We began by listening to the fourth movement of one of the late Beethoven string quartets, opus 131 written in 1826. The late quartets were commissioned by Prince Nikolai Galitzine, a Russian aristocrat and amateur musician, who offered to pay Beethoven “what you think proper”. They agreed on a price of 50 ducats per quartet. When you think about it, it was a fairly cheap price to achieve immortality, as otherwise no one would have heard of the prince today. The late quartets were the last major works written by Beethoven who at that stage was in poor health and profoundly deaf. It is difficult to imagine Beethoven writing these works when it was only possible to hear them in his imagination. They went far beyond the comprehension of musicians and audiences at the time and a contemporary composer, Louis Spohr called them “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors” It goes without saying that Beethoven is now considered one of the giants of music composition whereas Spohr, if he is remembered at all, it is for his invention of the violin chin rest!
The work was recorded by the Quartetto Italiano, a group of one lady and three gentlemen. The lady, Elisa Pegreffi, has the unusual distinction of having been married, presumably sequentially, to all the other three members of the quartet!
After this sublime work we heard the final movement of Saint Saëns’s third symphony with organ with Christopher Robinson playing the organ with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Louis Fremaux. The orchestration also includes a piano played with two or four hands. The work was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and received its first performance in London in 1886 conducted by the composer. It was dedicated to Franz Liszt who had recently died. It has been used as a theme in several films, and an arrangement was used as a test piece in the UK National Brass Band Championships in 2010.
We finished the session by listening to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, known as the Pathetique played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan. It was originally going to be called Tragic and finally ended up at Patetichesky, normally translated as Pathetique, but which in Russian means full of passionate emotion. The symphony was Tchaikovsky’s last major work and received its first performance in St Petersburg in 1893. The work was well received although the orchestra appeared to be less than enthusiastic. Tchaikovsky committed suicide by poisoning 9 days after the first performance. Many people have tried to read a suicide note into the piece, although now the general concensus is that he could not have known of the depression which led to suicide whilst writing the piece. The third movement ends in a rousing ‘finale’ leading audiences at the Proms to call in unison for no applause after the third movement in the days when applause between movement was more frowned upon than appears to be the case nowadays. When the piece was played by soviet orchestra’s during Stalin’s time in office it was said that the third and fourth movements would be reversed in order to bring the work to a triumphant conclusion in line with the principles of Socialist realism.