Beethoven’s Fifth

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Canticle of Freedom

A decade or so after A Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland returned to the patriotic genre one more time in this little-known choral work. Canticle of Freedom was a occasional piece, commissioned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the dedication of the school’s new Kresge Auditorium. According to eyewitnesses, the forces of MIT did less than full justice to the new work, which was first heard in an adequate performance when Robert Shaw conducted a revised version in Atlanta in 1967.

The composer made a special effort to keep the choral parts simple; he limited himself to unison singing or a two-part texture to make it easier for amateur performers. Yet it is not exactly a lightweight work. In spite of its relative brevity, it packs quite a punch, and the prominent brass and percussion parts give it a definite air of grandiosity. Some commentators have suggested that this paean to freedom was, in some sense, a response to Copland’s harrowing experience before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where he was grilled about the Communist contacts that he was suspected of having (but which he denied).

Copland chose a medieval text for the Canticle, perhaps to show the timelessness of the idea of freedom. The lines are from the epic poem The Brus (The Bruce) by Scottish poet John Barbour (ca. 1320-1395) about the wars between England and Scotland in the 13 th century. The poem–one of the earliest literary works to come down to us from Scotland–was written in Early Scots, but Copland used a translation into modern English by Willis Wager. (It is interesting that Copland’s friend, Mexican composer Carlos Chávez, had set the same text for unaccompanied chorus in 1944.) Copland emphasized the Scottish connection by consistently using the “Scotch snap” (short note–long note) throughout the piece, particularly on the word “freedom.”

~ Notes by Peter Laki, copyright 2024.

Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961)
Violin Concerto in D

Born in New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis has been called the “Pied Piper” of jazz and the “Doctor of Swing.” He is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Director of Jazz Studies at The Juilliard School, and President of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.

Concerto in D was given its world premiere by violinist Nicola Benedetti and the London Symphony Orchestra in November, 2015. In his program note, Marsalis says the piece “was written for Nicola Benedetti…. I considered aspects of her Scottish ancestry, the great Afro-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s love of legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns, my love and inextinguishable respect for Scottish baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley…and the luminous but obscure achievements of Afro-American keyed bugler Francis Johnson…. 

“The piece opens with Nicky whispering a solo note before the orchestra enters, as if to say ‘And so it came to pass’ or ‘Once upon a time’….

“Movement 1 is a complex dream that becomes a nightmare, progresses into peacefulness and dissolves into ancestral memory.

“Movement 2 is a syncopated, New Orleans jazz, calliope, circus clown, African gumbo, Mardi Gras party in odd meters.

“Movement 3 is the progression of flirtation, courtship, intimacy, sermonizing, final loss and abject loneliness that is out there to claim us all.

“Movement 4 is a raucous, stomping and whimsical barnyard throw-down. She excites us with all types of virtuosic chicanery and gets us intoxicated with revelry and then…goes on down the Good King’s highway to other places yet to be seen or even foretold.”

~Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2024.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67

According to Beethoven’s biographer, Alexander Thayer, the Fifth Symphony “was no sudden inspiration. Themes for (three of the movements) are found in sketchbooks belonging, at the very latest, to the years 1800 and 1801.” After interrupting himself to write the Fourth Symphony, Beethoven finished the Fifth in the spring of 1808.

Beethoven conducted the first performance at a typically massive all-Beethoven concert in Vienna on December 22, 1808. Besides the Fifth, the program included the Sixth Symphony, the concert aria Ah, Perfido, two movements from the Mass in C major, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. One listener complained: “There we continued, in the bitterest cold, too, from half past six to half past ten, and experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing–and still more of a loud…. Many a failure in the performance vexed our patience to the highest degree.”

In 1830, Mendelssohn played the first movement on the piano for Goethe, who said: “It is tremendous–quite crazy–one is almost afraid the house will collapse; and imagine how it must sound in the orchestra!” Of the celebrated four notes that begin the movement, Beethoven is supposed to have said: “Thus Fate knocks at the door.” Much has been made of this remark, most of it nonsense. Pointing to the same four notes in the Fourth Piano Concerto, theorist Heinrich Schenker wondered, “Was this another door on which Fate knocked or was someone else knocking at the same door?” By coincidence, the rhythm of the four notes corresponds to the Morse code for the letter “V.” That, coupled with Winston Churchill’s “V for Victory” gesture, inspired the BBC to use the phrase as a signature during World War II.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey compared the second movement to Shakespeare’s heroines, for “the same courage, the same beauty of goodness, and the same humor.” Berlioz claimed that the third movement produces “the inexplicable emotion that one experiences under the magnetic gaze of certain individuals.” With the finale, writes George Grove, “all the noisy elements at Beethoven’s command in those simpler days (burst) like a thunder-clap into the major key and into a triumphal march.”

~Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2024.