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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN / BRAHMS: Favourite Overtures
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Tragic Overture, Op. 81
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
It was the theatre, as much as anything else, that held the cultural
interests of the Viennese in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
There was a demand for opera of all kinds, in which the principal composers were
involved. Mozart's dissatisfaction with his native Salzburg resulted in part
from a lack of opera there and a consequent lack of opportunity, a matter
remedied when he moved to Vienna in 1781 to join composers of the stature of
Beethoven settled in Vienna in 1792, making a name for himself as a pianist
and as a composer of marked originality. He lacked the education of Mozart and
of Gluck and was without their literacy, but read widely, if without
discrimination, and shared something of the general interest in drama
increasingly dominated by France.
As it turned out, Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, its final
title the name assumed by the heroine Leonora, who disguises herself as a boy in
order to rescue her husband Florestan from the dungeon into which his political
enemies have cast him. The libretto was drawn from a French original, an example
of the rescue opera that had become topical and popular in Paris in the
aftermath of the Revolution, and in choosing such a subject Beethoven seems to
attempt to emulate Cherubini, a composer who dominated Paris and had won great
popularity in Vienna.
Fidelio, a Singspiel, a German opera, with some spoken dialogue, is not
necessarily convincing on the stage, in spite of the greatness of conception of
the music. It was first performed at the Theater-an-der-Wien in November, 1805,
preceded by an alternative overture, Leonora No.2, which replaced
Beethoven's first thoughts, embodied in Leonora No.1 and rejected after a
The occasion of the first performance was unfortunate. The armies of Napoleon
had occupied Vienna, and there were many French officers in the audience, while
the second and third performances attracted very little attention. The piece was
withdrawn and underwent considerable revision, to be staged again the following
year, with the overture now known as Leonora No.3, which itself pre-empts
the climax of the opera and is, in any case, rather too long for its purpose.
Neither Cherubini nor Salieri, arbiters of operatic taste, approved of the work.
There was to be yet further revision for a revival in 1814, with an intended
new overture. In the event this was not finished in time, thanks to the
procrastination of the composer, who worked through the night before the opening
to finish it, but failed to have it ready in time for rehearsal and performance.
On the first night of the revival another overture was played, either Prometheus
or The Ruins of Athens, to Beethoven's embarrassment. The new
overture, however, was eventual1y finished for the numerous later performances
of the opera that year. It bears the name of the opera itself, Fidelio.
If opera was important in Vienna, its popularity had long been shared by
ballet. The eighteenth century had brought to the city the most distinguished
choreographers and dancers, Noverre, Hilverding, Angiolini and others, and had
employed composers of the stature of Gluck. Beethoven's first stage music in
Vienna had been for Vigano's The Creatures of Prometheus, staged at the
Burgtheater in March, 1801, its overture an effective example of the eighteenth
century dramatic form.
In 1807 Beethoven wrote an overture to the play Coriolan, the work of
the dramatist Heinrich von Collin, brother of the philosopher employed as tutor
to Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt. Collin's verse plays on historical
subjects enjoyed considerable popularity in Vienna, where their topical
patriotism found a ready response. In Coriolan he treated the story of
the Roman general Coriolanus, victorious in war, but contemptuous of the common
people. Failing to win election to the consulship, he is dissuaded from
attacking and destroying his own country by the pleading of his wife and his
mother. The treatment of the same subject by Shakespeare is, of course, much
better known than Heinrich von Collin's play, a work that achieved only
The first performances of Coriolan in Vienna had been given in 1801,
with music arranged by the Abbe Stadler from Mozart's Idomeneo. Beethoven's
overture does not seem to have been used for the only recorded performance of
the play in Vienna in 1807, but was certainly played in that year. Its first
theme suggests Coriolanus himself, its second the pleading of his wife.
