Ventura Music Festival – Ventura CA

Music Connects Beethoven, a VMF Special Edition Series

The Beethoven 250th Birthday Celebration Series continues with Adam Golka

The maestro’s instrument, for which he composed more than for any other, was, of course, the piano, and the thirty-two monumental sonatas he wrote for that instrument may be the largest part of the giant legacy he left us.  Pianist Adam Golka, a protégé of Alfred Brendel, first decided to perform the entire Beethoven cycle (eleven concerts’ worth of music) when he was just 18 years old.  Ten years later, he began a reexamination of these famous works, and has now video recorded the entire cycle, including his own interviews with specialists from a variety of fields, musical and otherwise, who have relationships with this music.   Golka calls the giant project, [email protected], and we are pleased to present several of his performances together with his short films.

Notes by Nuvi Mehta, Artistic Director

December 16, Beethoven’s 250th birthday – Sonata 14 in c minor, Opus 27, No. 2 ‘Moonlight’ ; Interview with Harpist Bridget Kibbey “Resonance.”

On Beethoven’s 250th Birthday, December 16th, we featured Sonata No. 14 in c minor, Opus 27, No. 2 ‘Moonlight’ .

By 1801, Beethoven had cemented his reputation as the preeminent pianist of his day, had several hits, and had become the new composer to watch. In an era of revolution, he had begun to push the boundaries of form, and as he began his 13th and then 14th piano sonatas, he pushed them further. He titles them “…quasi una fantasia” – “like a fantasy”. Fantasies, free-flowing and improvisatory, had existed as short pieces, or parts of larger ones, but never as entire multi movement sonatas.

Here, Beethoven reverses what had become a standard practice, in which sonata’s first movements were dominant, in favor of slower, introductory beginnings directed toward dominant, dramatic finales.

The famous, gentle, arpeggiated accompaniment figure of the first movement of opus 27, No. 2, ‘Moonlight’ becomes, in the finale, a cataclysmic torrent, which must have astonished Beethoven’s listeners. The sonata was an immediate and lasting hit – so much so, that its popularity eventually annoyed Beethoven, who groused, “Everybody is always talking about the C-sharp minor Sonata! Surely I have written better things.”

The Moonlight Sonata takes its sobriquet from a poem written five years after Beethoven’s death by the music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab, who described the effect of the first movement as like that of moonlight on the waters of Lake Lucern.

January 8 – Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Opus 27, No. 1; Interview with pianist and composer Ran Blake

Having established himself as the preeminent pianist of his day and as the composer to watch, Beethoven, entering his 30s in 1801, began to push boundaries even further than he had before.  He wrote his Opus 27 piano sonatas in a new style which he labelled “quasi una fantasia” – ‘like a fantasy”. Instead of a dominant first movement setting the tone for the entire work, the movements of these sonatas would feel improvisatory and would grow toward dominant finales. 

Indeed in Opus 27, No.1, the movements flow directly from one to the next without pause. Yet in both sonatas the motives from the very beginning inform the rhythms of the other movements and reach their apotheosis in the rapid final sections. Beethoven further unites Op. 27, No. 1 by bringing back a memory of the third movement, dreamlike, toward the end of the finale, just before we wake up to its thundering conclusion. 

For today’s sonata, Opus 27, No. 1, Adam Golka interviews jazz pianist and composer Ran Blake, who helps Golka create his own fantasy from Beethoven’s theme.

January 15 – Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Opus 81a ‘Les Adieux’; Interview with pianist and composer Jan Swofford

Beethoven labeled his twenty-sixth piano sonata The Farewell. It is his only overtly story telling sonata, and he wrote it for his great patron, friend and student, Archduke Rudolph, who, along with most of the Austrian nobility, left Vienna during the second half of 1809 — a tumultuous year for Austria, as well as for Beethoven.

Frustrated he had not been appointed Kapellmeister in Vienna, in January, Beethoven accepted an offer from Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleon’s younger brother) to become his Kapellmeister in Westphalia. He let it be known he preferred Vienna, and that should a similar salary be available, he would be happy to stay. Archduke Rudolph, together with Count Kinsky and Prince Lobkowitz, therefore offered Beethoven an annuity for life if he would maintain Vienna as his primary residence. To this, Beethoven agreed and signed a contract.

