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Fatality or Irony?

  • 2012-12-12
  • By Jonathan Brown

FROM VIENNA: The ENSO centers itself on the classical greats.

TALLINN - The Estonian National Symphony’s Fatal program falls just two days before the Mayan calendar predicts earth’s demise. Coincidence? Probably. But when the rest of the Baltic’s ballets, operas, and symphonies are promoting New Year’s Galas and Christmas concerts, Fatal stands out because it doesn’t fit the seasonal merriment mold. So, how and why fatal? What genre of fatality should the audience anticipate from the concert? Ought we take the theme at face value, or is this an ironic gesture? The music’s starting point and broadest unifying theme is actually less fatality (or Christmas) than Vienna - the geographical fulcrum of the featured composers: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

These are imposing figures. Josef Haydn, or “papa” as he is often referred, is a father figure of Classical music. It’s opined he invented, or at least codified, early symphony and string quartet forms - the two most important. Wolfgang Mozart’s exploits are the substance of many anecdotes: the fourteen-year-old transcribed Georgia Allegri’s Miserere from memory - despite that the piece was prized property of the Vatican. Upon witnessing the boy’s brilliance, a peer infamously said, “This boy means we will all be forgotten.” Igor Stravinsky described Ludwig Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue as “an absolutely contemporary piece that will be contemporary forever.” Of course Beethoven had begun to lose his hearing when he composed the fugue. The accomplishments of these composers are hard to overstate.

Haydn never set foot in Paris, despite his celebrity there. His reputation was such that his name was better known than his music. Apparently, publishers printed his music without his knowledge or consent, pocketing the proceeds. His eighty-third symphony, La Poule (the Hen), was one of six Paris Symphonies commissioned by Le Concert de la Loge Olympique. This was long-overdue formal recognition of the composer’s popularity, for which he was reimbursed nearly five-fold the anticipated rate. He needed only one year, 1785 - 1786, to complete all six. But sections of great urgency in the La Poule are contrasted with light-hearted music, and even the symphony’s title doesn’t suggest fate could be a central theme.

All four of Mozart’s horn concertos were gifts to Joseph Leutgeb, virtuoso and life-long friend of the composer. The manuscripts of these scores are full of near insulting jests - one “dedication” reads: “Wolfgang Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and simpleton Vienna, March 27, 1783.”  The horn is not the most dexterous of instruments. It’s not nearly as nimble as the violin, for instance (Mozart wrote five violin concertos). What’s more, the horn of his time was even more cumbersome than now. However unwieldy the horn, these concertos are outstanding and they’ve won their place in standard horn repertoire. But Mozart can’t have thought particularly highly of his Third Horn Concerto - he neglected to include it in his autographed catalogue. Curiously, the Fourth Horn Concerto’s score includes a unique color scheme, the purpose of which is still unknown (a colorful enigma or playful attempt to rattle Leutgeb?). Witticisms and puzzles aside, placing these concertos under fate’s umbrella might seem hyperbolic.

The opening moments of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are heard sometimes as fate knocking at the door. But this interpretation is as controversial as the symphony is popular - very. The premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was gargantuan. It was a four-hour marathon of a concert. With nearly no rehearsal time, there were glaring errors from the orchestra. Beethoven, who conducted, had to stop and restart the music at least once. The concert hall was extremely cold, the audience, who were subjected to Beethoven’s piano improvisations towards the end of the program, was exhausted. If the Fifth Symphony is the most widely recognized classical composition, the story of its premiere is proportionately humbling.

At a glance, the ENSO’s Fatal program, which includes Beethoven’s Fifth, resembles its premiere, at least in magnitude. From a distance, these composers and their compositions loom. But up close, the details and the anecdotes surrounding them tell a different story - a less dramatic or fatal story. If the ENSO’s audience intends to uncover the intricacies of fatality, Haydn’s The Hen, Mozart’s jesting concertos, and Beethoven’s Fifth may prove insufficient. In reality, the ENSO reveals a disproportionate trust in classical music to communicate hefty ideas - such as those of fatality. Ironically, it is this trust, all too often placed in classical music, which the ENSO objects to with Fatal. There’s no better program or orchestra to raise this question.

The Estonian National Symphony will perform Fatal on Dec. 19 at Estonia Concert Hall. For more information visit www.erso.ee.