This from the midst of yet another study-period with Beethoven’s lyrical Fourth Concerto, this one in preparation for a couple performances this week with Finland’s Kymi Sinfonietta. Once again, as my my fingers have been exploring the paths laid across the Concerto’s score, my mind has wandered to the old story of Beethoven having drawn his inspiration for the work from the Ancient tale of Orpheus.
Piano’s entry after the first tutti in 1st mov. of Piano Concerto in G Major, Op. 58
In fact it was A.B. Marx, one of the early patriarchs in the long line of self-appointed Beethoven prophets, who likened the Fourth Concerto with the ancient character and, surely, the greatest of all musicians. Orpheus could play and sing like no-one. He charmed, seduced, and even brought dead things like rocks to life with his music.
The snippet above may not be specifically intended to portray Orpheus’ entry, in fact it almost certainly is not, but the likeness with the imagery of the legend is clearly there.
“Charming all things with his music”
Marx wasn’t simply referring to heavy books hidden in the deep shelves of dusty libraries; on the contrary, Orpheus was on, big time. To be sure, the many 18th century operas inspired by the legend (by Gluck, Haydn, and the likes) weren’t really the hottest new thing by the time Marx draw the connection between Orpheus and Beethoven’s concerto. There were fewer new Orpheus-inspired plays and operas during the 19th century (Liszt, to many the 19th century heir of Orpheus, did compose a symphonic poem in the 1850s) but the old ones were constantly playing in the major opera houses. Marx was probably being sincere with his analysis but it also fit the picture of presenting Beethoven alongside his idols (Gluck, Haydn, Händel, etc.). Beethoven was carried by his disciples to the musical Mount Olympus in a very orderly fashion and part of the process required his master-works to be deciphered by folks like Marx.
Anyway, it was (and is) the second movement that is the pinnacle of Marx’s interpretation. The movement is said to capture Orpheus in the underworld, trying to use his music to bring back to life his wife Euridice who had been bit by a viper after a Satyr had tried to rape her in their wedding. Huh.
Unfortunately the quest that at first seemed to be successful, as Hades released Euridice, ends in catastrophe when Orpheus impatiently fulfills only part of his deal with Hades and as a result, Euridice is deceased forever.
“His music softened the heart of Hades”
Be that as it may, Beethoven’s rendering was a piece of public music and it needed an upbeat finale. Most of the third movement rather responds to Viennese expectations of “finale-pomp” than to the kind of archaic lyricism that one would expect from a mythic character plucking a lyre. Well, the Ancient didn’t really have concertos either… Nevertheless, there is a theme in the finale which could well depict Orpheus trying to outsing the Sirens, as he was said to have done on one occasion.
The “singing theme” in the finale of Piano Concerto Op. 58