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Beethoven 2020 anniversary: works inspired across the centuries

(August 2017)

Beethoven2020Sized.jpg The Beethoven 250th anniversary in 2020 is set to forge links with later composers inspired by his music, from Richard Strauss to John Adams.

Ludwig van Beethoven is the composer's composer. Though later luminaries such as Mahler, Ravel, Stravinsky or Messiaen may loom large in a personal pantheon, it is Beethoven that many composers look to as the archetypal figure exemplifying the creative will. Signalling the break from aristocratic patronage, he took the new classical style and moulded it into an individual idiom with an enhanced sense of freedom and bold expressive power.

Composers are naturally attracted to his craftsmanship and struggle to achieve perfection, but also to the modernism of his late works which explore a splintering of language and continuity that has become increasingly relevant in later centuries. Beethoven's dynamic energy and driving motives are precursors of minimalism and his expansion of references from classical beauty to the world around him have proved influential long beyond the Romantic era. Many composers are simply drawn to Beethoven the man, with his stormy personality, battles against personal adversity, and political aspirations for humankind, driven forward by his belief that "music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy".

The 250th anniversary of the composer's birth, falling in December 2020, offers orchestras, festivals and broadcasters the chance to set this titanic figure in the context of music from later centuries. Modern works can be selected to explore specific aspects of Beethoven and his oeuvre, offering imaginative pairings for his symphonies, concertos and chamber music, and widening the audience's perspective beyond the well-earned familiarity of Beethoven's classic scores.


John Adams
Absolute Jest (2011) 25'
for string quartet and orchestra
Premiere: 15 March 2012
Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
St Lawrence String Quartet/San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas

John Adams's energetic scherzo for string quartet and orchestra draws on fragments from Beethoven's op.131 and op.135 string quartets and his Große Fuge. The composer was particularly attracted to "the ecstatic energy of Beethoven" and how he "was the master of taking the minimal amount of information and turning it into fantastic, expressive, and energized structures". As Musical America noted: "Dense, roiling and furiously inventive, Absolute Jest emerges as a gripping 25-minute sonic joy ride… You can hear the echoes of Beethoven throughout the piece – chopped, remixed, inside out and upside down, redistributed to the string quartet and throughout the orchestra – and you can almost see the composer smiling at the results." The work has become one of Adams's most popular works with over 80 performances worldwide since its premiere.

Recording: SFS Media SFS0063
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John Adams
Second Quartet (2014) 20'
for string quartet
Premiere: 18 January 2015
Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University
St Lawrence String Quartet

Like Absolute Jest, Second Quartet is built from Beethovenian fragments, or 'fractals' as the composer refers to them. Whereas the earlier work drew on late quartets, here the composer focuses on piano pieces, the sonatas op.110 and op.111 and one of the Diabelli Variations. With the concentration of chamber music, Adams is even more extreme in his economy of means in the scherzo first part of the quartet, transforming harmony, cadential patterns and rhythmic profiles from the smallest of cells. The second part moves from an Andantino with a gentle melody elaborated through free associations to an Energico closing section displaying convivial hyperactivity from all four players.

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John Adams arr Preben Antonson
Roll Over Beethoven (2014)
for two pianos
Premiere: 23 March 2016
Greene Space, New York
Christina and Michelle Naughton

Roll Over Beethoven is an arrangement of the composer's Second Quartet for the distinctive minimalist ensemble of two pianos. It returns the fragments of Beethoven's piano music to their original instrument, presented in maximum clarity. In the composer's words the work takes "these tiny musical fractals through a grand tour of a harmonic and rhythmic hall of mirrors." Roll Over Beethoven provides a companion to the composer's earlier Hallelujah Junction written for the same two piano scoring.

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Louis Andriessen
The nine symphonies of Beethoven (1970) 9'
for orchestra and ice-cream vendor's bell
Premiere: June 1971
Holland Festival, Amsterdam

This whimsical work is not a critique of Beethoven himself but rather Andriessen's response to the symphony-centred concert-giving that had become entrenched 150 years after the composer's death. Andriessen was particularly polemical in his opposition to the conservative programming and lack of contemporary music presented by the Concertgebouw Orchestra at that time. The Nine symphonies of Beethoven was premiered at a 'Hoffnung style happening' across all the spaces of the Concertgebouw Hall at the 1971 Holland Festival. Andriessen was deeply unsettled by the experience, prompting his reappraisal of the purpose of composition. It also reinforced his decision not to write for traditional symphony orchestra until his Mysteriën of 2013. The score journeys through the symphonies in roughly chronological order, mashing the material together with excursions en route into Europop, boogie-woogie and lounge music, also taking in Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonata and a guest appearance by the Barber of Seville Overture. The final section leads from the Ode to Joy with drumkit to a cheeky nose-thumbing close. Cue the ice cream bell.