For Goethe's play Egmont Beethoven wrote an overture and incidental
music, intended for performances in Vienna in May, 1810. The music was not ready
for the opening, but was used the following month. Once again the subject of the
play, the heroic rebellion of Count Egmont against Spanish domination in the
Netherlands in the sixteenth century, has a certain topical, political
attraction, although Goethe's work had been written thirty years before. Egmont
trust blindly in his own judgement, urged on by a passion that transcends reason
in his conf1ict with a state that he has hitherto served loyally. His love for
the bourgeoise Klärchen, who poisons herself when she cannot persuade the
people to rise in Egmont's defence, is associated with notions of political
freedom. The overture to Egmont is programmatic, and some have suggested
a reference to the Duke of Alva, the Spanish Governor of the province, in the
opening sarabande rhythm and allusion to the rebel cause in the first subject of
the following Allegro. The closing section brings the death of Egmont and
his consequent moral victory.
The overture and incidental music to August von Kotzebue's play The Ruins
of Athens was written in 1811 for the opening of a new theatre in Pesth. The
occasion was a patriotic one and Kotzebue's piece d'occasion showed the goddess
Minerva regretting the ruins of Athens, from which art had departed, but cheered
at seeing its revival in Pesth under the enlightened rule of the Habsburg
In 1853 Robert Schumann detected in the young Brahms "a man singled out
to make articulate an ideal way of the highest expression of our time".
Here indeed was the long awaited successor to Beethoven, and Schumann was
prepared, like some St John the Baptist, to declare the fact. The "veiled
symphonies in sound" that Schumann had heard were not transformed into real
symphonies until relatively late in Brahms's life. Much, after all, had been
expected of him, and this may explain in some measure his relative diffidence,
his distrust of his own abilities.
Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. His father was a musician; a double bass
player, and his mother a seamstress some seventeen years older than her husband.
The family was poor, and as a boy Brahms earned money by playing the piano in
dockside taverns for the entertainment of sailors. Nevertheless his talent
brought him support, and teaching from Eduard Marxsen, to whom he later
dedicated his B Flat Piano Concerto, although claiming to have learned
nothing from him.
After a period earning a living in Hamburg as a teacher and as a dance saloon
pianist, Brahms first emerged as a pianist and as a composer in 1853, when he
went on a brief tour with the refugee Hungarian violinist Ede Remenyi, later to
be appointed solo violinist to Queen Victoria. In Hanover he met the already
famous young virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim and with the latter's
introduction visited Liszt in Weimar; The later visit to Schumann in
Düsseldorf, again brought about through Joachim, had more far-reaching results.
Schumann was soon to suffer a mental break-down, leading to his death in 1856 in
an asylum. Brahms became a firm friend of Clara Schumann and remained so until
her death in 1896.
The greater part of Brahms's career was to be spent in Vienna, where, he
finally settled in 1863, after earlier seasonal employment at the small court of
Detmold and intermittent periods spent in Hamburg. In Vienna he established a
pattern of life that was to continue until his death in 1897. He appeared as a
pianist, principally in his own compositions, played with more insight than
accuracy, and impressed the public with a series of compositions of strength,
originality and technical perfection. Here was a demonstration that, contrary to
the view of Wagner or Liszt, there was still much to be said in the traditional
forms of music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was not the last word.
Critics, indeed, hailed Brahms's First Symphony in 1876 as Beethoven's Tenth.
Brahms came to occupy a unique position in Vienna, his eccentricities and
gruff tactlessness tolerated as Beethoven's had been, his musical achievement
unquestioned, except by the fanatical Supporters of Wagner.
In 1877 Brahms had refused the honorary doctorate offered him by the
University of Cambridge, since he had no wish to travel to England to receive
it. Two years later, on 11th March, 1879, the University of Breslau offered him
the same honour, a proposal he acknowledged with a post-card, until it was
pointed out by the Music Director of the University that some musical token of
gratitude was required of him. In response to the citation that had declared him
the chief composer of serious music in Germany, Brahms wrote what he was to
describe as a cheerful medley of student songs in the manner of Suppé, an
unflattering summary of a work that has much more to be said for it, the Academic
For his new Overture Brahms made use of four well known songs, Wir
hatten gebauet, Der Landesvater, Was kommt dort von der Hoeh', and Gaudeamus
igitur. The first performance at Breslau University in 1881, with the
composer conducting, was received with great enthusiasm by the students, for
whose enjoyment it seems to have been intended. The title seemed to Brahms too
heavy, and he himself was to refer to the piece as his Janissary Overture, alluding
to the use of triangle, cymbals and bass drum, a traditional feature of
supposedly Turkish music. In spite of his reservations, it was to remain with
its first title, but in mood more Festive than Academic.
