Richard Wigmore speaks to some of the world's leading Beethoven conductors to understand why his music is as relevant and important today as it was 200 years ago.
In a famous review of 1810 – a landmark in the history of music criticism – that weaver of fantastic tales ETA Hoffmann wrote that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ‘irresistibly sweeps the listener into the wonderful spirit-realm of the infinite’. Less poetically, the French composer Jean-François Le Sueur was so overwhelmed when he first heard the symphony that, on trying to put on his hat, he was unable to find his head. Others experienced variously alarm, shock, terror, excitement, bafflement. Goethe, in mingled astonishment and revulsion, deemed the work ‘a threat to civilisation’. Spohr called the finale’s triumphant C major blaze, stoked by a battalion of symphonic interlopers (piccolo, trombones, double bassoon), ‘blatant’ and ‘vulgar’. The vast dimensions and epic scope of the Eroica had already put Beethoven beyond the pale for many of his contemporaries. Now they had to contend with the violent, fanatically compressed assault of the Fifth Symphony’s first movement, a Scherzo by turns spectral and savage, making a mockery of the word’s Italian meaning (no symphonic Scherzo before Bruckner’s Ninth is less jokey), and the eerily claustrophobic passage before the finale’s release into light.
Yet within the composer’s lifetime this music of terrifying power and exultation had already been enshrined as the archetypal Beethoven symphony and, following ETA Hoffmann, the harbinger of the new musical Romanticism. Its darkness-to-light, tumult-to-victory narrative, which Romantic symphonists would ape by the bushel, became an emblem of Beethoven’s own triumph over his inner struggles. Later generations appropriated the Fifth, along with the Eroica and the Ninth, to their own personal, political and social ends. In World War Two the four-note motto was a symbol of resistance to fascism. At the same time the Ninth Symphony was hijacked as a monument to pan-Teutonic culture. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, its choral finale – with the substitution of Freiheit (‘freedom’) for Freude (‘joy’) – was the only possible choice to celebrate the overthrow of Communism. Most recently, the Fifth Symphony’s motto has been subjected to countless kitsch transmogrifications, while the addition of a thrumming disco beat has turned the first movement into a popular hit.
The ‘heroic’ odd-numbered symphonies, especially, have always had their share of nay-sayers. There have been temporary dips in fashion, too. In the 1960s, Beethoven in strenuously affirmative vein was viewed with suspicion by an angst-ridden, Marcuse-influenced generation that was just discovering Mahler. Yet today, in an age even more fractured and precarious, his ethically charged vision, presented with a force that so shocked his contemporaries, still speaks to a majority of music lovers with a directness and urgency unmatched by any other composer. The American musicologist Joseph Kerman has written tellingly of Beethoven’s ‘determination to touch common mankind as nakedly as possible’. History has vindicated him, triumphantly.
In the note for his recording of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel stresses Beethoven’s elemental impact – unmatched by that of any other composer – on a new generation: ‘This music is very important for young people. For all of humanity, of course, but for young people especially…The Fifth Symphony is not just about the notes…It is fate, it’s destiny and that is important for everybody…The symphony opens with anger. But if you play it all the way through, following the line of development, you come to the last movement, which ends with hope. You listen, you can feel this in the music. A lot of the children [in the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra] come from the street…But when they play this music they have something special. They all share this hope. And it becomes something amazing.’
This redeeming power, ever more necessary in what Bernard Haitink called ‘these appalling times’, was a recurring motif of each of the conductors I spoke to who are either embarked on or have completed a symphony cycle. Like Dudamel, Osmo Vänskä stresses the topicality of the composer’s message. ‘This is immensely strong music, powerfully structured and covering every conceivable human emotion, from the deepest grief in, say, the Eroica Funeral March, to the wildest joy. Unlike Mozart’s and Schubert’s, his vision is overwhelmingly optimistic. And the world needs even more optimism than it did 200 years ago. For me Beethoven’s hope is real. We need his music every day, and it can change lives.’
