Friday, July 2, 2010

König Stephan Overture; Beethoven, Bernstein and the art of Orchestral Joy

Beethoven's music comes to mind in moments of grandness. He was master of the heroic, of the epic, of the transcendent--but he also knew how to enjoy a good snicker.

The König Stephan Overture Op 117 was written during the summer of 1811. It was commissioned to celebrate the opening of a new theater in Pest. The work seldom acquires advocates: "Neither the text [of the stage-work in which it was included] nor the music was of the highest standard," wrote Anne-Louise Coldicott in "The Beethoven Compendium."

The work found its first sympathetic interpreter in Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein could articulate collisions of formality, lightness and laughter. In less than two minutes of introductory discourse he clarified the energy of this work in 1978 with classic Bernstein wit. "It is a charmer and a curiosity," said Bernstein, "a cross between Béla Bartók and Shortnin' Bread."

The relationship to Bartók is not literal, but the metaphor serves well to indicate that the combination of fourths in the openings fanfare is more common to the twentieth century than the nineteenth.

The first four pitches in the fanfare: Eb-Bb-F-C are deflected into a light march in A-flat major. The next fanfare interrupts the march, F-C-G-D, and interprets the final D as part of a dominant seventh of E-flat in order to allow the music to land, without skipping off the atmosphere into deep space.

Bernstein brings some "West Side" later in this "Story" giving everything to the backbeats during the closing theme.

Putting the pure joy of orchestral musicianship on display was part of the Bernstein legacy. "I'm only trying," said Bernstein "to Rev You Up!" Thirty-two years later it still works.

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