Destinations: Austria

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on November 18, 2018 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Austria” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All program notes for this performance were written by Lee Dise.

The Austrian Empire wasn’t a nation like we tend to think of nations today. It wasn’t a state united by a common language or shared ethnic heritage. Rather, it was a multi-ethnic political contraption born of necessity, to defend Christian Europe from the Ottoman Turks. Though its provinces were under constant threat of war, the capital, Vienna, became a wealthy and cosmopolitan city. But by the 19th century, the Turkish threat had vanished, and the Empire’s dozens of nationalities were finally afforded the luxury of resenting their German rulers. Those resentments eventually helped ignite the First World War, and today’s European map bears witness to the explosion that followed. Where there was once an empire, there are now dozens of nations, including one small German state that retains the name Austria.

It was during the period of relative peace between the Turkish wars and when European nationalism sparked violence that Austria became a great music center. Producing any one composer of the stature of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert would be enough to give any country a lifetime’s supply of bragging rights. Producing all three within fifty years is just insane.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven was not born in Vienna, but moved there when he was twenty-one to study with Franz Joseph Haydn; it became his home. When Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the carnage of the French Revolution as France’s Emperor, Beethoven at first thought him to be a great hero and liberator, and even named his Third Symphony after him. However, Beethoven later changed his mind —that is to say, he flew into a rage, scratched “Napoleon” off of the title sheet, and renamed it “Eroica.” After the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon’s brother Joseph at the Battle of Vitoria (in Spain), Beethoven composed “Wellington’s Victory” to celebrate the occasion. This sort of convergence of the martial and the orchestral would be emulated later on by Liszt (“Battle of the Huns”), Tchaikovsky (“1812 Overture”) and Shostakovich (Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”). Beethoven had intended to write this piece for something called a Panharmonicon (a sort of mechanical synthesizer, able to emulate the sounds of musical instruments and even gunshots), but his music proved too grand for the device’s abilities; he re-scored it for orchestra. Beethoven set up the warring factions on stage, using the drums to depict the troop movements of the opposing forces. The British troops are represented by the “God Save the King” tune, the French army by the “Marlborough Has Left for the War” melody (still known today as “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”). Eventually, the French symphonic “forces” weaken, and “Rule Brittania!” takes the concert hall, as the British military had taken the field in real life. The music alternates between obvious “battle” scenes (brass and percussion) and orchestral themes, and towards the end, it all begins to sound similar to the finale of the Ninth Symphony. This composition proved very popular and earned Beethoven a substantial and welcome amount of money; even great composers have bills to pay. However, the piece was not received completely without criticism, and Beethoven’s huffy response was a scribbled note. Translated into English for sensitive ears, it went something like this: “My digestive outputs are more profound than your best thinking!”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Born in Salzburg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began writing music at the age of five (the rest of us are still in kindergarten at that age), and, with that kind of head start, it’s no surprise he produced a prodigious body of music in spite of dying in his thirties. Mozart wrote five violin concertos, all told, four of which he wrote in 1775 at the age of nineteen, about mid-career. One of the four was his Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, nicknamed The Strassburger, which some critics believe to be his very best. Typical of Classical concertos, this concerto has three movements. The first employs the sonata form, which is probably the most important and enduring legacy of the Classical period. You can think of a sonata as a dance between two different melodies in related keys; the melodies flirt with each other, like dancers at a courtly ball. In this concerto, the melodies also contain some dramatic elements, probably an influence from some of Mozart’s own operatic writing. Mozart lifted the main melody of the second movement from an opera he wrote during the same period, “Il re Pastore” (“The Shepherd King”). We don’t call it “plagiarism” when a composer steals from himself. The last movement is a Rondeau, another Classical form in which a main melody opens up the proceedings and alternates with two other melodies. This Rondeau contains the folk melody identified by Hungarian musicologist Denes Bartha as the actual Strassburger melody from which the Concerto gets its nickname. What strikes the critics about this concerto is that, though it contains dramatic melodies that were almost Romantic in character, Mozart still adhered assiduously to the Classical forms.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

The symphonic form itself was pretty much an Austrian invention, evolving from courtroom entertainment to become the pinnacle of compositional achievement. One could say Haydn developed the symphony; Mozart perfected it; Beethoven transformed it; and Franz Schubert gloried in it. What was different about Schubert’s symphonies? You’d have to say the melodic writing—which is quite intense, emotional, almost melodramatic, and at times even tonally ambiguous. Another distinguishing characteristic of this Romantic symphony, one that sets it apart from its Classical forbears, is its use of a trombone section. During the Baroque period, the trombone had gotten typecast as a church instrument. Beethoven was the first to employ it in secular symphonies (in his Fifth and Ninth). Schubert uses his trombones similarly to the way a church orchestra would—that is, playing solemn chorales to serve as a foundation for the melodic development. Trombones were Schubert’s “power chords,” so to speak. There are several theories, some quite lurid, as to why Schubert never finished this piece. But whatever the real reason was—Schubert certainly had enough time—he began writing it six years before his death. The reason remains a mystery. Schubert’s Eighth Symphony may be the most famous unfinished symphony in the orchestral repertoire, but it isn’t the only one. Fellow Austrian Anton Bruckner died before completing his Ninth; another Austrian, Gustav Mahler, left behind notes for his Tenth. Like musical chairs, like life itself, sometimes the music just stops before you’re quite ready. The greatness of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is, unfinished though it may be, it does not sound incomplete.

We hope you enjoy the musical offerings in today’s concert, composed by some of the greatest and most distinctive composers in the history of Western music.