For Thomas Dausgaard, Beethoven’s music is ‘pure element, all primary colours. There is nothing sick, nothing distorted about his vision. The primary colours are one reason why his music accommodates such a broad range of interpretations. Each symphony is a complete musical world that demands the whole of us. Not only is his music emotionally elemental, but each facet of the music – rests, dynamics, pulse, rhythm, melodic line, sonority – is in perfect equilibrium, where other composers stress one or more aspects at the expense of others. And we need Beethoven’s uplifting idealism today, not least because so many works by modern composers end hesitantly, ambiguously or dissonantly.’ Bernard Haitink describes Beethoven as ‘the great inspirer and the great comforter, above all in his slow movements. He shares a rich humanity with many others, of course – Mahler, Mozart to name just two. But his ultimate message is less shadowed. It appeals directly to the human spirit.’
A crucial challenge for any interpreter in the 21st century, whatever the instruments used, is to balance loftiness of vision and the sonic power for which Beethoven was notorious in his lifetime with a mobility, lucidity and, where apt, a dancing lightness that evokes 1805 rather than 1875. Haitink is one of several conductors of an older generation – Claudio Abbado, in his DG Berlin cycle, is another – who has radically rethought his approach to Beethoven in recent years, not least in a wonderfully limber, joyous Pastoral Symphony. His LSO Live series is as successful as any at reconciling aspects of the Romantic tradition (including a certain flexibility of tempo and warm, singing lines) with the fierier, harder-edged style cultivated (with a nod to Toscanini and Reiner) by the authenticists.
‘In my younger days I was an admirer of the post-Wagnerian tradition as exemplified by Furtwängler,’ says Haitink. ‘But now I find Furtwängler very difficult to understand. When I hear his recordings of the slow movement of the Ninth, taking about 20 minutes to my 14, a part of me feels a bit guilty! But life is changing – and these days I simply can’t conduct the movement any slower. On the other hand, though I find Toscanini’s recordings interesting, he’s often too relentless for my taste; and I’m not a great fan of period instruments – I love the "modern" symphony orchestra as it is now, and the routine use of non-vibrato can become as boring as an automatic pilot vibrato. I have found some period recordings of Beethoven symphonies interesting, though one conductor, who shall remain nameless, should be in prison for his treatment of the Fifth!
‘It is true, though, that period performances have made us more aware of the revolutionary aspects of Beethoven, which I have tried to bring out in my performances with the LSO – more than in my earlier recordings with the LPO and the Concertgebouw. The Presto coda of the Eroica, for instance, works at a dangerously fast tempo – the LSO players said it felt like they were storming the barricades. The finale of No 7 is faster, too, almost up to Beethoven’s metronome mark, which used to be thought impossible. It’s the same with the finale of Symphony No 8. This has to go at a breakneck speed, as Beethoven prescribed, otherwise it gets pedestrian. Now I respond more, I think, to this symphony’s wit and humour, which can be quite sardonic and cynical, like the late String Quartet Op 135 in the same key, F major.’
The metronome question remains a notoriously ticklish one. With a few notable exceptions, conductors before the so-called ‘authentic’ revolution seldom took seriously the often provocatively fast markings the composer added to the first eight symphonies in 1817. A famous case in point is the Trio in No 7’s Scherzo, traditionally interpreted (by Furtwängler, Klemperer, Mengelberg et al) at a dirge-like tempo, as if to endorse the attractive but unauthenticated story that Beethoven based the music on an old pilgrims’ hymn. Toscanini and Reiner were the first on record to show that the music could work marvellously well at Beethoven’s given metronome marking of dotted minim=84, a swift speed, over half as fast again as the traditional tempo. At the faster speed the music dances as well as sings and, crucially, unfolds in vaulting eight-bar phrases rather than ponderous two-bar units.
In our authenticity-conscious age it is rare for a conductor to disregard the metronome markings out of hand (though, surprisingly, the newest maestro on the block, Dudamel, reverts to the old, slow tradition in the Trio of No 7). Yet for Jonathan Del Mar, whose Bärenreiter Urtext editions of the Beethoven symphonies have been used (albeit often selectively) in most recent recorded cycles, the metronome can be a bugbear. ‘If you ask me in the quiet atmosphere of my kitchen how fast the first movement of the Eroica goes, I would say about dotted minim=60 – which funnily enough is exactly what Beethoven gave it when he sang it in his kitchen in 1817, 14 years after he composed the symphony. The problem is that this fast tempo takes no account of what the violas are doing, or of the galloping rhythm later in the movement. As soon as you consider that, you’re down to around dotted minim=54. Then when you get in front of an orchestra and take account of the hall’s acoustic you could easily end up with dotted minim=50 without it sounding in the least bit slow. Whether or not Beethoven’s metronome was faulty, I’m sure that he and other composers who prescribed a metronome mark fell into the trap of not allowing for the space the music needs in order to breathe in performance. Many of the markings are too fast, though some, like the Scherzo of the Eroica, work well when taken literally.
