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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Symphony for the Common Man

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Is he also nothing but a human being? He will… become a tyrant.” So fumed Ludwig van Beethoven (1770- 1827) upon first hearing that Napoleon Bonaparte had crowned himself Emperor of France. No doubt Beethoven felt Napoleon had betrayed his expectations. Beethoven was initially attracted to Napoleon as champion of the people; the self-made liberator of the lowly. This inspiring figure unknowingly helped lead Beethoven into his “heroic” middle period, and no other work announces the dawn of that era more profoundly than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55 of 1804.

In no other composer is the sensation of thrust—of movement from strength, of massive force in action—so clearly formulated. The power of his E-Flat Major Symphony is personal, its strength that of the individual, its principles those of energetic self-determination. These were Beethoven’s ideals and—so he thought—those of the young First Consul of the French. Thus the enormous new symphony was to be called, in his honor, Sinfonia Buonaparte. But when Napoleon became emperor, the title page of the new symphony’s original score was violently altered by Beethoven, who so vehemently scrubbed out the “Buonaparte” that he tore the paper.

Beethoven’s magnificent symphony has evermore been known by its new name—Eroica. Napoleon as the cham- pion of the common man had died in his eyes. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andreas Delfs, continues its season-long canvassing of the nine Beethoven symphonies with the Eroica in its next concert. As with Beethoven’s symphony, so Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) made a leap in artistic development between his piano concertos of 1782 and those of 1784 (though his inspiration was less idealistic, perhaps).

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-Flat Major, K. 450 is one of those strikingly different new concertos of 1784, composed largely to display Mozart’s own prowess at the piano, with a solo part far more virtuosic than any of his previous 14 concertos. Indeed, Mozart described the work to his father as designed “to make you sweat.” Not only had the solo piano part become more mature, but so too had Mozart’s accompanying wind instrument writing, which is more deeply woven into the concerto’s musical textures than ever before.

Andreas Haefliger is the piano soloist. Maestro Delfs uniquely paired the works of American composers with Beethoven symphonies this season. This time around it’s New York’s William Schuman (1910-92). As with most American composers, Schuman’s music was infused with jazz and pop idioms, but he made history as the first ever winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 1943 cantata A Free Song. Even so, Schuman is mainly known today for his contributions to the symphonic repertoire, for he is, along with Ives, Copland, Harris and Hanson, among the 20th century’s leading American symphonists. Maestro Delfs conducts the MSO string section in Schuman’s Symphony No. 5 for Strings.

This concert takes place at Uihlein Hall on February 8, 9 and 10.