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In this year, when we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the Duke University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Harry Davidson presented a concert titled Beethoven and "Sons" in Baldwin Auditorium. Of course, Beethoven had no sons, though he had multitudes that were nurtured by his powerful legacy. Davidson chose one dedicated Beethoven follower from the 19th century and another from the 20th.
The concert opened with a 19th century "Beethoven-son," Richard Wagner. We heard the "Prelude to Act III" of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This music is an overwhelming rich characterization of the opera's lead character, Hans Sachs: wise, sensitive, and noble. Wagner used Beethoven as a source of learning emotional expression through music by doing such things as copying the entire score of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The Act III Prelude begins in the rich, warm, lower register of the cellos, is joined by the violas, and then by the brass, led by the French horns in a glorious salutation. There is nowhere in music a more complete and magnificent musical characterization than here.
Next on the Beethoven & Sons concert was Beethoven's spritely Piano Concerto No. 2. (Actually, it was composed before Piano Concerto No. 1.) It was used primarily as a showcase for young Beethoven's spectacular piano skills. It is characterized by charming, mostly happy melodies and sparkling runs and ornamentations and was performed exclusively by Beethoven until after its publication. On first hearing, it would be easy to identify Mozart as the composer, even though some Beethoven urgency does break through here and there.
The gorgeous second-movement opening melody seems to have a strong relation to the song Beethoven wrote for his landlord just outside of Vienna when his young wife died unexpectedly. It is marvelous Beethoven melodic and harmonic management.
The third movement, Rondo, sailed through Austrian melodies and runs almost the entire breadth of the keyboard with calm confidence.
The guest pianist on this occasion was Jeffery Brown, acclaimed international pianist and a favorite with the Duke faculty and music students as well. His mastery of the keyboard, from challenging runs to demanding cadenzas, was produced with a relaxed and assured confidence.
After an intermission, the second half of the concert wowed the audience with a remarkable performance of a challenging, difficult work by the concert's 3rd "son of Beethoven," Paul Hindemith. Hindemith was working on an opera based on the life of Renaissance painter, Matthias Grünewald. The opera's plot turns on an artist's duty to pursue his vision of artistic freedom which, of course, was anathema to Nazi ideology, thus casting Hindemith in a role comparable to Beethoven in his production of Fidelio.
Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler asked Hindemith at that time for a new work to perform on an upcoming Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra concert tour, and Hindemith decided to compose symphonic movements that could serve as instrumental interludes in the opera or be drawn upon or elaborated into various scenes. The result was the Symphony he called Mathis der Maler.
The symphony was well received at its first performances, but Furtwängler faced severe consequences from the Nazi government for performing the work. The first performance outside Germany was given by the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in October 1934, conducted by Otto Klemperer.
The first movement, marked "Engelkonzert" (Angelic Concert), is a prelude projecting Hindemith's unique tonal and rhythmic construction methods. The strict counterpoint was handled well by the orchestra. The second movement, marked "Grablegung" (Entombment), is a funeral march. The third movement is "Versuchung des heiligen Antonius" (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). This music may sound quite familiar to you. It has a very exciting, driving rhythmic quality to it.
Most of Hindemith's music employs a unique system that is tonal but non-diatonic. Like most tonal music, it is centered on a tonic and modulates from one tonal center to another, but it uses all 12 notes freely, rather than relying on a scale picked as a subset of these notes. Hindemith even rewrote some of his music after developing this system. One of the key features of his system is that he ranks all musical intervals of the 12-tone equally tempered scale from the most consonant to the most dissonant. He classifies chords in six categories, based on how dissonant they are, whether or not they contain a tritone, and whether or not they clearly suggest a root or tonal center. Hindemith's philosophy also encompassed melody – he strove for melodies that do not clearly outline major or minor triads.
Davidson deserves praise for having the courage to schedule a work like Mathis der Maler and for having the confidence in his charges to accomplish a successful performance. From brass to woodwinds to percussion to strings – bravo.