By the time Beethoven was about 40 years old, he had written almost all the works for which he is today famous: the Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (“The Pastoral”), 7, and 8; all five piano concertos; eleven string quartets; a Mass; a wealth of other chamber music; 22 piano sonatas; and the full-length opera Fidelio. The evening concert on Saturday, Aug. 7, at Tanglewood features an all-Beethoven program (conducted by Herbert Blomstedt and featuring violinist Joshua Bell), made up of the Violin Concerto and the Symphony No. 7.
The Violin Concerto was written in 1806, when Beethoven was 36 years old. He had already made a name for himself in his adoptive town of Vienna; his works were regarded as challenging but brilliant; and the composer himself was seen as a worthy successor to Mozart and Haydn. This composition set the stage for all the Romantic violin concertos to follow: those of Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, to name just the best-known.
One of the most notable characteristics of Beethoven’s music is his ability to unify a lengthy composition by means of a very simple rhythm. (The most famous example of this is the short-short-short-LONG rhythm that opens the Fifth Symphony.) An even simpler rhythm opens and runs through the whole first movement of the Violin Concerto. It is quiet, and if you are still settling into your seat while the performance begins, you could miss it. It comes on the timpani: four short taps on the same pitch. Nothing could be simpler. But if you keep this rhythm in mind, you will see how powerfully it unifies everything that follows. The slow movement is a set of variations on a theme of surpassing loveliness, which is given out first by the orchestral strings, fitted with mutes to provide a soft and inward tone. At the end the solo violin leads us straight into the lively finale.
The Seventh Symphony has as its second movement one of Beethoven’s most famous pieces, recognizable as soon as the strings start to play. This movement was so well received at the premiere of the symphony that it was wildly applauded and had to be played again immediately. Shall we revive this practice? The other movements are so rhythmically supple and alive that Wagner, a great Beethoven admirer, characterized the entire symphony as “the apotheosis of dance.”
At Sunday afternoon’s concert, in addition to a vivid opening piece by Missy Mazzoli, the program is all-Tchaikovsky and features conductor Karina Canellakis and Yo-Yo Ma on cello. First we shall hear the “Rococo” Variations for cello and orchestra, a kind of concerto for cello, except that there are no lengthy orchestral interludes, so that the cello is in the spotlight almost all the time. Both the theme and the reduced orchestration deliberately recall the music of Mozart’s time, of which Tchaikovsky was a great admirer.
The program ends with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a mostly dark piece that opens with a descending fanfare that Tchaikovsky himself described as a depiction of Fate. For Tchaikovsky his fate was to be born gay in a strongly repressive Russian society. (This fanfare returns dramatically in the final movement.) Of the relatively short second movement, Tchaikovsky wrote: “It’s sad and somehow sweet to immerse yourself in the past”; while the third movement relieves the generally tragic atmosphere with a lively scherzo, played delicately by plucked strings. The woodwinds and brass instruments provide a more relaxed atmosphere for the middle section of the movement.
Beethoven and Tchaikovsky: the former the most compelling composer of the beginning of the 19th century, the latter the most internationally renowned of the many Russian composers who flourished in the 1860s and 1870s. Their music ranges from uplifting to lyrical, from contemplative to somber. For what is music but a validation and intensification of the full range of human experience.