The Tragic Overture seems to have been intended as a companion piece
to the Academic Festival Overture. It was written in 1880, its sombre
colours belied by the apparent contentment of the composer, who had composed the
work during his idyllic summer holiday at Bad IschI. Material for the Overture
was not new, dating from some ten years earlier, the period of the Liebeslieder
Waltzes and the Alto Rhapsody, sketches for which survive in the same
notebook. Its immediate purpose, in 1880, was probably to serve as a prelude to
a new production of Goethe's Faust at the Burgtheater in Vienna.
Brahms wrote much of his music during summer holidays spent outside Vienna.
In 1884 and 1.885 he spent the summer months at Mürzzuschlag, a pleasant little
town within easy reach of the capital. Here he was visited by many friends and
enjoyed the society of the industrialist Richard Fellinger and his wife. The
latter mothered the bachelor composer, knitting his stockings and making sure
that he had his favourite dishes when he visited her house, while Fellinger
himself had electric light installed in the rooms that Brahms had rented.
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra has benefited considerably from the work of
its distinguished conductors. These include Vaclav Talich (1949- 1952), Ludovit
Rajter, Ladislav Slovak and Libor Pesek.
Zdenek Kosler also had a long and distinguished association with the orchestra
and conducted many of its most successful recordings, among them the complete
symphonies of Dvořák.
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels
The history of the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels goes back to the
birth of the Belgian Radio in the 1930s. After the well-known musicologist and
promoter of contemporary music, Paul Collaer, had become head of the Music
Department of Belgian Radio, the orchestra, under its conductor Franz André,
gained a world-wide reputation for its interpretations of the latest
compositions of Stravinsky, Berg, Bartók, Hindemith and other 20th century
composers. The orchestra gave the first European performance of Bartók's
Concerto for Orchestra in Paris and the first West European performance of the
Fourth Symphony by Shostakovich, and has, over the years, worked with many
leading conductors, from Pierre Boulez, Paul Hindemith and Darius Milhaud to
Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta.
In 1978 the Radio Symphony Orchestra was dissolved and both the Flemish and
the French Radio divisions set up their own symphony orchestras. The Flemish
network soon had a new orchestra, the BRT Philharmonic, with some ninety
musicians and Fernand Terby became its principal conductor from 1978 to 1988.
Since 1988, Alexander Rahbari has been the principal conductor and musical
director of the new BRT Philharmonic Orchestra.
Stephen Gunzenhauser, a graduate of Oberlin College and the New England
Conservatory, served Igor Markevich and Leopold Stokowski as assistant conductor
before becoming executive and artistic director of the Wilmington Music School
in 1974. In 1979, he became conductor and music director of the Delaware
Symphony Orchestra. He records exclusively for Naxos and Marco Polo and his
recordings include works of Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Vivaldi, Mozart,
Glière, and Liadov. In 1989/90 he recorded all nine Dvořák symphonies
with the Slovak Philharmonic, as well as the three Borodin symphonies with the
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Alexander Rahbari was born in Iran in 1948 and was trained as a conductor at
the Vienna Music Academy as a pupil of von Einem, Swarowsky and Österreicher.
On his return to Iran he was appointed director of the Teheran Conservatory of
Music and took a leading position in the cultural development of his country. In
1977 he moved to Europe, winning first prize in the Besançon International
Conductors' Competition and the Geneva silver medal.1n the 1986-87 season he
appeared for the first time with the BRT Phi1harmonic and in September 1988,
accepted appointment as principal conductor.
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BEETHOVEN / BRAHMS: Favourite Overtures