> More info 
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Published by Donemus with territorial representation by Boosey & Hawkes


Brett Dean
Pastoral Symphony (2000) 17'
for chamber orchestra
Premiere: 9 February 2000
Maison de Radio France, Paris
Ensemble Modern/Stefan Asbury

Brett Dean's work is a frequent programme pairing for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, as both are odes to nature but heading in distinctly different directions. The composition followed closely on Dean's return to live in Australia after 15 years in Germany and his renewed appreciation of the sounds of the natural world outside his window. The work's joyous opening Dawn Chorus heard via the orchestral sampler keyboard, matching Beethoven's Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside, gives way to the logger's axe and an increasingly bleak landscape denuded of nature. As Dean explains: "Consider our relentless and respectless rampaging through the world's forests and wilderness areas, all in the name of more shopping, freeways, carparks and convenience... This piece is about glorious birdsong, the threat that it faces, the loss, and the soulless noise that we're left with when they're all gone."

Recording: BIS 1576
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Brett Dean
Testament (2008) 14'
for chamber orchestra
Premiere: 7 March 2008
Federation Concert Hall, Hobart
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Sebastian Lang-Lessing

The document of the title is the Heiligenstadt Testament written by Beethoven to his brothers in 1802 but never sent. It revealed the composer's despair at his increasing deafness and Dean's work sets out to capture the physical and psychological situation of the composer at that time. The disturbing veiled soundworld of the opening, created by breathing and tongueing sounds in the wind and unrosined string bows, depicts according to Dean "the quietly feverish sound of Ludwig's imagined quill writing manically on leaves of parchment paper". Familiar Beethoven sounds materialise with reference to the first Razumovsky string quartet op.59 no.1, leading to a Fugato that captures the brilliance of the quartet's finale, pointing to the acceptance and renewed vigour that followed Beethoven's stay in Heiligenstadt. The original form of this work was created in 2002 for the 12 violas of the Berlin Philharmonic, Brett Dean's close colleagues for 15 years. In 2008 the composer arranged the work for classical-size chamber orchestra. Testament can be performed following Dean's arrangement of the Adagio molto e mesto from the Razumovsky quartet op.59 no.1 with a seamless segue between the works.

Recordings: BIS-2194 (orchestral) / BIS-2016 (12 violas)
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Alberto Ginastera
Piano Concerto No.1 (1961) 25'
Piano Concerto No.2 (1972) 35'

Both of the Argentinian-born composer's piano concertos contain links to Beethoven. The third movement of Ginastera's first concerto, commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, quotes from Beethoven's fourth in G major at a point where there is a similar competitive dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Ginastera's second concerto is even more overt in its Beethoven associations, with its first movement being a set of 32 variations on a seven-note chord from the final movement of the ninth symphony. The choice of 32 was significant with its references to Beethoven's 32 Variations in C Minor (1806) for piano and to the total number of the master's 32 piano sonatas. Additionally, Ginastera's Variation 22 recalls the opening phrase from Beethoven’s Les Adieux sonata op.81a.

Recordings: Pieran PIR0048
> More info (No.1)
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> More info (No.2)
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York Höller
Weit entfernt und doch so nah (2015) 5'
for piano
Premiere: 27 September 2015
Speicher am Kaufhauskanal, Hamburg
Susanne Kessel

York Höller's short piano work was written to head up a massive project by Bonn-based pianist Susanne Kessel to build 250 Beethoven-inspired pieces ready for performance in the composer's home city during the anniversary year. The title, translated as Far away and yet so close, could be seen to summarise Höller's relationship with Beethoven and his music. It is Beethoven's skill at perpetual development that draws Höller particularly and that he celebrates in this piece, playing with two contrasting themes derived as cryptograms of Beethoven's names, DGA from Ludwig van and BbEEB(H)E from Beethoven.

