Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto: Monumental and Heroic

Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto begins with a bold and unexpected announcement. Four chords in the orchestra, outlining the most elemental harmonic progression (I-IV-V-I), stand as mighty pillars. Each initiates an expansive cadenza from the solo piano. A cadenza at the beginning of a concerto? This is not what the first audiences would have been expecting. These first bars establish the piano as a heroic, convention-defying protagonist. The orchestra launches into the expected introduction only …

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Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture: A Turbulent and Tragic Drama

The Viennese dramatist Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy, Coriolan, depicts the ultimate conflict between war and an alternate path of compassion, peace, and transcendence. In the story, the proud and vengeful general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, filled with feelings of betrayal, returns to Rome with an army made up of his former enemies, determined to invade and destroy the city. Reaching Rome’s gates, he abandons his plan at the pleadings of his mother, …

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Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata: Five Key Recordings

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47—better known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata—was first performed on May 24, 1803. 216 years ago today, Beethoven and the Afro-European violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860) premiered this convention-shattering music at Vienna’s Augarten Theatre. Beethoven was so late in completing the manuscript that Bridgetower was forced to sightread the performance, at times looking over the composer’s shoulder at the full score. Originally, the manuscript was inscribed with the lighthearted …

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Beth Levin Plays Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas

Beethoven said that his final three piano sonatas, written between 1820 and 1822, were conceived “in a single breath.”  In April, 2012, pianist Beth Levin gave what has been described as a “revelatory” performance of these three Sonatas (Op. 109, 110, and 111) in the intimate setting of New York’s Faust Harrison Pianos. Luckily, this special concert, performed on an 1887 Steinway, was recorded and released a year later on the Navona label (“A Single Breath: …

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Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8: Midori at Carnegie Hall

Beethoven’s three Op. 30 Violin Sonatas were completed in the summer of 1802. The fall of that year brought the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, the despairing letter in which Beethoven acknowledged his increasing deafness, his contemplation of suicide, and his ultimate determination to overcome adversity: “I will seize fate by the throat— it will certainly not crush me completely.” We don’t hear any of this psychological turmoil in the sunny Sonata No. 8 in G Major, …

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Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts Turns 50

As a child, I spent a year and many succeeding summers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where my father was a student of trombone professor Dr. Robert Gray. Some of my most vivid memories include attending concerts at the University’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where as a 9-year-old, I heard the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as the University’s fine student ensembles. This weekend, the …

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This Scherzo is No Joke

In Italian, the word “scherzo” means “joke” or “jest.” Theodore Baker’s Schirmer Pronouncing Pocket Manual of Musical Terms (an invaluable resource my first violin teacher recommended to me as a child) defines the musical scherzo as 1. An instrumental piece of a light, piquant, humorous character. 2. A vivacious movement in a symphony, with strongly marked rhythm and sharp and unexpected contrasts in rhythm and harmony; usually the third movement. There are a host of pieces which fit these …

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