Monday, October 24, 2011

Beethoven - Choral Fantasia

Ludwig van Beethoven   first made his mark in the musical world as a virtuoso pianist. His skill as an improvisor was well known. The art of improvisation has had something of a rebirth, especially with jazz musicians. Of course, there was no sound recording in Beethoven's day, so how he actually sounded is a matter of conjecture. There are contemporary descriptions of his improvisations, but we will never know how great he really was.

Be that as it may, we do have a few instances of music that Beethoven improvised and later wrote down. Such is the piano solo beginning the Choral Fantasia. This work had its first hearing at a benefit concert in December of 1808.  It was the Finale of a concert that also had the premieres of Symphonies 5 and 6, the 4th Piano concerto, an Aria, and half of the Mass In C Major. The thought of such a long concert, at least 3 1/2 hours long in an unheated concert hall in Vienna, Austria in December boggles the mind.  Beethoven wrote the piece to be a culmination of the concert that integrated solo piano, orchestra and voice.

Beethoven was the soloist in the first performance. He was so hurried and busy in preparation for it (the ink was still wet at concert time on the vocal parts)  he had no time to write down the piano solo, so he improvised it at the concert.  After the 26 bars of virtuosic piano, a theme is introduced by the deep strings, the piano enters in a dialogue with the orchestra for a few measures, then the main theme of the piece is stated by the solo piano and a set of variations on the choral theme begins.  After the variations, the initial theme is restated by the deep strings that are punctuated by flourishes from the piano. Then the chorus enters with a piano accompaniment. The chorus continues with the next verse as the piano continues accompanying until the full orchestra and chorus join in together, until the piece ends with the full orchestra and piano alternating with chords and flourishes until all end together.

The Choral Fantasia has been likened to an experiment that was the precursor of the 9th Symphony. And there is similarity in the main choral tune and the Ode To Joy of the 9th, as well as some of the structure of the two being similar. But the Choral Fantasia is a masterpiece in its own right, one of those pieces of music that Beethoven wrote that needs to be judged on its own merits.

Beethoven's Choral Fantasia and  English translation of the chorus:

With grace, charm and sweet sounds
The harmonies of our life,
And the sense of beauty engenders
The flowers which eternally bloom.
Peace and joy advancing in perfect accord,
Like the alternating play of the waves;
All harsh and hostile elements
Render to a sublime sentiment.

When the magic sounds reign
And the sacred word is spoken,
That strongly engender the wonderful,
The night and the tempest divert light,
Calm without, profound joy within,
Awaiting the great hour.
Meanwhile, the spring sun and art
Bathe in the light.

Something great, into the heart
Blooms anew when in all its beauty,
Which spirit taken flight,
And all a choir of spirits resounds in response.
Accept then, oh you beautiful spirits
Joyously of the gifts of art.
When love and strength are united,
The favor of God rewards Man.

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