> Recording   
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Magnus Lindberg

Two Episodes (2016) 15'
for orchestra
Premiere: 24 July 2016
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski

"If I was really pressed to choose just one composer from the classical canon it would have to be Beethoven, because he stands out as an example of what it is to be a contemporary composer." So wrote Magnus Lindberg in connection with his orchestral work commissioned to prepare the way for the startling opening of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Two endings for Two Episodes are offered so it can either be presented as an individual work or it can lead seamlessly into the open fifth launch of the Beethoven. The first section responds to the impact of the "immense tutti writing in Beethoven's first movement, full of bold sounds and energy, while the second is closer to the beauty of the slow movement and acts as a bridge towards the open fifth A and E and its D minor destination." The work also embeds a number of Beethovenian allusions and the scoring matches that of the Ninth Symphony.

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James MacMillan
A European Requiem (2015) 43'
for counter-tenor (or alto) and baritone soli, mixed chorus and orchestra
Premiere: 2 July 2016
Oregon Bach Festival, Eugene
Christopher Ainslie/Morgan Smith/Berwick Chorus/
Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra/Matthew Halls

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, where human issues collide with the spiritual, provides a musical model for MacMillan's A European Requiem. The composer describes how in Beethoven’s Agnus Dei the world breaks into his setting of the Mass text with the tread of military drums and trumpets seeking to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven. At the opening of MacMillan's A European Requiem a militaristic parody of the Ode to Joy (adopted as the European anthem) threatens violence and unrest, returning to unsettle the work, even the closing In paradisum. MacMillan shares Beethoven's disillusionment with earthly powers - Napoleon in particular in Beethoven's case - and instead seeks renewal of a 'Europe of the Spirit'. The work was effectively paired with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the 2017 BBC Proms.

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Helmut Oehring
GOYA I - Yo lo vi (2006) 24'
for orchestra
Premiere: 19 October 2007
Donaueschingen Music Days
SWR Symphony Orchestra/Rupert Huber

Helmut Oehring, who grew up as the hearing child of deaf parents, has explored deaf and mute issues in many works. In Goya I he directs a twin focus on the great Spanish artist together with Beethoven, both of whom suffered deafness in the 1790s and became increasingly isolated within their respective societies. Both were initially attracted to the revolutionary French messengers of a 'free' world but felt betrayed by the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, captured most effectively in Goya's cycle of etchings Desastres de la Guerra and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Both acted as witnesses for their age, as summed up in Goya's subheading Yo lo vi - "I saw it". Oehring's orchestral score quotes music from a number of Beethoven's works including Wellington's Victory - written ten years after the Eroica to commemorate the defeat of Joseph Bonaparte, Piano Concertos Nos.3 and 5 and the String Quartet in A minor op.132.

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Max Reger
Variations and Fugue on a theme of Beethoven (1915) 22'
for orchestra

One of Reger's greatest orchestral works grew out of a set of variations for two pianos composed in 1904, based on Beethoven's final Bagatelle op.119 no.11. The original work was something of a party piece for the composer as pianist who performed it 132 times including at his final recital. The composer never lived to hear his orchestral version which was premiered at a memorial concert in Vienna in 1916. Garnering experience from his earlier variations on classical themes by Hiller and Mozart, Reger turned to the Beethoven hoping this was a staging post towards the symphony that would always elude him. The Beethoven theme is presented in its simple hummable form, before being presented in a sequence of eight variations in which the melody is developed and broken into small motivic particles with virtuosic craftsmanship and orchestration. Even more formidable is the closing fugue which is a thrilling contrapuntal tour-de-force.

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Christopher Rouse

Symphony No.5 (2015) 25'
Premiere: 10 February 2017
Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden

When the six-year-old Christopher Rouse first heard Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it was not only his first classical music but also a turning point making him decide to be a composer. This prompted Rouse to "tip my cap to Beethoven's mighty symphony" in his own Fifth which begins with the famous four note rhythm of the Beethoven. Beyond this there are a number of allusions and compositional paths influenced by the earlier work. Reviewing the first performance, alongside Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.2, the Dallas News admitted that "rarely does a brand-new piece of music really grab me and keep me completely engaged on first hearing. But the world premiere of Christopher Rouse's brilliant, exciting and at times hauntingly beautiful Fifth Symphony had that effect."

