Listening to Beethoven #163 – Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43

Maria Casentini, Beethoven’s prima ballerina for The Creatures of Prometheus. Used courtesy of Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43 for orchestra (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Salvatore Viganò & Empress Maria Theresa
Duration 60′

Music and reconstruction of the plot (from Wikipedia)

Overture
Act 1
Introduction
Poco adagio
Adagio – allegro con brio
Minuetto
Act 2
Maestoso – Andante
Adagio – Andante quasi allegretto
Un poco adagio – Allegro
Allegro con brio – Presto
Adagio – Allegro molto
Pastorale
Andante
Maestoso (also known as “Solo di Gioia” for solo dancer Gaetano Gioia) – Procession of Silenus
Allegro – Comodo – Dance of Pan and two fauns or nymphs
Andante – Adagio (also known as Solo della Casentini, written for Beethoven’s prima ballerina, Maria Casentini)
Andantino – Adagio (also known as Solo di Viganó)
Finale- Wedding

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Ballet had been a central feature of entertainment in Vienna’s court theatres for several generations prior to Beethoven’s arrival, and after a fallow period under Joseph II, Leopold II restored it to a higher standing in the 1790s. Beethoven had just one encounter with the stage in Bonn, his music for the Ritterballet, but as Daniel Heartz points out many of the piano variations he wrote in Vienna were based on dances or arias, showing he was keeping abreast of new works for the stage.

The celebrated choreographer Salavtore Viganò was asked to premiere a new work each year in Vienna from 1799, and in 1801 he chose to focus on the story of Prometheus. With the intention to honour Empress Marie Therese, Beethoven was invited to write the music, and the hour-long score occupied him up to the premiere in the Burgtheater on 28 March 1801.

Anthony Burton, writing in the Deutsche Grammophon Complete Beethoven, remarks that ‘The Creatures of Prometheus is a work of unusual interests in two respects. It consists of over an hour of mature Beethoven…which is virtually unknown apart from a short overture and one tune in the finale. And it is one of only two extended ballet scores by major composers of the Classical period (the other is Gluck’s Don Juan) to have survived intact. After its first performance the piece became wildly popular, receiving another 28 performances before the end of the following year.

Summarising the plot, he writes, ‘The demigod Prometheus creates two human figures out of clay and brings them to life with the aid of fire stolen from heaven. Finding them lacking in any emotion, he leads them to Parnassus, where they are instructed in the arts by Apollo, Bacchus and the Muses, and through the power of harmony made susceptible to all the passions of human life.’

Heartz describes the structure of the ballet as a ‘heroic-allegorical’ story with the heroism in Act 1 and the allegorical work in Act II, a much longer structure’. The overture, with its close links to the Symphony no.1 in C major, is often performed separately as a concert-opener. Act II is described as ‘more pageant than action ballet’.

Heartz picks out three numbers for special attention. No.8 is described as ‘an impressive rondo in martial style’, no.10 ‘a lovely Pastorale’, and no.16 ‘the great Finale’, where Beethoven writes a theme later used in his Eroica Variations Op.35, and the finale of the Eroica symphony. No.14 in F is the big solo for the celebrated Signora Casentini, playing the first woman created.’

Anthony Burton’s conclusion is striking. ‘Prometheus caught and enhanced the dramatic fire of which Beethoven was capable. It emboldened him to attempt more daring orchestral feats in Symphony no.2. Experience in theatre helped him when he returned to the dramatic stage with his Leonore in subsequent years.

With all that said, audiences were disappointed, in spite of Beethoven’s prowess as a composer. As he wrote just three weeks after the premiere, ‘I have made a ballet, but the ballet master did not make the very best of his end of the job’.

Thoughts

Most concert-goers encounter just five minutes of Beethoven’s music for The Creatures of Prometheus, through the Overture. It is often chosen as an opening piece by orchestras because of its abrupt start, a chord hewn from the rock face. Like the beginning of the first symphony it is a C major chord with an added seventh (B flat) but this time the added note is at the bottom of the texture. The sharp attack no doubt stifles conversation among even the most disruptive audience members! Beethoven’s expert use of silence around the first few chords heightens the drama.

