Fate and Victory: Beethoven's Fifth
Arvo Pärt b. 1935
Arvo Pärt
b. 1935
Arvo Pärt
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

Arvo Pärt possesses one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary classical music, the product of eclectic influences from the “official” Soviet aesthetic to Renaissance polyphony. Born near Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, Pärt e began his formal musical education in 1954 at the Tallinn Music Secondary School, suspending it a year later to fulfill his National Service obligation as an oboist and side-drummer in an army band. He entered the Tallinn Conservatory in 1957 while working as a recording engineer with Estonian Radio. Although still a student, he composed music for the stage and film. By the time he graduated in 1963, he was already considered a professional composer.

Immediately preceding World War II, Estonia had been bloodlessly annexed by the Soviet Union, leaving the young Pärt with only limited access to the musical developments in the West. His early compositions, including his first two symphonies, employed serial techniques, but he soon tired of the rigid rules of twelve-tone composition. After studying French and Flemish choral music from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, including the great composers of this period, Guillaume de Machaut, Johannes Ockeghem, Jakob Obrecht and Josquin Despres, Pärt began incorporating the style and spirit of early European polyphony into his own compositions, beginning in 1971with his Symphony No. 3.

After a lengthy period of silence during which he attempted to develop his personal voice, Pärt emerged in 1976 with a technique he called tintinnabuli (little bells), to which he has mostly adhered to this day. He describes the technique as follows: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation." The guiding principle behind the technique involves composing two simultaneous voices as one line – one voice moving stepwise to and from a central pitch, first up then down, and the other sounding the notes of the triad (chord) containing that pitch. The first products of Pärt’s new voice were the popular
Fratres, Tabula Rasa, and the moving Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.

The forced isolation behind the Iron Curtain and the endless struggle against Soviet bureaucracy forced Pärt to leave Estonia in 1980, settling in West Berlin. Since then, the majority of his compositions have been settings of religious texts. Around 2000 he returned to Estonia, and is now living in Tallinn. Pärt’s compositions, including the Cantus, have been used as background music in more than 50 films and TV programs.

Pärt composed the Cantus in 1977 in memory of Britten who had died in December 1976. He had just learned to appreciate Britten’s music, and had wanted very much to meet him.

A single tubular bell in A – the funeral bell – struck at fixed intervals throughout, serves as the fulcrum around which the string melody gradually evolves. The musical texture is slow, seamless, without a defined meter and difficult to excerpt; Pärt consistently maintains the effect of the opening, gradually bringing it to climax through dynamics alone Example 1

Antonin Dvořák 1841-1904
Antonin Dvořák
Antonin Dvořák
Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22

Given his current stature as one of the foremost composers of the nineteenth century, Antonín Dvořák was something of a late bloomer, but not for want of musical talent and industry. Dvořák’s father was a butcher and had expected his son to go into the family trade. Only after his uncle had agreed to finance the boy’s musical education was he able to follow his passion for music. Although trained as a church organist, Dvořák took his first job as principal viola in Prague’s new Provincial Theatre Orchestra. During this time, he practiced composition, producing songs, symphonies and entire operas but without recognition – much less appreciation – until he was in his 30s.

Already influenced by the national Bohemian style of Bedrich Smetana, Dvořák met and became a disciple of Brahms in 1875. Vienna’s famous curmudgeon music critic, Eduard Hanslick, also encouraged Dvořák and gave him prominent billing in his reviews. In the same year Brahms and Hanslick also supported him when he entered and won the competition for the Austrian State Prize in music for young, poor and talented musicians (Dvořák won the competition twice more in 1877.) The committee report stated that “...the applicant, who has never yet been able to acquire a piano of his own, deserves a grant to ease his strained circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work.” Brahms and Hanslick also urged Dvořák to move to Vienna, but his love for his native Bohemia kept him in Prague.

Dvořák sensed condescension in the support and encouragement of the Austrian musical establishment and was resentful at being forced by economic necessity to accept government stipends. He nevertheless responded to this encouragement with a creative outpouring that included, in the course of a few months, the Symphony No. 5, the Piano Trio Op. 21, the Piano Quartet Op. 23, the Moravian Duets Op. 20 and the Serenade for Strings. Like Smetana, Dvořák freely incorporated folk elements into his music, utilizing characteristic peasant rhythms and melodic motives although seldom actually quoting entire folk melodies.

The nineteenth-century serenade, true to its eighteenth-century origins, is less intense than a formal symphony, but this one rides the fence between the two genres. Three of the five movements are expanded ABA structures, including the first, which one would have expected to be in sonata allegro form. Nevertheless, the Serenade does contain elements characteristic of more formal symphonic practices of the period.

