One After the Other
Works by Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann
London in a minor key –Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 in C minor
Unlike Mozart, a child prodigy who was widely acclaimed at an early age, Joseph Haydn did not travel until late in his life, out and away into the big, wide world. The enterprising German violinist Johann Peter Salomon, who presented his own concert series in London, wanted to prevail in the competition to win public favour with a star composer from the continent. And, thanks to determination and surprise tactics, he actually succeeded in engaging the long-awaited Haydn for an exclusive guest appearance in the British capital. Thus Haydn travelled far across land and sea to distant London in 1790, at the – for that time – advanced age of 58.
The Symphony in C minor, Hob. I:95, which was probably performed for the first time on 29 April 1791, was entirely consistent with the ideas of grandeur, sublimity and majesty that English audiences associated with Haydn’s music. This “New Grand Overture”, as it appeared on the programme, does in fact begin grandly with a theatrical gesture that still vaguely recalls the roots of the classical symphony in the Italian opera sinfonia, a motif suggesting “curtain up!” and “attention!” But this almost menacingly striking signal, played fortissimo and in unison, does not even last two bars, then the silence of a general pause falls over the hall and the astonished audience. The C minor Symphony bewilders its listeners, then and now, with incredibly varied music; again and again it catches its musical breath, the tone changes from the predominant genre pathétique to a Watteauesque stylized melancholy, from symphonic furor to concertante interplay with delicate, often surprising solos by the violin and particularly the cello, from Baroque fugal erudition to galant, witty conversation. And don’t forget: from minor to major. The only minor symphony among Haydn’s twelve “London” symphonies ends brightly and festively in C major!
A poem at the same time –Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 was composed in 1805/1806, in chronological proximity to the Fifth Symphony, and in fact one motif is common to both works, the most famous motif of all: short – short – short – long. Unlike the C minor Symphony, however, whose opening Allegro con brio is dominated with almost totalitarian force by this elemental rhythmic formula (“Thus Fate knocks at the door!”), in the Fourth Piano Concerto a first movement with a completely different stylistic tone and mentality unfolds. Beethoven’s master pupil Carl Czerny described the Allegro moderato (probably somewhat subjectively) with the words “simple, peaceful, cheerful and relaxed”. Beethoven himself was the soloist at the Vienna premiere of his Concerto, which took place at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz in March 1807. And he made an unprecedented and astonishing impression with this new composition by conceiving the opening bars as a piano solo, in a deliberate break with generic tradition, thus giving the pianist – that is, himself – precedence over the orchestra.
It is not only remarkable that the piano has the right to enter first in Beethoven’s G major Concerto but also and especially how this happens: not as a virtuosically spectacular surprise coup, but rather as a restrained, tentative, thoughtful introduction. The performance markings are piano and dolce; Beethoven thus brings an element of intimacy, individuality and sensitivity into the genre of the concerto, which is traditionally understood as extroverted, public and festive. The second movement also confirms the exceptional status accrued to the soloist with its dramaturgical contrasts. These contrasts could not be sharper, more idealized, more irreconcilable: tutti versus solo, recitative versus melody inspired by song and – the most important fundamental difference – harsh objectivity versus lyrical subjectivity. When the tranquil, inspired song has prevailed over the impersonal rigidity and severity of the orchestral tutti at the end of this “scene” (which has frequently invited comparison with Orpheus’s encounter with the merciless Furies in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice), the piano finally reveals itself as the voice of human individuality, with which it speaks literally from the first bar in this concerto. And what did Adolf Bernhard Marx, a jurist from Halle who became a music theorist and critic, say about it? “It is one of the most beautiful and most pleasing concertos, but at the same time it is a poem; it is a concerto composed by a tone poet, and only a tone poet is worthy of performing it.”
Robert’s Mind – Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, op. 120
On Whit Sunday 1841 Clara Schumann noted in her diary: “Robert’s mind is very creative now, and he began a symphony yesterday which is to consist of one movement, but with an Adagio and finale. I have heard nothing of it as yet, but from seeing Robert’s doings, and from hearing D minor echoing wildly in the distance, I know in advance that this will be another work emerging from the depths of his soul.” During the previous months Schumann had already composed his First Symphony in B flat major, op. 38, as well as a “Symphonette” (which he published as the three-movement Overture, Scherzo and Finale) and the Fantasyin A minor, later the first movement of the Piano Concerto. But that was not all; his thoughts were also revolving around the plan of a Sinfonia solemnis for the unveiling of a statue of Jean Paul. It is no wonder that Schumann could scarcely contain his joy in September, when he finished the D minor Symphony that Clara had overheard: “Now I am absolutely immersed in symphonic music. For me, the highly encouraging reception with which my First Symphony was met [at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, conducted by Mendelssohn] has completely set me on fire.” But Schumann was neither a resilient, cheerful person nor a silent sufferer. His creative enthusiasm proved to be extremely transitory. “And if we musicians live so often, as you know we do, on sunny heights, the sadness of reality cuts all the deeper,” he confessed to a friend. In any case, when the Leipzig premiere of the new D minor Symphony, with its radical cyclical formal concept, fell far short of the successful premiere of the First, the old “symphonic scruples” promptly returned, the endless doubts, the often heard and voiced admonition “after Beethoven, abstain from symphonic plans.”
Years passed before Schumann again took this risk. In late 1845 he started work on the C major Symphony, op. 61, almost as therapy during a phase of psychological breakdown which manifested itself in symptoms such as vertigo, insomnia and acoustic hallucinations. Six years later, however – in the meantime Schumann had been appointed municipal music director in Düsseldorf and in the initial, fleeting euphoria there had composed his E flat major Symphony, op. 97, the “Rhenish” – he also took out the long-ignored D minor Symphony again, revised the orchestration with a certain tendency towards opulence, modified the tempo indications in favour of a more relaxed pace and made various changes to the composition itself, incorporating repeats into the outer movements and altering the transitions between movements. In this version Schumann conducted his D minor Symphony – according to the definitive numbering, the Fourth Symphony, op. 120 – for the first time on 3 March 1853 in Düsseldorf and again a few weeks later at the opening of the Lower Rhine Music Festival. A late and final triumph, before the sadness of reality cut all the deeper into his life.