If the Overture is the only part of the ballet you have heard, then you have been missing out. The Creatures of Prometheus might not be a forsaken masterpiece, but it has a lot of good tunes, imaginative orchestration and some very positive music. The relative lack of plot does play a part at times, meaning there is not quite as much contrast in the music of Act 2 as there might have been, but Beethoven’s writing more than compensates.

The orchestration feels heavier than the first symphony, both in the overture and in the bright and breezy section where the statues come to life. The harp playing of Amphion is a striking beginning to the fifth number, which also has a striking cello solo (Orpheus) whose cadenza is followed by a soft-hearted theme as the creatures are presented to Apollo.

There is an impressive heft to the section where the two humans are taught martial arts, while the Pastorale is rather lovely. The prima ballerina solo is elegant and beautifully scored, with solos for basset horn and oboe. The penultimate number begins in subdued fashion but breaks out into a vigorous exchange. Finally we turn to one of Beethoven’s favourite keys, E flat major, for the wedding and celebration of Prometheus’ mission. The important theme ends the ballet in celebratory mood, with a spring in the step and some bracing orchestral figures.

A highly enjoyable hour in Beethoven’s company, then – and an energising one too.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Orchestra of the 18th Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
Freiburger Barockorchester / Gottfried von der Goltz (Harmonia Mundi)

After the opening chords ricochet, the sound of the Freiburger Barockorchester is unexpectedly rich in the lower end, before a headlong rush through the first Allegro. Their approach is a vigorous one, and highly enjoyable in the faster music where a gutsy orchestral sound is revealed.

Frans Brüggen conducts another ‘period instrument’ version with real panache, his Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century not quite as bombastic as their counterparts from Freiburg but giving a classy interpretation nonetheless. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts a version with plenty of character from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, while the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra impress with their control and depth, if not quite as much evident excitement as the period versions.

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1801 Haydn The Spirit’s Song, Hob.XXVIa:41

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

Listening to Beethoven #162 – Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major Op.22

Abend am Fluss (Evening on the River) by Caspar David Friedrich (c1820-5)

Piano Sonata no.10 in B flat major Op.22 for piano (1800-01, Beethoven aged 30)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Adagio con molta espressione
3 Minuetto

4 Rondo: Allegretto

Dedication Baroness Josephine von Braun
Duration 27′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

This is the last piano sonata thought to belong to Beethoven’s so-called ‘early period’ – and it is one of the least known. Its neglect is mysterious, as the composer himself thought highly enough of the work to declare it ‘really something’ when writing to his publisher Hoffmeister. Donald Tovey agreed, the respected musicologist viewing it as ‘exemplifying early Beethoven at its best’.

His enthusiasm is not universally shared by fellow scholars. Daniel Heartz concludes the work is ‘hardly the winner Beethoven claimed. Of its four movements, only the last is undeniably superior in quality’. The first movement is ‘meant to impress by its feats of pianism’…but ‘on closer acquaintance, the movement seems somewhat lacking in content’.

Angela Hewitt fights her corner against the sceptics, waxing lyrical on the first movement as ‘a brilliant Allegro con brio‘, and on the operatic style of the second, which her favourite of the four. The last movement Rondo, she concedes, needs ‘a good technique combined with an equally good imagination’ to hold it together.

William Drabkin, writing for Deutsche Grammophon’s Complete Beethoven Edition, arrives at a striking conclusion. ‘With Op.22 the classical piano sonata has not only ‘washed itself’, it has also exhausted itself. It was now time for Beethoven to try out new external designs as well as exploring new internal means of expression.’

Thoughts

Perhaps inevitably my thoughts are somewhere in between the opinions of Heartz and Tovey, yet the feeling persists that this is a work that could grow in stature with repeated listening and insight. Having heard it several times I can say the themes do stick in the head, and that Beethoven’s way in developing them makes for a very fluent piece of work.

The innocuous, slightly playful theme of the opening is deceptive, but its mood prevails and a hint of humour can be felt throughout. The slow movement is subdued but elegant, with a freely expressive line in the right hand giving it the operatic air observed by Angela Hewitt.