The opening prefigures the generally relaxed mood of the work as a whole. Example 1 The middle section, which is often darker in a ternary form, is almost childlike in its cheerfulness. Example 2

The waltz of the second movement contributes a dance element to the ambiance and acts as a refrain between two contrasting dance melodies. Example 3 The rhythm of the first is an energetic echo of the first movement, Example 4 while the second resembles the whirling legato of the refrain. Example 5

The lively Scherzo combines elements of the sonata allegro form with a true development and a coda. Example 6 It contains two more lyrical secondary themes instead of trio sections with the customary repeats. Example 7 & Example 8

By the time one arrives at movement four, the dancing is over and a little romance is in order. Dvořák intensifies the dreamlike larghetto theme Example 9 in an almost pleading middle section. Example 10

Given everything that has gone before, the Finale, marked Allegro vivace injects a note of agitation, and is, surprisingly in the minor mode, Example 11 & Example 12 but the second theme brings back the dance. Example 13 Toward the end Dvořák quotes from both the Larghetto theme Example 14 and the opening of the Serenade, a unifying device common in many more weighty symphonies and chamber works of the period. Example 15
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

The four most clichéd notes in classical music were once the most revolutionary. For the first time a rhythm, rather than a melody, became the main subject of a symphonic movement – and not merely as a first theme to be stated and picked up again for a while in the development and recapitulation sections. Beethoven wove the rhythm into the entire fabric of the first movement, and subsequently into the rest of the Symphony. The motive first appears as a repeated demand, subsequently expanded into a genuine melody in the first theme. It recurs as a throbbing accompaniment in bass and timpani in the second theme, all the way to the final cadence of the exposition.

Such an original symphonic structure did not come easily, especially to a composer who lacked the ever-ready melodic genius of a Mozart, Bach or Haydn, who all produced copiously on demand. A collection of the composer’s sketchbooks bears witness to the lengthy and often painful gestation of some of his greatest music. The Fifth Symphony took four years to complete, between 1804 and 1808. But Beethoven also had to eat, and during those four years he also produced the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three String Quartets Op. 59, the Mass in C and the Violin Concerto.

Although Beethoven had already been at work on what was to become the Fifth Symphony, he composed the Fourth in fairly short order in 1806 on commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The Count eventually paid the 500 florins agreed upon for the work and in 1807 commissioned another symphony with a down payment of 200 florins. Beethoven notified Oppersdorff in March 1808 that the Fifth Symphony was ready and that he should send the remaining 300 florins. But the Count sent only another installment of 150 florins, and by November Beethoven, in one of his less than ethical moves, apparently felt justified in selling the score to the publisher Gottfried Härtel. Upon finally paying in full, Oppersdorff received a copy.

The Fifth Symphony was premiered at one of those monster public concerts common in the nineteenth century; on the program were premieres of the Sixth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto, the aria "Ah! Perfido, the Choral Fantasia and several movements of the Mass in C. One can only imagine the bewilderment of the audience on their first encounter in a single evening with the "Pastoral" and the Fifth.

Because the Fifth Symphony is so familiar it is difficult to think of it as innovative, but it was not only the integration of the four-note rhythmic motif into the first movement that was new. It is the fact that this little rhythm becomes the motto that unifies the entire symphony. Example 1 In the first movement, the principal theme hammers away at the rhythm in almost every measure. Then, the second theme, which should provide a significant contrast, starts off with the motto in the solo horn, only afterwards becoming somewhat more gentle and legato – although that, too begins to ramp up the emotional tension as it continues. Example 2

The second movement, marked Andante con moto, involves its own kind of innovation. It is made up of two short juxtaposed, contrasting themes, the first in dotted rhythm, Example 3 the second a slow almost military theme in the brass. Beethoven produces from the two themes a double set of variations. And it should be noted that the second theme contains within it in augmentation the germinal four-note rhythm of the first movement. Example 4

After what has been called a "ghostly" opening of the scherzo, Beethoven takes up the motto again prominently in the horns, and it is this segment of the third movement that he chooses to repeat in the finale. Example 5

Symphony No. 5 has frequently been referred to as a struggle from darkness to light, but it is a commonplace that has palpable grounding in truth. Not only does the symphony begin in C minor and end in C major, but there is also the magnificent transition between the third and fourth movements, a kind of breaking through of sunlight clouds with violins stammering over throbbing timpani towards a cadence. Example 6 The eruption through to the triumphant finale paved the way for the symphonic writing of the future, including Beethoven's own Ninth, Example 7 Mendelssohn’s Third (The “Scottish”) and Brahms’s First.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014