Six weeks later, Austria, together with Britain and Russia, declared war on France for the fourth time, only to be soundly beaten by Napoleon, yet again. By May 4th, with the French army only days from Vienna, Rudolph, along with all members of the imperial court were forced to flee to the country, and Beethoven began this ‘Farewell’ music for him. On May 10th, Napoleon bombed, and then captured the city. Beethoven took refuge in his brother’s basement during the shelling, protecting what remained of his delicate hearing by placing pillows over his ears.

Eight months later, having met Napoleon’s demands, the nobility returned to Vienna, and Beethoven completed this sonata, labelling the last movement ‘The Return’.The music is intensely programmatic from the start. Under the first three notes, which end with a sense of loss in a deceptive cadence, Beethoven wrote the three syllables of the German word for ‘Farewell’: ‘Lebewohl’.

These three descending notes, which can be harmonized in the style of woodland horns – suggesting the countryside, distance, and travel, are heard throughout the first movement, in both rapid and contemplative moments. In the second movement, built from a motive over a diminished chord, Beethoven creates one of his most poignant pictures of loss and isolation. Suddenly, however, the last movement – The Return – erupts in an explosion of joy – an outburst across the piano, as an excited dog might leap upon its returning master. Rapid fire notes bubble up throughout a movement made up of melodies in duet – appropriate for friends back together after a long absence.

Beethoven’s life would return to its upward trajectory, but in the aftermath of the war, the Austrian economy collapsed, currency was devalued, and the value of his annuity was dramatically reduced. Nonetheless, Beethoven never entertained further thoughts of leaving his beloved Vienna.

January 22 – Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Opus 110; Interview with Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet

January 22 – Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Opus 110; Interview with Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet

I can think of few works better suited to our time than Beethoven’s Opus 110 and invite you to let its beauty wash over you. Immerse yourself especially in the emotional journey of the last movement. (17:15).

In 1820, Beethoven emerged battered and torn from a long period of turmoil and emotional crisis. He set about to reconstruct his life, accepting a commission to write three piano sonatas. The first, Opus 109, came quickly, but attacks of jaundice and rheumatism would delay completion of 110 and 111 until the end of 1821. These were to be Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas. 

Well into his late period, Beethoven is writing music that transcends genre, form and style — at times every note transporting us into deeper realms of emotion — all of it music he could no longer play or even hear. Like Mozart before him, Beethoven’s music grew more complex, in his last years becoming more contrapuntal – a music in which multiple lines are heard simultaneously — a primary style from Bach’s time.

In Opus 110, Beethoven contrasts singing melodies with complex instrumental style. The first movement opens with a most elegant, soulful melody followed by instrumental passages, moving to darker versions of the beautiful opening melody. It is concise, only seven minutes, yet with such freedom it seems limitless. Beethoven follows this with a short, jocular, syncopated scherzo/trio.

It is in the finale that Beethoven brings us true depths of both despair and joy. After an introduction drawing us into his world, he writes a soulful recitative where the singer tells a story over repeated chords – a ‘songful lament’ ­so doleful as to provide catharsis for the pain of the world. Then he follows song with instrumental complexity: a Bachian-style fugue in which a tune is played by different voices entering at different times in different keys. It is complex and transcendent, suggesting that wherever we are, ultimately we all sing the same tune. 

While Beethoven then returns to his sad song. a miracle moment follows (25:28). Beethoven plays one chord repeatedly, as if to say “Enough!”, and to shake off the sadness. He concludes with a new fugue, an inversion of the first that grows into a triumphant, joy-filled climax. After all his illnesses and troubles, Beethoven seems to shout: “Go back out into the day and re-experience all the joys of life!”

January 29 – Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Opus 53 ‘Waldstein’; Interview with Alfred Brendel

The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars are the background to Beethoven’s art. The idea of writing music for posterity came into its own in the new atmosphere in which the common man had greater rights. Mozart may have known some of his works might last, but he wrote works on commission primarily for a single occasion. Beethoven arriving in Vienna in 1792, just a year after Mozart’s death, believed in art, capital ‘A’, and wrote everything, regardless of the commission, with an eye to posterity.

