Beethoven’s Choice Program Notes

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842): Requiem in C minor

Cherubini was much more famous in his own time than in ours. Beethoven regarded him as “the greatest living composer.” As director of the Paris Conservatory for twenty years, he influenced an entire generation of French composers.

Cherubini made two settings of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. The first was commissioned by Louis XVIII as a memorial to his brother, Louis XVI, on the twenty-third anniversary of the latter’s execution. The first performance took place in the Abbey Church of Saint Denis on January 21, 1816.

When the Archbishop of Paris objected to the use of women’s voices in church, Cherubini responded in 1836 with a second Requiem, this time for men’s voices only, and demanded that it be played at his own funeral. The orchestration of the C minor Requiem did not escape the composer’s sharp tongue. “I know only one thing worse than one flute: two flutes,” he said. Accordingly, his first Requiem contains no parts for flutes. Indeed, the work is scored for chorus and orchestra only; there are no vocal soloists.

Berlioz, a student at the Paris Conservatory when Cherubini was its director, described the elder man as “the most academic of academicians, past, present and future.” Yet even Berlioz, whose Memoirs are filled with sarcastic remarks about Cherubini, praised the C minor Requiem for its “abundance of ideas, fullness of form and sublimity of style.”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Sketches for the Second Symphony date from as early as 1800. Most of the work was done during the summer and fall of 1802, about the time that Beethoven realized the “roaring” in his ears would lead to total deafness.

The first performance took place in Vienna on April 5, 1803. It was a typically mammoth all-Beethoven concert. Besides the Second Symphony, the program included the First Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives.

Rehearsals began at eight that same morning. According to an eyewitness, “it was a terrible rehearsal, and at half past two everybody was exhausted and more or less dissatisfied. Prince Karl Lichnowsky (one of Beethoven’s patrons)…had sent for bread and butter, cold meat and wine, in large baskets. He pleasantly asked all to help themselves, and this was done with both hands, the result being that good nature was restored again.”

After the premiere, the Second Symphony was criticized for its “striving for the new and surprising.” A Leipzig performance a year later moved one reviewer to describe the work as “a gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, though bleeding to death, furiously beats about with its tail in the finale.” But for Hector Berlioz, “in this symphony, everything is noble, energetic, proud.”

In his book on the Beethoven symphonies, George Grove wrote: “The Second Symphony is a great advance on the First….The advance is more in dimensions and style, and in the wonderful fire and force of the treatment, than in any really new ideas, such as its author afterwards introduced and are specially connected in our minds with the name of Beethoven….The first movement is distinctly of the old world, though carried out with a spirit, vigor, and effect, and occasionally with a caprice, which are nowhere surpassed, if indeed they are equaled, by Haydn and Mozart. Nor is there anything in the extraordinary grace, beauty, and finish of the Larghetto to alter this…nor in the Finale, grotesque and strong as much of it is: it is all still of the old world, till we come to the Coda, and that, indeed, is distinctly of the other order.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2016.