Beethoven wrote his songs for the romantic drama “Egmont” with a 20-year-old actress in mind. The actress, Antonie Adamberger, was a featured artist with the Viennese theater that commissioned the piece, and she would be playing the part of the heroine, Clärchen.
There was just one slight problem: The actress wasn’t much of a singer.
She confessed that to Beethoven, when they met to go over some of the music. Luckily Beethoven, who loved women, was charmed by her and told her it didn’t matter, he would make her music easy.
With a little imagination, you could liken it to John Lennon and Paul McCartney writing songs for Ringo Starr that wouldn’t be too hard to sing. The songs Beethoven wrote for Adamberger have an innocent simplicity and are a kind of contrast with the rest of the drama, much of which thunders with heroism and drum rolls.
This unusual musical story will come to new life during the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s upcoming Beethoven Festival.
The festival begins at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday with two symphonies: the First and the massive Ninth, which culminates in the “Ode to Joy.”
The following weekend, the Beethoven continues. At 10:30 a.m. March 27 and 8 p.m. March 28, pianist Norman Krieger is playing the “Emperor” Concerto. And Road Less Traveled Productions pairs with the BPO for a complete performance of the incidental music to “Egmont,” accompanied by the tragic drama.
“Egmont” has played a unique role in BPO history.
According to the BPO archives, the very first piece on the very first concert was the famous “Egmont” overture.
And while performances of the complete incidental music are rare, Buffalo already chalked up two – the first in 1970 and the second in October 1982, for the season-opening gala. The soprano on that occasion was Ruth Ann Swensen, and the narrator was Werner Klemperer, Colonel Klink from “Hogan’s Heroes.”
This performance, too, has a kind of significance. Another 20-year-old artist will step into the role created by Toni Adamberger. Matthew Witten is the narrator, and Clärchen is Emily Helenbrook, the promising soprano from Alexander who is currently at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
Helenbrook has made cameo appearances with the BPO and has also been featured with the Ars Nova Musicians. But in “Egmont,” she takes center stage.
“I’ve been following her career, and every time I hear her, she sounds more developed,” says BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta, who is conducting both sets of Beethoven Festival concerts. “She goes from strength to strength and is really developing. And I think of this Clärchen as a very innocent young person. Emily was just right for someone like that. She brings a youthful innocence and sweetness to this role.”
Helenbrook, on the phone from Rochester, said she was touched by how Beethoven catered to the needs of the young actress who couldn’t sing.
“I was thinking at first, I hope the orchestra isn’t too heavy,” she said. “But whenever I sing, all the instruments drop out.”
‘Rumbling, no melody’
Coincidentally, like “Egmont,” a young woman played a part in the drama of the Ninth Symphony. The soprano, Caroline Unger, was just 19. Her name has come down through history because at the end of the symphony, when the crowd was cheering, she took Beethoven by the arm and turned him around so he could see.
“It shows how profoundly deaf he must have been at that point,” Falletta said. “He was hearing everything in his head. His brain was filled with the sound of this music, so much so that he hadn’t realized that the orchestra was finished.”
One theory has it that Beethoven communicated his deafness with the start of the symphony. It begins as a kind of buzz – a low, weird, almost subterranean sound.
“I think it’s almost like music of the earth. You hear this rumbling, no melody – you hear something, and it explodes into something fierce,” Falletta said. “There’s a fierce grandeur to that piece. It’s like the earth is humming. We start to hear things building up, and the orchestra layers itself in, and there’s this explosion all of a sudden.”
The beauty of the Ninth, Falletta said, are worth the difficulties involved.
“The song of the third movement, that’s my favorite. It feels as if it’s been there all of our lives. It’s as if we know that sound,” she reflected.
And the “Ode to Joy” finale is, of course, thrilling.
“The last movement, it’s the movement that is the most kaleidoscopic,” she said. “It’s schizophrenic, as if it’s looking for an answer to life, and then he finds it. This is what life is about. The beginning is scattered and confusing, and then somehow we understand that’s what it’s about – love of humanity, that we are all brothers.”
The festival was designed to approach Beethoven from various angles.
“His life as an artist changed,” Falletta said. “The first and last symphony are separated by 25 years. And in between, both ‘Egmont’ and the ‘Emperor’ Concerto were written in 1810, 1811 – the middle period, a very important time in his life, at a time when he was involved with politics, involved with a feeling that music could make the world different.”
The words to “Egmont” are by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The historic Egmont was a Catholic nobleman in Brussels who went to Spain to plead for mercy for the Protestants and was eventually beheaded for treason. Goethe, who wrote the drama at 25, romanticized things. He placed Egmont in his 20s instead of middle age and made him a dashing bachelor instead of a married father of eight. Finally, he gave him a mistress, Clärchen.
Who, naturally, joins him in death. Her death is portrayed only by the orchestra. “It’s so beautiful,” Helenbrook said.
Helenbrook is new at singing Beethoven. Currently a student of Carol Webber, she studied extensively with Renee Fleming’s mother, Patricia Seymour Alexander, and received a bit of encouragement and coaching from Fleming herself. But a student does not typically sing much Beethoven. Beethoven wrote relatively little vocal music, partly because his deafness made it difficult for him to deal with opera companies.
The world is lucky that he was able to work with Adamberger.
“The beauty is the music is that it’s pretty simple, texture-wise,” Helenbrook said. “Even the melody, it seems obvious.”
She loves an aria that expresses her character’s confusion. “The translation is, joyful and sorrowful and thoughtful, in constant anxiety. They’re dueling feelings – she sings about being in love, but her situation is not that great. I just think it’s just gorgeous.”
The music strikes a chord because Beethoven was no stranger to conflicting emotions himself. In the end, though, Falletta believes he had it all figured out.
He showed that, she said, at the end of the Ninth Symphony, when he parted with symphonic convention because he needed the sound of the human voice.
“It was an amazing decision,” Falletta said. “If you asked him what was the compelling need, he would say, the love of humanity. It’s like you might ask an old person, what’s the one thing you learned, what’s the one thing that’s important? Love. That’s amazing. I’m always moved by that.”