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Beethoven’s "Orpheus" Concerto

The Fourth Piano Concerto in its Cultural Context

Owen Jander
2009

228 pp.

30 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1576471326

paperback $54.00


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""Beethoven composed his Fourth Piano Concerto in Vienna in the years 1803-06. In that period there was an unusually keen interest in the Orpheus legend; and so it is not surprising to learn that all three movements ... were undeclaredly—or better described secretly—based on that famous story."
December 11, 2010

The quest for meaning in Beethoven's Fourth Concerto has mainly focused on the second movement in its well-known association with Orpheus's descent into Hades to rescue his wife, Euridice, through the power of his lyre. This, Jander claims, was the generative movement of the entire concerto, influenced by Cluck's setting of the scene where Orpheus confronts the Furies in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice. In this book Jander culminates several decades of thinking and writing on the Fourth Concerto, expanding his thesis to connect the Orpheus legend to all three movements. The first two chapters reiterate much of Jander's previous research on Beethoven's awareness of the Orpheus legend and his creation of the dramatic narrative in the second movement. Jander then works backward to the first movement, asserting that the cyclic plan of the concerto mirrors the three "chapters" of the legend as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses. For the first and last movements, Beethoven worked within the confines of classical form, so in order to uncover the narrative, Jander looks at the moments when Beethoven departs from the norm. As "The Song of Orpheus" opens with the testing of his lyre, the fortepianist gently rolls the opening chord of the first movement; the orchestral tutti that follows relates to Orpheus's declaration on his art; building up to the fortissimo passage at mm. 50-60 where Orpheus proclaims "I would sing songs about boys beloved by gods." This nascent expression of homosexual desire becomes more explicit in the last movement, when Orpheus confronts a gang of "crazed women," the Bacchantes. Having lost Euridice, a bitter Orpheus turns against women in general. In retaliation for his misogyny, the Bacchantes torture and kill him, throwing his lyre into the River Hebrus. The music of the third movement depicts the attack, a violent act, Jander claims, best expressed on the fortepiano (the modern instrument being overly bombastic). The lyrical, second theme of the Rondo represents Orpheus's severed head floating down the river, calling Euridice's name (in Virgil's version of the story). As the loving couple is reunited in death, the lyre is transformed into a constellation of stars (mm. 546-53). The concerto concludes with the punishment of the Bacchantes. Clearly, this will be a controversial interpretation for some readers. Jander supports his theory through the analysis of numerous musical examples from the movements. He follows up his analysis with a study of the Mahler portrait of Beethoven from 1804 that he argues contains references to the concerto (the front cover of the book reproduces this image of Beethoven holding of a lyre). The final chapter offers a brief conclusion and chronology of events that shaped the concerto and this interpretation. A discography of recordings on period instruments is also included, as well as a bibliography and index.

The Beethoven Journal, Winter 2010 (Volume 25, Number 21)
Owen Jander: