The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notebook: Walter Gray’s program notes for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony this weekend are a model to follow | October 7, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the many pleasures to be savored this year by attending concerts by the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra are the program notes by Walter Gray.

Gray (below) is a former professor of musicology at the UW-Madison and a former dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem who retired and returned to Madison several years ago.

I have praised his program notes in a previous post.

Now finally his skills are being put to more general use.

His notes for the opening concert last Sunday by the UW Symphony Orchestra (below), which featured works by Messiaen, Debussy and Nielsen, provided a model of informative, readable and enjoyable program notes that don’t fall into a lot of musicological jargon and impenetrable mumbo-jumbo: “And then we go from the tonic to the sub-dominant.”

Take, for example, Gray’s comments about a very, very familiar piece of classical music that will be performed by the UW Chamber Orchestra (below) this Sunday at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall under conductor James Smith.

(Admission is free and open to the public. The program includes Christian Ludwig Dieter’s Concerto for Two Bassoons, with Marc Vallon (below top) and John Miller (below bottom), and Prokofiev’s “Summer Day” and as well Beethoven’s iconic and dramatic Fifth Symphony.

Here is Walter Gray’s introduction to the work:

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, is probably the most famous and most frequently performed piece of Classical music. It has served as the model for countless numbers of works.  It has influenced every composer who came after him.  The work is so famous and so familiar that it brings a problem to frequent concertgoers.  It is often the case that a listener will listen to his memory of the piece rather than experiencing it anew.

“One should try to forget other performances of the symphony and try to hear it as if for the first time.  Imagine hearing it in 1810 rather than in 2010.  If one can scrape one’s memory clean the tremendous force and power of this symphony will again ring clear.

“The Fifth Symphony comes from Beethoven’s most productive period.  He began work on it in 1804 but it was interrupted by several other major compositions such as the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the three “Razumovsky” string quartets and the first version of his opera “Fidelio.”

Most of the work on the C Minor Symphony was done in 1807 and 1808.  It was first performed in a mammoth concert in December 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, which consisted entirely of Beethoven premieres.  The concert was conducted by Beethoven (below) and lasted over four hours.  The program included, the 5th and 6th Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto (Beethoven as soloist), three movements from the Mass in C Major, the Choral Fantasy and a solo piano improvisation played by Beethoven.

“All of this new and difficult music was played with only one rehearsal.  Needless to say, the concert was not a success.  In the Choral Fantasy the performance collapsed and Beethoven had to begin the work again!

“The symphony famously begins (below, in Beethoven’s scrawly, cryptic manuscript)) with a double statement of the basic rhythmic motive. This motive, in various forms, is found in all four movements and is the main material of the first one.  Immediately following the motivic statement, the first theme follows and it is made up almost entirely of the motive. The second theme follows with the rhythmic motive in the bass. The development section is unprecedented in it massive drive and force. Just before the recapitulation begins, we are given what seems to be an almost free cadenza for solo oboe.  To the recapitulation is added an epic coda.

“The second movement, Andante, is in the form of double variations, where there are two themes, a form that was favored by Haydn.  The two themes are contrasting; the first is lyrical and the second is a much more vigorous one, although closing in a mysterious, veiled manner.  The two themes maintain their essential character throughout the variations.

“The scherzo is unique among scherzi.  The word scherzo means a joke or jest.  A scherzo in music usually includes some element of humor or wit.  Not this scherzo, unless one discerns some element of Galgenhumor (gallows humor) in it.  It begins with an arpeggiated figure in the low strings, which is followed by a strong statement of the motivic rhythm from the opening of the symphony.  Here it forcefully begins on a strong beat, while its initial statement began on a weak beat somewhat like a sharp intake of breath.

“The trio is a whirlwind of fugal imitation with virtuoso writing for the strings.  The return of the scherzo is not a repeat.  The theme returns softly with pizzicato strings; there is a brief transition and after a huge crescendo, the finale begins.

“The music is now in brilliant C Major.  Beethoven here provides the prototype for the following Romantic era. There are many Romantic works cast in the form of a dark, struggling C Minor, the struggle will eventually result in a victorious C Major. The Brahms First Symphony is perhaps the best example among many.

“In this finale (below, in a historic performance) the music rolls onward with its own power fueling it.  Before the presto coda, as if to remind one of the darkness which has been overcome, there is a sounding of the basic motive from the scherzo, followed by the crescendo which opened the finale and now goes into the presto coda.  This coda is massive with a final lengthy cadential repetition of C Major that lasts over 50 measures, as if restating eternally the strength and brilliance of C Major.”

Gray’s program notes generally provide a model of clarity that other presenters and music groups should follow.

He has offered his services for free and is somewhat disappointed, he admits, that the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet has not taken advantage of him for this season, though they used his notes for their Carnegie Hall concert last spring. (I hope they so for their centennial season, with six new commissioned, next season.)

As Gray recently told me:  “In my opinion, an educational institution must have program notes for every concert.  Graduate musicology students should be required to write program notes; it is experience they should have.”

I agree completely.

What do you think of Gray’s notes?

Do you think other groups should follow his model?

Should all UW concerts have program, notes?

And what do you think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?

Do you think it is performed too often?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. In “Googling” Professor Walter Gray, I came across this reference to him. I was a Teaching Assistant of Walter’s in the 1960’s before he left to teach in North Carolina. I was pleased to see that he had returned to Madison after retirement. I am also retired as Prof. of Music Theory, Composition and Bassoon from the University of Idaho. I am now residing near Seattle and would love to re-connect with my old friend. Please show this to Walter and ask him to contact me if he wants to. Thank you

    Comment by Dr. Ronald J. Klimko — December 8, 2011 @ 12:34 am

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    Comment by Juli — October 19, 2010 @ 5:53 am

    • Hi Juli,
      Thanks for reading and writing.
      There are Facebook and Twitter widgets at the end of each blog post.
      You could also subscribe using the subscription widget at the top of each post and in the comments section.
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      Comment by welltemperedear — October 19, 2010 @ 7:24 am

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