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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Glorreiche Augenblick (Der) / Choral Fantasy (McCawley, City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic, Wetton)
Beethoven’s unusual cantata Der glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment) is filled with patriotic praise for Vienna and tributes to the kings and princes of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. It was performed alongside his symphonic Wellington’s Victory at its première in 1814. The Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra opens with a virtuosic, improvisatory Adagio for the piano. The work’s main theme anticipates the famous Ode to Joy setting Beethoven later devised for his Choral Symphony.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Der glorreiche Augenblick, Op 136 • Choral Fantasia, Op 80
Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s former Kapellmeister, whose name he took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven’s father became increasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with his wife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father. Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, albeit erratically, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as a string-player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning some distinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study with Mozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture and her subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, in view of his father’s domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.
Beethoven’s early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by the circumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress Maria Theresa and there were introductions to leading members of society in the imperial capital. Here Beethoven was able to establish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability, coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisation and composition. The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony of Fate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer and into an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes and extensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate his eccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the same time it allowed him to develop his gifts for counterpoint. He continued to revolutionise forms inherited from his predecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, expanding these almost to bursting-point, and introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. He died in 1827, his death the occasion of public mourning in Vienna.
The contemporary fame that Beethoven enjoyed is witnessed by the distinction of the audience at his concert of 29 November 1814 in the Redoutensaal. The leaders of the major European states, through the conservative diplomacy of the Austrian statesman Prince Metternich, were meeting in Vienna at a Congress intended to reestablish something of the European order that had existed before the conquests of Napoleon, now exiled to the island of Elba. The occasion brought a great deal of social activity in Vienna, occasioning the remark of Charles-Joseph, Prince de Ligne: Le congrès danse beaucoup, mais il ne marche pas. Beethoven’s concert had been postponed already three times in November, before all was ready for a programme that included his Battle Symphony, Wellingtons Sieg (Wellington’s Victory), first performed in 1813 and written in celebration of Wellington’s triumph at the battle of Vittoria, his Seventh Symphony and a new cantata, Der glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment), setting a text by a former army doctor, Aloys Weissenbach. The audience included the Empress, the Tsarina of Russia, the King of Prussia and other dignitaries. The concert was repeated on 2 December in a benefit performance for the composer that attracted much less attention, and again on 25 December as a charity event in aid of St Marx’s Hospital.
Der glorreiche Augenblick, commissioned by the Vienna City Administration, has an undistinguished text suited to the occasion of its first performance, a tribute to the kings and princes of Europe, words that are at least better than those that Beethoven had earlier contemplated for this occasion. Later editors and performers have proposed various verbal changes and substitutions, seeking to match the supposed views of Beethoven, as suggested elsewhere in his work, not least in his Ninth (Choral) Symphony with its setting of Schiller’s An die Freude. The work is scored for four solo voices, a children’s chorus, a mixed chorus and an orchestra with pairs of flutes and a piccolo, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. The soprano soloist sings the rôle of Vienna, the mezzo-soprano that of a Prophetess, the tenor the Genius and the bass the Leader of the People.
The cantata starts with a full chorus, leading to a fugal passage at the second verse, Wer muß die Hehre sein (Who must that noble figure be). There is further fugal treatment of the third verse and dynamic contrasts before the chorus ends. The following recitative for the bass soloist, the Leader of the People, has a solo cello obbligato and leads to an arioso, Erkennst du nicht das heimische Gebild? (Do you not recognise the familiar form?), for the Genius, the tenor soloist. This is capped by an enthusiastic chorus in praise of Vienna.
The following Aria with Chorus starts with a recitative for the soprano soloist, Vienna, with praise of the victorious monarchs at the Congress and passages of arioso before a solo violin introduces an exchange between Vienna and the people and praise for the former. The following accompanied recitative has the Prophetess surveying the scene, before, in a cavatina, urging the people to give thanks where it is due. Her words are echoed by the chorus. The four soloists continue with recitative, before a quartet into which Vienna leads the way. The setting, however pedestrian the text may seem, reflects the nature of the occasion, with the necessary triumphant military nuances and music that may remind us that Beethoven at this time had been occupied in the final revision of his opera Fidelio, which had been staged towards the end of September at the Court Theatre, while dignitaries were arriving in the city. The final chorus brings forward women, children and then men in a final celebration, capped by a triumphant concluding contrapuntal chorus in which all join.
The first performance of the Choral Fantasia, Op 80, was a less happy occasion. On 22 December 1808 Beethoven gave a concert at the Theater an der Wien with a programme that included first performances of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, a soprano aria, a choral piece, and his Fourth Piano Concerto. The Choral Fantasia was written to provide a grand conclusion to the evening. Inevitably the programme was under-rehearsed and far too long, particularly in a theatre that lacked proper heating. Various members of the audience on the occasion left their own accounts of what happened. It seems, at least, that the Finale of the Choral Fantasia broke down in some confusion after a wrong entry, apparently because of a misunderstanding over repeats, and had to be started again, souring Beethoven’s relationship with his players still further, after earlier disagreements over his demands on the musicians.
The Choral Fantasia opens with an improvisatory Adagio for the piano, leading to an Allegro, introducing, after a call to attention from the horns and then the oboes, the theme on which the whole work is based, taken from an earlier song by Beethoven, Gegenliebe, WoO 118. The theme, with its step-wise motion, has much in common with the theme Beethoven devised in 1824 for his Choral Symphony, with its setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. There follows a series of variations, the theme first embroidered by a solo flute, then by pairs of oboes, by clarinets and bassoon, and by the strings. The work continues with further treatments of the theme, leading, finally, to the entry of the solo voices and then the chorus, in praise of music.
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