“Who you are, you are by accident of birth.” Beethoven once thundered at one of his noble patrons: “There will be many princes. There is only one Beethoven!” His hearing would continue to deteriorate, nevertheless he wrote to his brothers in 1802, “I will seize fate by the throat, it shall never overcome me”.

He was looking for a new way forward musically and from this moment came astounding progress, as if all boundaries fell. His very next work, the Third Symphony shattered conceptions of musical drama, contrast and power, not to mention sheer length.

From that moment came his piano sonata, Op. 53. Like the Third Symphony, the piece rumbles out of the gate with repeated chords. As in the symphony, Beethoven unleashes a new, powerful development section with the pianist pouring out one passage after another.  This is a large-scale sonata, the first movement lasting 12 minutes and the third movement,10. Beethoven also wrote a large middle movement, but removed it in favor of a short middle movement serving as an introduction to the final rondo. (He liked the new configuration and thereafter often wrote two-movement works, or works with very short slow movements.)

Beethoven had just been gifted a new, more powerful piano by Erard, the French piano manufacturer (shrewd marketing, then, as now). Beethoven took full advantage of the new foot pedals and expanded range and sonority of the instrument in this work. The last movement Rondo, emerging from the last notes of the short middle movement, is another tour de force in which Beethoven asks the pianist to hold the sustaining pedal through changes of harmony through extended, ethereal trills and even across changes from minor to major. He also asks for soft extended glissandos in octaves in both hands going in opposite directions across the keyboard. In short, this was a work no amateur could play. 

The sonata is dedicated to Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein, a Viennese aristocrat who was Beethoven’s first great patron. It was Waldstein who provided the funds Beethoven needed to return to Vienna in 1792.  Waldstein would fall on hard times, however. His repeated insistence on defeating Napoleon finally got him banished from Vienna. He then bankrupted himself funding his own army to defeat Napoleon. He returned to Vienna impoverished and in disguise, where Beethoven, perhaps out of both pity and gratitude, dedicated to Waldstein the new sonata which has continued to carry his name ever since.  

February 5th -Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat Major, Opus 106 ‘Hammerklavier’ ; Interview with Pianist Richard Goode

Beethoven’s piano sonata Opus 106, called ‘The Hammerklavier’, remains to this day one of the pinnacles of piano composition. It is certainly one of the most difficult works of all time. Beethoven said it would be keeping pianists busy for half a century. So far, we are at two centuries and counting.

Charles Rosen called the slow third movement “a work of despair so extreme that it seems frozen with a grief struggling to find expression.” After he had written it, the Hammerklavier replaced the Appassionata as Beethoven’s favorite among his piano sonatas. It is, however, so difficult and complex that some have called it a work more to respect, than to love. Much of that complexity is contained within its monumental last movement, a triple fugue.

A fugue is a contrapuntal (multiple voice) style of writing from the baroque era in which a theme is played at different times, in different voices, in different keys, with all voices fitting together. Think ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ raised to the level of a Wittgenstein proposition. Most all Beethoven’s late works contained this kind of writing, as did Mozart’s.

The subtitle ‘Hammerklaver’, with its percussive connotation, seems a perfect description for such a propulsive work. In fact, the word simply means ‘Piano’. There had been a suggestion that German composers should begin using German instead of Italian titles for their compositions and Beethoven, beginning with his previous piano sonata, titled these pieces Hammerklavier Sonatas instead of Pianoforte Sonatas. Italian titles crept back in, however, and only this mighty Opus 106 has kept the German name.

It was not a happy time in Beethoven’s life. His brother Karl died in January 1816 and his will granted joint guardianship of his son to both Beethoven and Karl’s widow. Beethoven detested Karl’s wife and immediately sought full custody. The court battles dragged on for 5 years with guardianship passed back and forth and constant battles with the boy and his mother. “God help me,” Beethoven wrote to his friend Zmeskall, “I consider myself as good as lost.” Apart from sonatas Opus 101 and 106, Beethoven’s compositional output was negligible until he was forced temporarily to surrender his guardianship to the boy’s mother in 1819.

Read more about Adam Golka.

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