Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 51
Leonore Overture No. 3
King Stephen Overture
Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 31, 1970 (Leonore Overture No. 3)
Koussevitzky Music Shed, August 1, 1970 (Coriolan Overture)
Koussevitzky Music Shed, August 14, 1970 (Overture to King Stephen)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
William Steinberg, conductor
Background on the Music
Beethoven composed 11 overtures - four of them for various versions of his only opera Fidelio. At one time many of these overtures regularly served as concert openers, but in recent decades, beginning a program with an overture has passed out of fashion.
The expansive 14-minute Leonore Overture No. 3 was Beethoven's third attempt to create a satisfactory overture for Fidelio. It provides a suspenseful and superbly dramatic musical synopsis of the opera, but Beethoven apparently decided that it was too exciting to precede the quietly domestic opening scenes. The first sections of the opera serve to delineate character and to provide a base on which momentum and drama can build. Gustav Mahler has been credited with the idea of performing this overture to cover the set change between the two scenes of the second act, but others had done this before him. The practice was widespread during most of the 20th century, but many conductors prefer not recapitulate what the audience has just experienced and run the danger of overwhelming the real musical climax of the opera, which comes in the final scene. Also, modern stage machinery makes a long delay between scenes unnecessary.
Beethoven composed the Coriolan Overture (1807) for a production of the tragedy of the same name by Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1804). Colin's play is about the same figure from Roman times that Shakespeare built his play Coriolanus around. According to legend, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus was a 5th century general who, rebuffed by his people after he had conquered an enemy tribe, returned with that tribe in an effort to sack Rome; his mother Veturia falls to his feet to plead him to turn back, so he does. Later he is assassinated. The seven-minute overture alternates music of startling ferocity with contrasting sections that perhaps represent the mother's plea; the music ends quietly as Coriolanus expires.
In 1811 Beethoven composed a six-minute overture and incidental choral music for King Stephen, a play about the founder of Hungary that was written by August von Kozebue to open a new theater in Budapest. The music is both proclamatory and playful, with touches of near-folk character. Audiences are always surprised and delighted when the shape of one of Beethoven's most familiar melodies makes an appearance in this relatively unfamiliar work.
The three overtures in this collection commemorate William Steinberg's music directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The German-born conductor served in this capacity for only three seasons (1969-1972), between the tenures of Erich Leinsdorf and Seiji Ozawa. He turned 70 during his first season, and his health was beginning to fail (he died in 1978), so his time with the BSO is most often remembered for the opportunities his cancellations created for the gifted young assistant conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, whose career was launched during those years; Thomas's first appearance came when he replaced Steinberg midway through a concert.
Like Leinsdorf, Steinberg was a refugee from a Europe ravaged by Hitler. Born in Cologne in 1899, Steinberg studied violin, piano, and composition as well as conducting in his home town, which is also where his distinguished career began when he became an assistant to Otto Klemperer. Steinberg's moment came when Klemperer cancelled before a performance of Halévy's opera La Juive and Steinberg successfully replaced him. When Klemperer left Cologne, Steinberg took over his position, and moved on to music directorships in Prague and Frankfurt before the Nazi bans against Jews.
Steinberg emigrated to Palestine, where, with the violinist Bronislaw Huberman, he created the orchestra that became the Israel Philharmonic. He came to the United States in 1938, where he played a role in the early days of another new orchestra, Toscanini's NBC Symphony. In this country he became a busy guest conductor as well as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. In 1952 he accepted the music directorship of the Pittsburgh Symphony and remained there through 1976, while guest conducting other orchestras, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera.
Steinberg was much admired for his sterling musicianship; the breadth of his repertory, which included much contemporary music; the clarity and precision of his technique; his wit and pipe-smoking geniality; and the collegial relationships he established and maintained with his musicians. He made many admirable records with the Pittsburg Symphony, most of which have been reissued on CD and remain available today. With the Boston Symphony Orchestra he made a small but choice body of recordings for Deutsche Grammophon; Steinberg's BSO performance of Holst's The Planets, which he learned especially for the performances and recording, became a surprise best seller because of the quality of Steinberg's interpretation, the virtuoso playing of the orchestra, and the state-of-the-art recording technology. This writer remembers vivid performances Steinberg led of such works as Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and Act II of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Michael Steinberg (no relation), the music critic of the Boston Globe during Steinberg's seasons, once observed that a silent movie of Steinberg minimalist conducting would lead you to suppose he was leading the scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream instead of unleashing the mightiest climaxes in Wagner and Mahler.
In the 1970s, one of the most popular features of Tanglewood programming was an annual "Beethoven weekend" that was as much loved by the public as it was by the area's restauranteurs, hotelkeepers, and bed-and-breakfast personnel. In 1970, there were two Beethoven weekends to celebrate the composer's 200th birthday. Steinberg conducted two concerts in each weekend, and the Berkshire economy must have soared. Antal Dorati led the third concert the first weekend, and Max Rudolf stepped in for one concert in the second weekend.
What is remarkable about Steinberg's performances is that there is no sense of routine either in the conducting or in the orchestra' playing. And the performances make it clear that clarity and precision are not the enemies of excitement. In Leonore No. 3, Steinberg adopts some sensational speeds with no loss of control; the performance builds up a tremendous head of steam.
"The Coriolan Overture . . .[was] really conducted, shaped, and most of the time, very much alive."
-Michael Steinberg, Boston Globe
"The program opener, the Overture to
Coriolan, is a short piece with plenty of the sudden,
full-chord thrusts and satisfying thumps that exhibit Beethoven's
virile side. The opening phrases, especially, are powerful,
muscular gestures, and the following deep-throated sonority was
almost palpable Saturday."
-R.C. Hammerich, Springfield Republican
"Steinberg indirectly paid his musicians
the greatest respect by allowing them to play without indicating
every last detail. The result was a revelation of what conducting
of the highest intelligence and experience and good taste can
produce. His gestures were minimal, reminding those who could
recall the manner of Pierre Monteux, but the effects were
magnificent. The players rose to the occasion and played with a
unanimity of freedom and release, which less able conductors do not
allow. The greatness of Beethoven was revived and fortified without
deviation . . .The glories of the Leonore Overture No. 3 .
. .and of the Coriolan Overture . . . were conveyed with a
graphicness and vividness within well-planned symmetry that
disclosed many of the facets which less penetrating insight
obfuscates. It was deeply gratifying to see that music-making was
the prime and only purpose of the conductor and that display of
knowledge and dramatization of emotion were no part of the
harlequinade on a podium."
-Jay C. Rosenfeld, Berkshire Eagle
"William Steinberg has been musical
director of the BSO for only one season and yet, with due regard to
the many fine concerts his predecessors have given, never has the
feeling so pervaded an evening that all assembled musicians spoke
as one. There is nothing of the theatrical in his conducting. In
fact, he could well serve as an example to the [TMC] students of
how effective the non-dramatic approach can be. Yet Steinberg, with
his matter-of-fact appearance, succeeded in projecting every side
of the many-faceted Beethoven, the classical, the romantic, the
dramatic, the lyric."
-A.C.B., Lakeville Journal