Patti Johnson Wilson Classics Series


Luminous: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”

Partnering with Folds of Honor

Sarah Hicks, guest conductor
Tim McFadden, Principal Trumpet

Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin
Johann Baptist Georg Neruda – Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major
Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, Eroica

Saturday, May 20, 2023 | 7:30 PM
Tulsa Performing Arts Center


Program Notes

Although primarily remembered for his brilliantly scored orchestral music, especially such works as Boléro, and the ballet Daphnis et ChloéMaurice Ravel (1875-1937) was himself a pianist. His last piano composition was a six movement neo-Baroque suite called Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ravel composed the Tombeau during the First World War as a memorial to friends killed in battle, though the memorializing aspect of Le Tombeau de Couperin does not end with the lost soldiers. The work’s title, The Tomb of Couperin, is a dual reference to France’s musical past. In the 17th century, instrumental works called “tombeau” were written by French composers to memorialize great musicians. The Couperin’s were a French musical family that came to prominence in the 17th century, led by François “Le Grand.” While Ravel’s Tombeau probably refers to François, his use of French Baroque dances for each movement, the general style of the music, and the neoclassical spirit of the age suggest that Ravel may have been paying a more general tribute to France’s illustrious musical past. In 1919 Ravel created a concert favorite through his brilliant arrangement of Le Tombeau for orchestra. In this version, intended for a ballet, the suite is reduced to four movements and reordered.

The Prelude opens with a finely filigreed theme, heard in the winds, that is soon answered in the strings building to a marvelous crescendo. This constantly murmuring idea permeates the movement lending a sense of breathless excitement to this captivating music. The Forlane, an Italian dance taken up in French courts in the 17th century, is marked by its elegance and gaiety. Ravel has recast this dance with a sense of irony, tension, and lingering poignancy. A sense of tenderness and fragility seem to be expressed in the delicately turned melodies of the Minuet. Light pizzicatos soon give way to ominously swelling strings before they too recede as the opening lyrical theme returns—its gracefully drawn lines providing unexpected comfort. The lively closing Rigaudon has a slightly mischievous character with its surprising outbursts and sudden contrasts. A more relaxed middle section featuring solo winds briefly turns rhapsodic before the ebullience of the opening section brings the work to its abrupt conclusion.

There are a small number of concertos for trumpet that receive frequent performances today. Most notable among those are concertos by Joseph Haydn and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Those composers wrote their concertos for the “keyed trumpet” before the invention of piston or rotary valves so familiar to most brass instruments today. The concerto heard on this program is by a little-known Czech-born composer, Johann Baptist Georg Neruda (c.1711-1776). Neruda was an active performer and composer who spent much of his productive life in Dresden, Germany. Neruda’s concerto was originally composed for the equally obscure corno da caccia, literally hunting horn. This instrument had neither valves nor keys and as such is described as a natural horn, similar to the bugle sometimes heard in military functions today. The corno da caccia was shaped like a modern French horn with its coiled tubing and flared bell, but its size was smaller and consequently produces pitches and a tone quality more akin to the modern trumpet than the French horn. It was almost inevitable that Neruda’s concerto would become a work transcribed for the modern trumpet due to its original sound characteristics.

While Haydn, Hummel, and Neruda all lived in the 18th century, Neruda was a generation older than Haydn, placing him in a time of musical transition from the late-Baroque to the Viennese Classical styles. This transitional character is evident in the sound of this concerto, which has characteristics of both periods. Baroque and Classical concertos were both usually in three contrasting movements in the pattern Fast-Slow-Fast, which is also the structure of the Neruda Trumpet Concerto in E-flat. This work is also written for accompaniment by a string orchestra with continuo (harpsichord), typical of many Baroque concertos. In addition, Neruda’s melodic style borrows from the Baroque in its longer, heterogeneous phrases and the extended string interludes or ritornelli, that alternate with the soloist in the outer movements. On the other hand, Neruda’s writing evokes Classical elements of clearly defined melodic phrases, pulsing accompaniment figures, and uncluttered texture in his string writing. Neruda also includes brief solo cadenzas in each of the three movements, a feature commonly found in Classical concertos more so than in the Baroque. Overall, the concerto is lyrical and light in the faster movements and graciously contemplative in the expressive Largo middle movement.

Music of any historical period is to some degree a reflection of contemporary political and social forces. The Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, op. 55,Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is a famous example of an artistic work influenced by its historical context. The title, Eroica, or heroic, was given to the symphony two years after the original title, “Bonaparte,” was furiously and unceremoniously torn out of the score by Beethoven upon hearing of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor.  Despite the famous and distinctly romanticized popular recounting of this story, the Eroica Symphony is at its essence a musical manifestation of Beethoven’s personal heroic ideal (epitomized in the opera Fidelio), influenced as much, if not more by the then current philosophical trends as by the actions of the French ruler.

​     From a strictly musical point of view Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is a true milestone. It presents crucial elements in the development of Beethoven’s personal musical style as well as pointing the direction for the evolution of “the symphony.”  he Eroica expands contemporary notions of symphonic form in its depth of expression, length, instrumentation, harmony and formal structure. Amid all this expansion one key element is compressed with revolutionary consequences: melody. Here Beethoven begins reducing his melodies to brief but pregnant ideas or motifs. Through the use of these germinal ideas the potential for creating musical correlations between divergent or seemingly unrelated elements is possible. The organic sense of unfolding created in Beethoven’s mature works is founded on the use of these extremely fertile ideas. An example of this concept is demonstrated in a possible explanation of the significance of the curious opening chords of the symphony. Through this interpretation, it is possible to view these E-flat major chords as the most compact presentation of the opening theme, which is also comprised simply of the notes of the E-flat major chord.

The huge and powerful opening movement of the symphony is truly one of Beethoven’s most impressive musical utterances. Here Beethoven has shifted the traditional emphasis of symphonic form away from the presentation and repetition of themes to their dramatic and expressive development. Constant rhythmic and harmonic surprises keep this elaborate discourse from ever seeming tedious or ordinary.

The second movement, entitled “Funeral March,” is of proportions appropriate to a hero of mythic stature. This movement takes us from the heights of exhilaration to the awesome depths of death and the unknown. All the while, persistent marching rhythms remind us of our own experience of the inexorable passage of time.

​     The sobering Funeral March is followed by the energetic Scherzo and Trio fraught with jarring accents and including, for the first time in the history of the symphony, parts for three rather than the usual two French horns. The horns are the featured instruments in the second section, Trio, where they take the lead with their brilliant and treacherous fanfares. The tremendous sweep of this movement is once again attributable to the relentless rhythmic and harmonic vitality characteristic of the first movement.

To bring this Heroic symphony to an appropriate close, Beethoven decided to create a monumental set of variations. The movement begins and ends with a wild rush initially leading to the presentation of the unassuming theme presented in the violins, violas and cellos.  This theme, incidentally, first appeared in Beethoven’s ballet music to The Creatures of Prometheus, op. 43. Nine variations of the theme then follow, each more elaborate than the last, each revealing unimagined possibilities for such a simple melody, and each demonstrating the masterful creative genius of the composer. The final rush of sound that brings the symphony to its conclusion leaves both the audience and orchestra physically and emotionally spent. ©2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.