Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Chevalier, the Queen, Papa Haydn, and the “Eroica”

Title-page of the earliest surviving copy of the “Eroica”, with the dedication to Napoleon
violently scratched out by Beethoven.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

“The Chevalier de Saint-Georges,
Virtuosa[sic] of the Sword and the Bow”,
by Gabriel Banat, 1789. 
There seems to be no consensus on how the name of the first composer in the LBSO’s February concert of “French connections” should be expressed. The man who wrote the overture to the comic opera L’amant Anonyme, with which they opened, was firmly named in the orchestra’s publicity and program book as “Joseph Boulogne (1745-1799)”, with “Chevalier de Saint-Georges” included just once as an honorific.

Such CDs as exist of music by this remarkable figure, however, tend to go for the latter, while the extensive Wikipedia article throws in more complexity, noting that “Boulogne” was an early misattribution from a mix-up with one Jean de Boullonges (no relation): the actual name of the composer’s father, a plantation owner in Guadeloupe, was “Bologne”, with “de Saint-Georges” added from the name of one of his plantations.

His mother, however, was a 16-year-old African slave, the reason he is now regarded as the first composer of “classical” music with African ancestry. In his fascinating pre-concert talk, LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu outlined the “Chevalier’s” remarkable career, from the illegitimate son’s arrival in France with his father at the age of seven, through his early education and prowess as a fencer (hence the title), his equally youthful success as a violinist, then concerts with Gossec and his Concert des Amateurs, and eventually his assumption of that orchestra’s music directorship in 1773.

Marie Antoinette in her salon, by
Jean-Baptiste André Gautier d'Agoty, 1777.
Enter the Queen. Marie Antoinette, no less, became a devotee of Saint-Georges and his concerts, sometimes attending anonymously, and later included him in her own private musical soirées at Versailles. Fast forward a decade or so, and we find him, now director of another orchestra, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique, commissioning Haydn to write a set of symphonies for it. These six “Paris Symphonies”—82-87 in the familiar numbering—were a tremendous public success, No. 85 in B-flat major Hob. I/85 being a particular favorite of the Queen; it rapidly acquired the nickname it still holds of “La Reine.” 

Meanwhile, along with his public profile Saint-Georges’ compositional career had bloomed, including many string quartets and other chamber works mostly involving the violin, some 14 violin concertos, several symphonies and symphonies-concertantes, and latterly no less than six opéras comiques. The third of them, L’amant Anonyme, premièred in 1780, seems to have been his most successful, and is the only one now not to have been lost wholly or in part.

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1791.
A very slimmed-down Long Beach Symphony (just pairs of oboes and horns, with around half the usual string complement) delivered a warm, spacious account of its brief overture which, with its effective and clearly contrasting themes, could easily have been an early Mozart singspiel prelude. The next link in Maestro Preu’s program-building, Haydn’s “La Reine” symphony, was composed around five years later, and adds only a flute and two bassoons to the overture’s small band. With the same reduced strings leaving lots of the stage acreage bare, it had an almost chamber music-like feel in the Terrace Theater’s expanse.

After a not very slow Adagio introduction, Preu gave the first movement’s main Vivace the same affectionate breadth with which he had introduced the “Chevalier” to Long Beach (for the record, with the exposition repeat but not that of the second half which, unless the tempo is exceptionally fleet, makes the first movement disproportionately long compared to the other three). By contrast, Preu kept the second movement Romance moving along—though coaxed rather than driven—so that there was no chance of its several variations on a French folksong, complete with repeats, outstaying their welcome.

The Menuetto and Presto Finale were equally winning, with the small wind band making the most of the many piquant moments that Haydn gives them (notably the juicy bassoon solo in the Trio), and the strings pliant and homogeneous throughout. Pleasant and enjoyable though Saint-Georges’ overture was, there was no doubting Haydn’s extra individuality and inventiveness: “Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien” (The best is the enemy of the good), as Voltaire had written a decade or so earlier… 

A couple of years ago, the BBC Music Magazine published the results of a poll to determine “the 20 greatest symphonies of all time” and, of course, included a countdown from No. 20 all the way to No. 1. Interestingly, this was not a survey of readers or audiences, or even of critics, but was instead drawn from 151 conductors, each of them asked to choose just three of their “greatest symphonies.” The aggregate winner was Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

Detail of a portrait of Beethoven in
1804-05, by Joseph Willibrord Máhler.
I don’t know whether Eckart Preu was one of the 151, but on the strength of his performance of the master’s epochal Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major Op. 55, composed in 1803-04, it surely would have been in his top three. The “French connection” here was Beethoven’s fervent belief in the ideals of the French Revolution, which nonetheless had claimed the life of Marie Antoinette in the previous decade and came close to doing the same for Saint-Georges. (He was imprisoned for 13 months, during which time the Queen went to the guillotine, but he was eventually released without charge.)

Maestro Preu’s account got off to a fine start with two imperiously cracked-out E-flat chords, and a thrillingly propulsive Allegro con brio to follow. Though the orchestra had already had a pretty hefty day, playing their second annual Family Concert that same afternoon to around 3000 young music-lovers, you would never have guessed it from the lithe responsiveness and accuracy of their playing. Residually invigorated by all that youthful enthusiasm, or just responding to this mighty masterwork and its fervent projection by their conductor? Whichever, it worked.

Interestingly, though the orchestra was expanded to its full string strength, Maestro Preu did not double the woodwind or add a bumper to Beethoven’s three horns, as is often done when the “Eroica” is played by a full modern symphony orchestra, and there was no detriment to balance that I could detect. The forte horn dissonances that sound the climax of the development, for example, were as brazenly prominent as one could desire with just the three instruments. I was sorry that he elected to omit the first movement exposition repeat, but at 691 measures this is already by far Beethoven’s longest symphonic first movement, and one could argue that with such duration, scale and dynamism it is inimical to the overall sense of an epic journey to retrace your steps over its first stage.

The sense of urgency carried over into the Marcia funèbre, with its opening taken quite quickly—surprisingly and refreshingly so, and triggering a flexibly responsive account of the movement that quite avoided the interminability that some more exaggeratedly “funereal” performances engender. This amazing movement is one of the greatest examples of Beethoven’s skill as an orchestrator, his mastery of tone-color and instrumental resources so consummate that you simply are not conscious of it, instead just responding to the unprecedented expressive intensity.

Highlights of the Scherzo were the meticulously observed pianissimo e staccato playing of the strings from the outset, and at the opposite end of the aural spectrum, the splendidly secure fanfaring by the three horns in the Trio. Then, near the beginning of the Finale, came a surprise. The first of the 10 variations on the famous “Prometheus” theme was played by solo string quartet and not the full first and second violins, viola, and ‘cello sections. What, I wonder, was the provenance of this—a conductorial experiment, or a feature of one or other of the Urtext editions of the score that have appeared in recent years? It was certainly an intriguing sound, and the harbinger of an account of the movement that was as alert and airborne as the previous three. A splendid performance of the symphony... and what a symphony! 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 2, 2018, 8 p.m.
Photos: “Eroica” title-page: Wikimedia Commons; Saint-Georges: Wikimedia Commons; Marie Antoinette: Wikimedia Commons; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons.

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