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Kurt Schwertsik

Unterwegs nach Heiligenstadt (2014) 5'
for violin and piano
Premiere: 16 October 2015
Kings Place, London
Krysia Osostowicz/Daniel Tong

Schwertsik's short chamber work was written as a companion to Beethoven's highly lyrical sonata op.30 no.1 in a project coupling all ten of the composer's works for violin and piano with new commissions. The Beethoven op.30 set was composed earlier in the year of the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he despairs at his growing deafness. Schwertsik set this in context by reading other letters from the same year and was struck by the composer's witty puns, grim jokes and good natured jibes at friends and publishers. On the Way to Heiligenstadt sets out to provide this wider picture of Beethoven in 1802 with what "can only be a humble tribute to this enigmatic composer".

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Richard Strauss

Metamorphosen (1944-45) 25'
for 23 solo strings

This elegiac work from Strauss's later years has become synonymous with the destruction of culture, specifically German culture embracing Beethoven and Strauss himself, epitomised by the wartime bombing of the opera houses in Dresden, Berlin and Vienna. The composer wrote that "2000 years of cultural evolution had met its doom, and irreplaceable monuments of architecture and works of art were destroyed". Towards the end of the work Strauss quotes bars of Beethoven's funeral march from the Eroica as a symbol of mourning across the centuries and the repeated short-short-short-long pattern on a monotone G can be heard as a reference to the motto theme from the first movement of Beeethoven's Fifth Symphony. As well as the 23 solo string classic frequently performed by orchestral string sections, a string septet version is available based on an early short score by Strauss discovered in 1990.

> More info 
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Michael Torke
Ash (1988) 17'
for chamber orchestra
Premiere: 3 February 1989
Ordway Center, St Paul
St Paul Chamber Orchestra/John Adams

Michael Torke's Ash is one of the most effective fusions of minimalism with classical style, energised with a distinctively Beethovenian drive. The composer deploys motivic repetition, witty play of tonic and dominants, and a classical tonal scheme, moving from a stormy F minor underpinned by timpani and synthesiser, to a more relaxed central section in Ab major highlighting the woodwinds. The composer explains his deconstruction of the ingredients of classicism as "not invention of new 'words' or a new language but a new way to make sentences and paragraphs in a common, much-used, existing language." The work's overt neo-classicism caused something of a critical controversy at the time of its premiere but Ash can now be regarded as a post-minimalist classic in its own right. Its chamber orchestra scoring has seen it regularly paired with Beethoven's first two symphonies.

> More info 


Mark-Anthony Turnage
Frieze (2012) 21'
for orchestra
Premiere: 11 August 2013
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Vasily Petrenko

Mark-Anthony Turnage's Frieze was created as a concert companion for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with one of the commissioners being the Royal Philharmonic Society who had funded Beethoven writing his final completed symphony. The work opens with the familiar open fifth and the four movements follow Beethoven's groundplan for the Ninth with a mysterious and expansive opener, a menacing scherzo, a lyrical slow movement, and an energetic carnival-like finale leading to an exuberant close. The title refers to Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building in Vienna, an earlier tribute to Beethoven – or rather Wagner's interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth – combining painting, gilding, mirrors and mother-of-pearl to depict humanity struggling to overcome worldly suffering via the unification of the arts.

> More info 


Arrangements and Orchestrations of Beethoven

Adagio molto e mesto 12'
(third movement of Razumovsky quartet op.59 no.1)
arr. Brett Dean (2013)
for flute, clarinet and strings
> More info 
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15 Bagatelles
arr. Peter Stamm
for wind quintet
> More info 

Große Fuge 18'
arr. Rudolf Barshai
for string orchestra
> More info 

Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea 3'
arr. Igor Stravinsky (1909)
for bass and orchestra
> More info   

Die Ruinen von Athen (The Ruins of Athens) 60'
arr. Richard Strauss (1924)
for soloists, chorus, ballet and chamber orchestra
A musical entertainment with dances and choruses, partly incorporating Beethoven's The Creatures of Prometheus, in a new edition and adaptation by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss
> More info 

Triple Concerto in C major 40'
arr. Detlev Glanert (2010)
for solo piano trio, with orchestral part arranged for wind quintet and string quintet
> More info  

Wind Quintet in Eb (after Septet op.20) 28'
arr. Jens Luckwaldt (2009)
for wind quintet
> More info 


Texts by David Allenby, 2017





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