Like the first movement, the third initially seems innocuous, but its theme is attractive until countered by the nagging second idea. Again the themes of the finale seem slight, but have staying power after a few listens. Things take a darker turn as the movement develops, as B flat major becomes B flat minor, but the clouds clear with the reappearance of the main themes. In this movement Beethoven finds close links with Bach, an early premonition of the great fugue he will use in the Hammerklavier sonata, ironically in the same key. Here the writing is less substantial and has less of an impact, but it does nonetheless get Beethoven to the right place for his next stylistic developments to begin.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
Claudio Arrau (Philips)

Angela Hewitt’s enthusiasm transfers to her recording, which is thoroughly enjoyable and brings out a stage-like element of Beethoven’s writing. It helps that she is flexible with her choices of tempo, letting the music breathe for a little longer when it needs to. There are notable versions from Gilels, who gives the slow movement a lot of room without dropping the tension, and Brendel who is characteristically fluid.

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1801 John Marsh Symphony no.30 in E minor

Next up The Creatures of Prometheus Op.43

Listening to Beethoven #160 – Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21

Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries (Detail): Poesie
Poesie, detail from the Beethoven-Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt

Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21 for orchestra (1799-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Baron Gottfried van Swieten
Duration 30′

1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
2. Andante cantabile con moto
3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace
4. Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven took his time before setting down his first symphonic work. Aware of the prowess already shown by Haydn and Mozart, he wanted to be on a sure footing with his first contribution to the form, and used a big concert in Vienna to make his move. The concert contained a major Mozart symphony – thought to be the Prague or the Jupiter – an aria from Haydn’s The Creation, and three major Beethoven works. The first was the Septet, fresh off the page, thought to have been followed by the First Piano Concerto and, finally, this new Symphony.

Reaction was favourable, the only slight criticism an observation that the wind section enjoyed a much higher profile than previously. Beethoven’s other formal inventions were subtle enough to ease the audience into the first part of a transition – with the most inventive tactic deployed early on. The very first chord is the key – C major, but with an added B flat – the seventh – pointing the music towards F major. It may not seem a massive switch but listen to the first chord and you will hear just how different its emphasis is, the first time a composer had tried such a trick in a symphony.

Having pointed this out Jan Swafford is keen to emphasise the traditional aspects of the symphony, the first movement proceeding with ‘a vigorous, military-toned Allegro con brio, its phrasing foursquare, its modulations modest, its development and coda not excessively long’. Similar observations are made on the cautious aspects of the other three movements, though the Minuetto is noted to be a ‘dashing’ scherzo. Overall, for Swafford, ‘as a composer of symphonies and concertos he would rest patiently in the shadow of Haydn and Mozart and experiment with voices while he waited for his muse to show him a more adventurous path.’

Daniel Heartz is more complimentary, though also notes how ‘the symphony as a whole does not reach the level of Haydn and Mozart at their best. All praise to Beethoven, nevertheless, for having the courage to essay a genre that did not come easily to him, and to persevere over four or five years until he was ready to brave public appearance as a symphonist.

A final word to Brahms. ‘I also see that Beethoven’s First Symphony seemed so colossal to its first audiences. It has indeed a new viewpoint. But the last three Mozart symphonies are much more significant. Now and then people realise that this is so’.

Thoughts

While all the critical observations note Beethoven’s caution and respect of tradition in the First Symphony, it is still a remarkable work for its time. It also has great invention, and in a sense Beethoven’s work as an original thinker was already done by the time the first chord had been intoned. Using that particular chord, the C major seventh, would have been a real eyeopener for anybody of the time, a tactic not yet tried that suggested a composer ready to take risks.

As it proceeds the first movement is full of vigorous debate and fulsome writing for wind, an enjoyable dialogue with bags of positive energy. Beethoven writes with great assurance, the dynamic is often loud and the mood upbeat throughout.

In the second movement a tender side is revealed, along with a little wit resembling Haydn – it has a similar profile to the slow movement of his teacher’s Symphony no.100, the ‘Clock’. It also slips into the distant key of D flat major, wholly typical of Beethoven to be thinking further afield with his harmonies, but from here he fashions an effortless return ‘home’.

