The story of Beethoven’s slow, painstaking compositional process is told in long, tortured, sketch-filled notebooks.
In his lecture, How a Great Symphony Was Written, Leonard Bernstein notes that the melody which opens the Andante con moto of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony went through fourteen versions over the course of eight years. Bernstein allows us to hear a few of the musical ideas Beethoven rejected along the way. Phrase by phrase, we hear stunningly pedestrian and workmanlike ideas develop, magically, into some of the greatest music ever written.
Beethoven’s “Namensfeier” Overture, Op. 115 was a result of this long compositional process. It began with ideas the composer sketched in 1809. These fragments resurfaced around 1811 when Beethoven first became interested in creating a musical setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Schiller’s liberating words reached epic new heights in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, written some thirteen years later. Beethoven’s first attempt at the “Ode to Joy” sprang to life in this fleeting, fun-loving Overture. It was originally scheduled to be performed on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the name day of the Austrian Emperor Franz I. Beethoven failed to complete the work in time and it was premiered on Christmas Day, 1815 instead. In the manuscript, Beethoven wrote the words, “Overture for any occasion—or for concert use.” To this day, the “Namensfeier” Overture is rarely performed.
As with the Choral Fantasy, you can hear seeds of the Ninth Symphony in this music. Yet, there is nothing serious, profound, or earth-shattering here. Instead, it is a festive, celebratory romp—an “ode to joy” that delivers pure, unsophisticated fun. Out of the bombast leaps a frolicking cast of instrumental voices. At moments, strange, quirky dissonances seem to anticipate the sounds of the twentieth century.
Here is Riccardo Chailly’s 2011 recording with Leipzig’s Gewandhausorchester:
- Beethoven: Overture “Namensfeier”, Op. 115, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly Amazon