thunderous orchestral tutti sections. There are also jarring accents on the “wrong” beats.

Listen to the clownish conversation between low and high voices (starting around 26:18 and continuing through 26:42). You’ll hear this back and forth dialogue throughout the movement (in the orchestra at 28:42 and 29:01).

Beethoven’s sudden modulations to remote keys keep our ears reeling. Following the cadenza at the end of the movement (31:06), think about where you expect the music to resolve and listen to the surprise we get instead. Beethoven has one more practical joke up his sleeve in the final bars of the concerto, so turn up your volume and listen closely…

In the first movement, listen to the way the opening “long, short, short, short” motive develops. This musical DNA pops up in subtle ways (the pizzicato in the development section beginning around 7:50). One of my favorite moments comes at the end of the development section as we anticipate the recap (9:26). Our expectation grows as the resolution we expect is delayed. Then, suddenly, the recapitulation hits us over the head.

Here is Evgeny Kissin’s recording with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo (14:33)
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando (25:11)

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32, was written between 1914 and 1916. Each of the seven movements depicts the astrological qualities of a planet in the solar system. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity evokes characters as well as jokes and fun-loving games. You can hear this between 0:58 and 1:20, in the big, low voice of the strings and horns, followed by the light, dancing woodwinds.

Here is a recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony:

Burlesque Copland

Let’s finish up with Burlesque, the fourth movement of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre. Entrances in the wrong keys and constantly changing rhythmic meters are part of the humor of this piece. We can almost imagine the clownish characters and their routine. In this case, it’s probably relatively low humor. The piece ends with one last practical joke…