Beethoven’s Egmont Overture: The Heroic Struggle for Liberty

In 1809, Beethoven received a commission to compose incidental music for the belated Vienna premiere of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Egmont. The tragic play, set in five acts, freely interpreted the heroic exploits of the sixteenth century Count Egmont, a Dutch politician and soldier who championed the liberation of the Netherlands from the autocratic rule of imperial Spain. As a consequence of his actions, Egmont was imprisoned and beheaded in 1568. Yet, his martyrdom …

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Beethoven’s “King Stephen” Overture: A Hungarian Celebration

In 1811, Beethoven received a commission to compose incidental music for two Hungarian-themed plays by August von Kotzebue, King Stephen and The Ruins of Athens. The plays were written to commemorate the opening of a magnificent new theater in the Hungarian city of Pest on the banks of the Danube (now the eastern part of unified Budapest). The theater’s construction was funded by Franz I, the last Holy Roman Emperor and the …

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Beethoven’s Mass in C Major: Gentleness, Cheerfulness, and Humanity

Completed in 1807, Beethoven’s Mass in C Major came seventeen years before the premiere of the monumental Missa solemnis. In its way, it is a work which is equally mould-shattering. Beethoven, who seldom attended church, considered music to be “the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life…the one spiritual entrance into the higher world.” His Mass in C Major moves away from dogma to embrace the free, all-encompassing sanctity of the individual. A serene, …

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Remembering Menahem Pressler

Menahem Pressler, the pianist and founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, passed away on May 6. He was 99. Born in Magdeburg, Germany, the 14-year-old Pressler hid from Nazi thugs who vandalized the shop owned by his Jewish parents during the Kristallnacht. In 1939, the family fled and emigrated, first to Israel and then to the United States. In 1946, Pressler won first prize at the Debussy International Piano Competition in San …

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Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto: An Exuberant and Daring Conception

Beethoven was a newcomer to Vienna when, in 1795, he completed the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. It is bold music which was designed to showcase the young composer’s skills as one of the preeminent virtuoso pianists of the time. Although the C major Concerto was the first to be published (in 1801), its composition was preceded by the piece we now know as Piano Concerto No. 2. While the Second Concerto …

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Beethoven’s “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture: Music for a Ballet

In 1800, around the time of the premiere of his First Symphony, the 29-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven received a commission to write music for a ballet based on the Prometheus myth. Beethoven’s collaborator and librettist was the the Italian choreographer and dancer, Salvatore Viganò. Although Viganò usually composed the music for his ballets himself, this occasion was far too important. The Creatures of Prometheus, a “heroic and allegorical ballet” in two acts, would be …

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Beethoven’s String Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3: The Apex of a Genre

In November of 1792, the young Ludwig van Beethoven left Bonn, the provincial city of his birth, to resettle in glittering, cosmopolitan Vienna. Two years after this momentous move, Beethoven completed the String Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3. The piece marked the 24-year-old composer’s first foray into the genre. A successor to the Baroque trio sonata, the string trio (violin, viola, cello) was a popular form in the eighteenth century, when …

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