By Julia Grella O’Connell, D.M.A., Director of Education and Community Engagement
While the pieces in tonight’s program are unified in their importance to the classical music repertoire, they also express divergent responses to conflicts both global and personal. Sir Edward Elgar’s monumental Cello Concerto in E minor had its premiere in 1919, soon after the Great War had decimated an entire generation of English men. Elgar began composing it during the war in his cottage in Sussex, from which he could hear the guns from the killing fields of France across the English channel, and he wrote to a friend that “Everything good & Nice & clean & fresh & sweet is far away – never to return.” His concerto is an elegy not only for his fallen countrymen, but also for all that has been swept away by the war, and we hear in its rocking, lullaby-like rhythms and simple, yearning melodies the sharp ache of nostalgia for a world that is gone.
Aaron Copland began writing the score for Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring, from which Variations on a Shaker Melody is excerpted, during World War II, after being commissioned by music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge to compose a piece for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Copland and Graham decided on an American subject, the narrative of a young pioneer couple starting life together on the western frontier, and Copland began work on the score for Appalachian Spring in 1943. The ballet had its premiere in 1944, when an Allied victory was all but assured, and the critic for the New York Times noted that Copland’s score “is, on its surface, a piece of early Americana, but in reality it is a celebration of the human spirit." Even more, the hope and idealism of both music and choreography were an early salvo in the cultural battles of the looming Cold War, in which the American ethos of confidence and can-do optimism exemplified by Copland and Graham captured the imagination of the entire world.
Beethoven’s towering Fifth Symphony emerges from a very different place and time – early nineteenth-century Vienna – but it, too, is a musical response to dramatic conflict. Beethoven began working on the Fifth Symphony at the same time as the Third, in 1802; the Third Symphony, at first dedicated to Napoleon and later to “the memory of a great man,” is a celebration of the freedom that Beethoven believed would be ushered in throughout Europe by the French Revolution. In 1808, however, when the Fifth Symphony had its premiere, Beethoven had become disillusioned with the Revolution, and was suffering from advancing deafness, which drove him to thoughts of suicide. Nevertheless, as he wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann, “only Art . . . withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce . . . if [death] comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate.”
While Beethoven’s Third Symphony is in the “heroic” key of E-flat major, his Fifth is in the relative minor key of C minor, which for eighteenth-century music theorists symbolized fear, horror, and despair. But Beethoven makes his C-minor symphony a manifesto of defiance and even joy in the face of tragedy. While the hammering, insistent theme of the first movement is filled with stress and dark fatalism, the second movement, with its yearning call-and-response theme and variations, is transformed, as it shifts from the stolid strings to the elegiac brass to the almost unbearably wistful woodwinds, so like the human voice, into a mournful, resigned sigh. In his novel Howards End, E.M. Forster described the third movement as “goblins . . . walking quietly over the universe, from end to end,” their tramping sound suggesting “that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. . . [only] panic and emptiness.” But in the fourth movement, “Beethoven . . . [appears] in person . . . Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory.” In the final, dizzying coda, the piccolo interjects a birdlike trill, introducing a note of sweetness and humanity into the frenzy of victory, and it’s clear that Beethoven does not want to let go of this moment of almost delirious triumph over suffering, repeating a long series of cadential chords before finally allowing the work to end. When he does, we become aware that, just as Copland celebrated the human spirit with a particularly American aesthetic, Beethoven does so with a universal one, emphasizing the shared humanity of all people and signaling to those who struggle that, in the words of E.M. Forster, “Any fate [is] titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.”
© 2023 Julia Grella O'Connell