‘What is crucial is that a conductor respects the relationship between the metronome markings. Many conductors take the Scherzo and finale of the Fifth at the same basic tempo. This is a perpetuation of the dreadful fallacy that Classical composers wanted a single tactus throughout a work. Beethoven’s markings here are unambiguous: Scherzo, dotted minim=96; finale, minim=84. The finale must be slower.’ Among conductors of new or recent Beethoven cycles, Haitink, Vänskä and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski all favour briskish ‘modern’ speeds while taking some of the more provocative metronome marks with a pinch of salt, à la Del Mar. Skrowaczewski likes to quote Carl Maria von Weber’s dictum: ‘Never mind about marks on paper, use your brain’. Vänskä has a ‘10 per cent’ rule: ‘I always try a movement with Beethoven’s prescribed tempo. If after trying, and trying again, it doesn’t work, I come down by up to 10 per cent. Never more.’
Not so Thomas Dausgaard, who like David Zinman in his exhilarating but controversial 1998 cycle with the Zürich Tonhalle (controversial both for Zinman’s explosive, whipcrack style and the liberties he takes with Del Mar’s Bärenreiter Urtext), is determined to vindicate the seemingly impossible – and, on the evidence of Nos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7, usually succeeds. Like Toscanini 70 years ago, but relatively few conductors since (Karajan and Norrington among the exceptions), he also scrupulously observes Beethoven’s prescribed tempo relationship between the Scherzo and finale of No 5. ‘In many cases, including the Scherzo of No 5, the orchestra and I initially thought some of the metronome markings were ridiculous. But if you use shorter, lighter bow strokes, as players did in Beethoven’s day, they start to make sense and soon become natural. Then it’s a challenge to maintain a single, grand pulse, with only the slightest use of rubato: to create release without slackening, urgency without speeding. You have to do this through phrasing, rhythm, articulation – and in this I have been strongly influenced by specialists in period performance. It’s so easy for us to normalise composers, to make them comfortable. With Beethoven, above all, we must never let this happen.’
Stravinsky once famously dubbed the colossal Grosse Fuge, original finale of the String Quartet Op 130, ‘this absolutely contemporary piece of music that will remain contemporary for ever’ – a slightly glib simplification, no doubt, but one containing a kernel of truth. We have all endured performances that have sanitised and ‘normalised’ Beethoven. Yet the latest wave of symphony recordings, each with something urgent and sharply individual to communicate, confirms that Beethoven has a way of remaining startlingly modern, paradoxically both reassuring and challenging. As David Zinman put it, ‘Beethoven in his day was about noise, violence, shock, but also about exploring the deepest human emotions. His symphonies still have this freshness and excitement, still have the capacity to stun and inspire us. With his foibles, his courage in the face of adversity, his ceaseless struggle for perfection in his art, Beethoven is a man for all time. Like Shakespeare, he has thrived on all kinds of different performing styles through the ages. He’ll always be new.’
Shock disruptions of expected norms, explosive rhythmic energy, euphoric excitement, intense lyric beauty, the sense, unprecedented in symphonic music, of a psychological and spiritual journey bravely undertaken and triumphantly concluded: all are crucial ingredients in the elemental appeal Beethoven’s symphonies still exert on listeners, whatever their level of musical sophistication. Beyond this, the Eroica, Fifth and Ninth, especially, remain what American musicologist Scott Burnham calls ‘a sounding provocation to what we think of as our better selves’. The final word should go to another musicologist, Maynard Solomon, countering the notion then (early 1970s) sometimes propounded that the Ninth Symphony – and to this we could add the Eroica, the Fifth, or the glorious pantheistic celebration of the Pastoral – stood in the way of a realistic perception of the world: ‘If we lose our awareness of the transcendent realms of play, beauty, and brotherhood which are portrayed in the great affirmative works of our culture, if we lose the dream of the Ninth Symphony, there remains no counterpoise against the engulfing terrors of civilisation, nothing to set against Auschwitz and Vietnam as a paradigm of humanity’s potentialities.’ Richard Wigmore