It may be marked ‘Minuetto’ but there is no way the third movement is anything other than a scherzo. It has a very simple profile – an upwardly rising scale – but Beethoven typically works it into something meaningful. Only 25 seconds in and he’s back in D flat major, showing once again the skill with which he can move between keys. With syncopations and catchy exchanges this is a compact marvel. The trio section is also incredibly straightforward, a series of repeated chords from the woodwind, but once again very effective.

The way Beethoven introduces his main tune in the finale is also very clever, stepping up a ladder one step at a time, returning to earth, then rushing up to the top for the full tune. It generates a good deal of momentum to power this substantial movement, which as Daniel Heartz says represents a desire on the part of the composer to give his works more impetus at the end rather than the beginning. As the symphonies progress we will see this more and more.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini (RCA)
Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical)
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon)
Danish Chamber Orchestra / Ádám Fischer (Naxos)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (BIS)

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1800 Weber Das stumme Waldmädchen

Next up 6 Easy Variations on an Original Theme WoO 77

Listening to Beethoven #155 – String Quartet in D major Op.18/3

op183-woman-before-rising-sunWoman before the Rising Sun, by Caspar David Friedrich (c1818)

String Quartet in D major Op.18/3 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 25′

1. Allegro
2. Andante con moto
3. Allegro
4. Presto

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

This, the third piece in Beethoven’s Op.18 set of six string quartets, was the first in order of composition – yet it fits snugly into the middle of the sequence. For Robert Winter and Robert Martin in their edition of The Beethoven Quartet Companion, this is ‘the gentlest, most consistently lyrical work in the set. Daniel Heartz notes this early on, as the quartet ‘announces its lyric nature from the start by having the violin sing a long-breathed melody’.

Ludwig Finscher is not quite so sure. ‘The D major quartet, the earliest of the six, is a curiously reticent, pensive piece, especially when compared to the G major. It has a simplicity, the final effect of which, in the light of its emphatic dismissal in the finale, is thoroughly stylized, but the stylization works in exactly the opposite direction to the G major quartet. The finale makes up generously at last for what has hitherto been missing’, he says, going on to detail its ‘instrumental brilliance in a rapid perpetuum-mobile manner, dynamic, thematic and harmonic surprises, witty motivic and contrapuntal working.’

Thoughts

It takes a while for this quartet to find its bearings, partly because the opening melody is deliberately ambiguous. As several commentators have noted, it is as though Beethoven starts writing in the middle of a sentence – but after a while we get to see his opening thought in a bigger context. The initially timid mood becomes more settled, the ideas attractive and the quartet texture kept light.

The slow movement is also relaxed and nicely poised, but there are hints of cheekier moments around the edges, Beethoven channeling his inner Haydn. The harmonic writing, too, has an impatient edge as the key often strays away from the home of B flat major.

The scherzo movements of these quartets are where the music feels most modern, and once again with Beethoven’s seemingly throwaway writing a lot happens in a short space of time. This irregular dance, with sparse textures and short lines for each instrument, is balanced by a trio section that slips into the minor key with some edgy, trill-like figures.

The finale, as Finscher notes, really trips along, barely stopping for breath as each of the instruments have their say at high speed. Beethoven enjoys moving the music off the beat, and the switches between quiet and loud keep the listener on their toes, before a surge to the finishing line. For a supposedly gentle piece, it is quite a tempestuous finish – until the very end, where Beethoven is content for the music to come to a quiet standstill.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Quatuor Mosaïques (Andrea Bischof, Erich Höbarth (violins), Anita Mitterer (viola), Christophe Coin (cello)
Melos Quartet (Wilhelm Melcher and Gerhard Voss (violins), Hermann Voss (viola), Peter Buck (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Borodin String Quartet (Ruben Aharonian, Andrei Abramenkov (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello) (Chandos)
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Andras Fejér (Decca)
Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) (Harmonia Mundi)
Tokyo String Quartet (Peter Oundjian, Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Sadao Harada (cello) (BMG)
Végh Quartet (Sándor Végh, Sándor Zöldy (violins), Georges Janzer (viola) & Paul Szabo (cello) (Valois)

There is a range of approaches here. The Tokyo Quartet could be seen to be quite aggressive in their first movement, which while lyrical does not often show the gentle side of Beethoven’s writing. The Jerusalem Quartet are softer, perhaps even a little suave, but the Quatuor Mosaïques get the balance just right. Again the Végh Quartet are sublime in this music.

