Mercoledi Musicale

I had my first class of a ten week course on opera with my friend David Nice on Monday. The first five weeks are devoted to Beethoven’s only opera(s) – Leonore (1805) and its subsequent revision/reincarnation as what we know today as Fidelio (1814). It is a work that is definitely in my top ten list and I have been privileged to see several remarkable performances of it.

Now I may be wrong on this, and I hope David will correct me if I am, but though Beethoven revered Mozart he was not all that fond of his operas. However he did compose variations on music from Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Zauberflöte. The Nozze variation was composed in 1793 when Beethoven was 22 years old and first living in Vienna. It is dedicated to Elenore von Breuning, one of his students, with whom, it is said, he was infatuated. The “tendresse” was not returned – as often seemed to be the case with poor Ludwig. However they were to remain friends.

Rather unusually Beethoven introduces the original theme – Figaro’s Act I aria Se vuol ballare – picked out in pizzicato by the violin with a very unassuming accompaniment by the piano. However what follows in the 12 variations is a challenge for both violinist and pianist.

In writing about the piece in 1794 Beethoven said:
‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.

The word for January 13th is:
Variation /ˌverēˈāSH(ə)n/: [noun]
1.1 A change or difference in condition, amount, or level, typically with certain limits.
1.2 A different or distinct form or version of something.
Late Middle English (denoting variance or conflict): from Old French, or from Latin variatio(n- ), from the verb variare.

Mercoledi Musicale

In which we once again look at a lost penny!

After the final chord, I looked up. The Master’s darkly glowing gaze was fixed upon me penetratingly. Yet suddenly a benevolent smile broke up his gloomy features, Beethoven became quite close, bent over me, laid his hand on my head and repeatedly stroked my hair. “Devil of a fellow” he whispered, “such a young rascal!” I suddenly plucked up courage “May I play something of yours now?” I asked cheekily. Beethoven nodded with a smile.

– Franz Liszt on meeting Beethoven

Though traditional thought says otherwise, Beethoven did smile and it would appear that on more than one occasion he laughed. In a post that begins with the excerpt I’ve quoted above from Liszt’s diary Professor David Dennis explains where our misconception of a dour, raging Ludwig Von came from. A quick left click on LvB above will take you to his post.

If another legend is to be believed LvB was also a bit of a penny-pincher and on one occasion when a brand new penny (groschen) fell down a drain he immediately sat down at the clavichord and expressed his rage in this little piece: Die Wut über den verlorenen Groschen, ausgetobt in einer Caprice (Rage over a lost penny in the form of a caprice).

Of course this story is as unfounded as the “grumpy old curmudgeon” spiel. Beethoven called the unfinished piece a Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio (Rondo in the Gypsy style, almost a caprice). The “Rage” title does appear on the manuscript but not in Beethoven’s hand. It appears it was added by his friend and unpaid secretary Anton Schindler in one of his less than honest attempts to cash in on the unpublished manuscripts that he inherited on the composer’s death.

It is often played as a virtuoso encore piece by pianists as an excuse to show off their furious technical agility (a few names spring to mind). I’ve chosen the 1964 Kempf version because he treats it as what it is – a rondeau, energetic and full of humour and just a touch of romanticism. He shows his own genius without obscuring the genius that was Beethoven.

On this day in 1955: Israel obtains four of the seven Dead Sea Scrolls.