Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony Performed by Collegium 1704 Shook the Foundations of the Rudolfinum
The programme of the symphonic concert entitled Apotheosis of Dance offered an authentic performance of works by three masters of the so-called Viennese Classicism of the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, on period instruments under the baton of Václav Luks. Their work was a great synthesis of previous musical developments, and at the same time served as a source of inspiration and a model for future generations. On 14 February, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, one of Joseph Haydn’s London Symphonies, and the overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito riveted audiences in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum.
La clemenza di Tito is the second opera Mozart wrote specifically for Prague. It was a production hastily commissioned by the Czech Estates to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia in the summer of 1791. In this late opera, Mozart once again returned to the genre of Italian opera seria. The opera was not well received by the noble courtiers, but it proved very popular with the people of Prague, was frequently performed, and in 1807 it was with La clemenza di Tito that the Italian opera company bid farewell to Prague.
Although Joseph Haydn is usually named as the first of the Viennese triple-star constellation, he outlived his colleague and friend twenty-four years younger than him by sixteen years and composed his greatest works after Mozart’s death. These include the so-called London Symphonies, works intended for a general audience, written for the widely attended London concert series organized by the English violinist Johann Peter Salomon. A number of these popular pieces have been given nicknames by which they are still known today. Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major has no such nickname, but its remarkable second movement is often referred to as Haydn’s “Requiem for Mozart”, the composer’s personal tribute to his late friend. Haydn probably began work on the symphony in the summer of 1791, but it was not completed until after the composer learned with certainty of Mozart’s death.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which provided the climax of the concert, is also famous for its second movement. Richard Wagner allegedly referred to Beethoven’s work when he wanted to illustrate the affinity between orchestral music and dance.
“Beethoven’s original, bristling handwriting still makes an immensely powerful and haunting impression today. Wagner’s account, I think, accurately describes the character of the whole symphony, the dance-like swirling which characterizes in particular the first and fourth movement. I am convinced that some dancing is also present in the second movement, which is often interpreted as a funeral march. However, Beethoven’s tempo is marked allegretto, so it would be fitting to strip it off the gloomy heaviness with which it is often played, and we shall endeavour to do so,” suggests Václav Luks, conductor and artistic director of Collegium 1704. “Beethoven left us metronomic indications, which are often very fast, but we also know that Beethoven himself and his pupil Carl Czerny were of the opinion that the metronomic indication marks only the initial tempo, a starting point to be developed further. They played around with the tempo much more than we are used to nowadays. Listeners can perceive quite a difference in this respect compared to what they hear in modern orchestras,” adds Václav Luks.
The Apotheosis of Dance follows up on previous Collegium 1704 projects that focus on authentic performances of works from musical eras other than the Baroque, with which the orchestra has gained worldwide fame. In 2021, for example, the ensemble successfully performed Bedřich Smetana’s My Country for the Prague Spring Festival, and last year, together with pianist Lukáš Vondráček, it presented Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G Minor at the Warsaw International Festival “Chopin i jego Europa”. In January this year, Václav Luks joined Handel and Haydn Society, Boston’s leading orchestra of period instruments, as guest conductor for the third time. On this occasion, Beethoven’s Eroica was performed on two nights.