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1800 Krommer String Quartet in E flat major Op.18/3

Next up String Quartet in C minor Op.18/4

Listening to Beethoven #154 – String Quartet in G major Op.18/2

Op182-Friedrich,_Morgen_im_RiesengebirgeMorning on the Riesengebringe, by Caspar David Friedrich (1810)

String Quartet in G major Op.18/2 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 25′

1. Allegro
2. Adagio cantabile – Allegro – Tempo I
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Allegro molto, quasi presto

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

‘The jester of the set’, says Daniel Heartz of the second of Beethoven’s first published string quartets. Op.18/2 was actually written third, but is carefully placed by the composer to keep a satisfactory flow between the works. In Germany it acquired the occasional nickname ‘Komplientierquartett’, for what Ludwig Finscher calls the ‘graceful principal theme’. The nickname reflects on the quartet too, ‘not merely to compliment but to greet with formal respect and ceremony’.

Commentators identify more links with the past in this work than the forward looking first – yet the links do not mean the work itself is unadventurous. Finscher writes of how the first movement ‘reaches back beyond Haydn to the preclassical realm, but technically, in its almost parodic succession of two-bar groups and tiny, conventional motives, it is a dazzling tour de force, building on the achievements of the Haydn quartet style and simultaneously providing an ironic comment on them’.

Heartz draws close links with Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33/2, also in G major – and gives several examples on how the first and second movements draw on Haydnesque qualities. Finscher extends his observations, concluding that ‘in artistic skill of that order the work is also a celebration of the level of musical culture in Vienna around 1800’.

Thoughts

It is true that the second of Op.18 is very different from the first – but in a complementary way. The mood is amiable and often comedic, the first violin taking the lead in a cheery second theme, where it ascends to the heights like a bird. Some of the harmonic movements are adventurous in the development, showing that if Beethoven is influenced by Haydn he is channelling the composer’s inventive powers too. The viola and cello take the lead in a striking build to a recap of the main theme.

There are more powers of invention in the slow movement, where tender moments give way to an unexpected, capricious section in the middle. The scherzo third movement is another advance on the traditional minuet, light in mood before cutting to an elusive trio section.

At this point it suddenly feels like the work is finishing, but then Beethoven surges forward with an assertive finale, led off by the cello and featuring busy interactions between the four instruments.

Beethoven has fun with this piece, and given the right performance the listener will do too. The Haydn influences are welcome and well-managed, because the quartet never sounds derivative, and its frequent but subtle inventions keep the listener on their toes. A joy from start to finish.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Quatuor Mosaïques (Andrea Bischof, Erich Höbarth (violins), Anita Mitterer (viola), Christophe Coin (cello)
Melos Quartet (Wilhelm Melcher and Gerhard Voss (violins), Hermann Voss (viola), Peter Buck (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Borodin String Quartet (Ruben Aharonian, Andrei Abramenkov (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello) (Chandos)
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Andras Fejér (Decca)
Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) (Harmonia Mundi)
Tokyo String Quartet (Peter Oundjian, Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Sadao Harada (cello) (BMG)
Végh Quartet (Sándor Végh, Sándor Zöldy (violins), Georges Janzer (viola) & Paul Szabo (cello) (Valois)

The Végh Quartet give a delightful account of this piece, light on their feet and pretty quick, but still with plenty of room for their phrasing. The Tákacs Quartet are often brisk, but similarly enjoyable, while the Quatuor Mosaïques are slower and emphasise the graceful interplay between the quartet. Finally the Tokyo String Quartet are nicely poised and enjoy Beethoven’s flights.

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1800 Krommer String Quartet in A major Op.18/2

Next up String Quartet in D major Op.18/3