Grieg originally composed this work for piano in 1884. In 1885 he arranged it for string orchestra and conducted the first performance in Bergen the same year.
Many 19th- or 20th-century composers have said to themselves, “I think I’ll write a nice little piece in the 18th-century style,” but the task is more difficult than it sounds. Mere emulation isn’t all that creative, so most composers get carried away, lapse into their native musical language, and leave the 18th-century far behind.
But no matter — the chances are good that if the composer had fun with the exercise, listeners will, too, as they do with Grieg’s Holberg Suite. The work was written to commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Ludvig Holberg, who was considered to be the father of modern Scandinavian literature. It takes a form Holberg might have expected to hear in his own day: a Baroque-style suite of dance movements. There the resemblance ends, however. For while the melodies and rhythms give a nod and a wink to the 18th century, the harmonies are much closer to 19th-century Grieg. Not surprisingly, the Air is the most successful musically even though it strays the farthest, harmonically speaking, from its model.
Grieg jokingly referred to the Holberg Suite as his “powdered-wig piece,” giving us an important reminder: a bit of fun is certainly not out of place at symphony concerts!
Marc Rohr ©2008
The young Beethoven shied away from the two forms most closely associated with his idol and erstwhile teacher Haydn: the symphony and the string quartet. He finally wrote his first quartets, a set of six grouped as Opus 18, between 1798 and 1800. As for symphonies, he made an attempt in 1795–96 (after hearing Haydn’s London symphonies), but he did not complete one until 1800. He introduced the work on April 2 on his first benefit concert at the Burgtheater, the same venue where Mozart had presented his own popular concert series. Besides the First Symphony, Beethoven offered his Septet (Opus 20), a Mozart symphony, excerpts from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, a piano concerto, and some improvisations from the keyboard.
Beethoven’s First Symphony honors the inherited Viennese tradition, and yet it also contains a germ of independence. The most striking departure comes in the very first sonority, an unstable chord that resolves away from the home key. It only cycles back to the proper tonal center of C major after a drawn-out, tantalizing introduction. When the main theme enters in the new Allegro con brio tempo, it plays with a small three-note figure outlining an ascending fourth, echoing the relationship between the work’s two opening chords. In a precursor of the interconnected symphonies to come, the second movement, marked Andante cantabile con moto (at a walking pace, songlike, with motion), starts with the same ascending interval. A distinguishing characteristic of this slow movement is its rich and independent writing for winds, with a scoring that includes trumpets and timpani.
The third movement, though labeled “minuet,” is closer in spirit to the wild scherzos of the later symphonies. The contrasting trio section reveals Beethoven’s sense of humor, with scampering runs in the strings popping up between chorale phrases in the woodwinds. The finale brings this fledgling symphony full circle, with a slow introduction setting up a tonal resolution that solves the riddle posed by the Symphony’s opening chords. The violins test an ascending scale, adding a note at a time; when they reach the top of the octave, they launch a bright and hearty valediction.
Aaron Grad ©2014
About This Program
Please note: At this time, only season ticket packages are available for purchase. Tickets to individual concerts will go on sale in late August.