Born 250 years ago this year, Napoleon is remembered with imperial pieces and a musical reaction to tyranny. Schönberg’s Ode to Napoleon was his statement of support for the forces fighting Hitler. The composer insisted that the singer must have ”the number of shades, essential to express one hundred and seventy kinds of derision, sarcasm, hatred, ridicule, contempt, condemnation, etc., which I tried to portray in my music.” Elisabeth Leonskaja is a piano legend whose devoted fans follow her achievements from one concert and country to another.
Antonello Manacorda, born in Turin in 1970, was a founding member and long-time leader of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra founded by Claudio Abbado. He later studied conducting with Jorma Panula in Helsinki and has established himself as a highly sought-after conductor, both on the concert and on the operatic stage. Since 2010 he has been Artistic Director of the Kammerakademie Potsdam, and the Schubert disc he made with the orchestra was awarded the 2015 ECHO Klassik in the category “Best Orchestra of the Year”. Until this spring he was also Chief Conductor of Het Gelders Orkest in the Netherlands and with it was a regular guest at, for example, the Berlin Philharmonie and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. He also guests with many of the world’s top orchestras, including the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Tapiola Sinfonietta here in Finland. From 2003 to 2006 he was Artistic Director of the Académie européenne chamber music courses at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and he can often be seen at the Aldeburgh Festival and the Italian opera houses.
A more legendary and more active pianist than Elisabeth Leonskaja is difficult to imagine. Nurtured by the great Soviet piano school (she was born in Tbilisi, Georgia), she belongs to the golden age of 20th-century pianists and her recordings of Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven are still cherished as some of the finest ever made. She has even played pieces by Shostakovich with the composer standing beside her. Launched on an international career even before entering the Moscow Conservatory (she gave a public performance of Beethoven’s concerto no. 1 at the age of 11), she was the winner of no fewer than three major competitions in 1964 alone: the George Enescu, the Marguerite Long–Jacques Thibaud, and finally the greatest of all, the Queen Elisabeth. Her successes since then are too numerous to list, in a career such as few can equal. She has had firm ties with Finland ever since 1965, when she accompanied Oleg Kagan in the Sibelius Violin Competition, and has visited Finland dozens of times since then. Elisabeth Leonskaja last appeared with the HPO in 2010, as the soloist in Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.
Born in Dublin in 1975, Niall Chorell decided on leaving school to head for his mother’s homeland, Finland. He liked singing, but did not know quite what to do, so went to college and sang rock and pop, accompanying himself on the guitar. He busked in downtown Helsinki, and even earned the title of Troubadour of the Year. Until the day he found himself in the Sibelius Academy Library listening to Lied discs by Fritz Wunderlich and was instantly sold. After studying with Jorma Hynninen and Tom Krause at the Sibelius Academy, he won the Lohja Tenor Competition in 2001 and the second prize in the Lappeenranta and Timo Mustakallio competitions in 2002. Tonight’s performance of Schönberg’s Ode to Napoleon is his first, though he learnt it three years ago. In his role as narrator, he says, he first approached the work via the text, and only then via the rhythm and music. Because the narrator has no melody, he can take more liberties.
Arnold Schönberg: Ode to Napoleon
The Ode to Napoleon by Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) is a setting of a poem by Lord Byron (1788–1824). In 1942, he had been asked by the League of Composers to write a piece of chamber music for a limited number of instruments. Though by then in poor health, he was immediately inspired to write something that, he said, reflected the agitation aroused in mankind against the crimes that provoked the ongoing war. For it was, he felt, the moral duty of the intelligentsia to take a stand against tyranny. The poem is full of hints about Hitler and events at the time, and the music at one point alludes to The Marseillaise and even victory. The end was, even to Schönberg’s surprise, a homage to Washington.
Though the poem is in verses, Schönberg’s piece is not. No precise pitches are marked for the narrator, the style being free and declamatory. Harmonically, the Ode represents Schönberg’s late period taking a relaxed attitude to tonality. He later arranged the intimate first version for orchestra.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”
Though fired by the ideals of the French Revolution, having grown up in its shadow, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) was in two minds about Napoleon. When the latter’s army marched into Vienna in 1809, Austria having lost the war against the French, most of Beethoven’s income was eaten up by inflation and devaluation. To his friends, he bemoaned his sorry state of affairs, which were not made any easier by his growing deafness. Forced to give up his career as a concert pianist, he concentrated instead on getting his works published. Though the war was a major factor in his life, he did not directly admire the army. Nor did he give the last of his five piano concertos (1809) the name “Emperor” by which it came to be known in the latter half of the 19th century. Indeed, it is not entirely certain to which of the two Emperors this title referred: Bonaparte of France or Franz Joseph I of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55 “Eroica”
The words “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man” that graced the 1806 manuscript of the Symphony No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven are somewhat cryptic. Not all scholars believe the ‘great man’ was Napoleon. In any case the funeral march movement was written before Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804, which suggests that Beethoven was referring to the Austrian soldiers who had fallen in the war. Furious at Napoleon’s claim to the title, Beethoven decided to dedicate his work to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was destined to fall in battle in 1806.
The dedication may, on the other hand, have had a more pragmatic purpose. In 1802, Beethoven had plans for travelling to Paris, to the source of the revolution also taking place in music, and what could have been more fitting than a symphony glorifying the French national hero? His disgust on discovering that Napoleon was no more than an ordinary human ready to trample on the rights of man and indulge only his ambition was no doubt shared by many in 1804