How Beethoven’s symphonies changed the world

Philip Clark
Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Ludwig van Beethoven's symphonies have influenced every generation of composers since they were written. Riccardo Chailly talks to Philip Clark about the enduring power of the symphonies

Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer who, more than any other, changed music, the sound of music and what it is that composers do, wrote nine symphonies that jolted music out of itself. Life could never – would never – be the same again. The “classical” rationality of structure, harmony, form, melodic development and orchestration span into open-ended possibility. And, nearly 200 years after his death, no one expects the pieces to settle down again any time soon.

This much we know; but how exactly did Beethoven’s symphonies shift the terrain so absolutely? Riccardo Chailly’s convivial, knowing smile as we sit down to talk in the music room of his Milan home tells me that this is a man with answers. There’s plenty to smile about: at 58, he’s about to release his first complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, recorded over three seasons with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Not only that, they then go on tour with the cycle, taking in Leipzig, Vienna and Paris before concluding in London at the Barbican on November 3. This is an ensemble, remember, that not only stakes a claim to being the world’s oldest, but which played the first complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies during the composer’s lifetime, and is proud to call Chailly its current Gewandhauskapellmeister.

And get this. Chailly is the orchestra’s 19th Gewandhauskapellmeister; its fifth was Mendelssohn and today’s artistic descendent of The Incomparable Felix is presently cracking jokes at the expense of my Ronnie Corbett-size digital recorder. “Inversamente proporzionale!” Chailly belly-laughs. “Does that tiny machine really have the capacity to contain every idea provoked by a discussion of Beethoven symphonies?” Two hours later, the machine’s hanging on in there as we break for lunch. Retracing our steps back towards the dining room in Casa Chailly, he explains how walls were demolished to house floor-to-high ceiling shelving units now stuffed with the necessaries of his working life: music, composer critical studies, treatises about the art of conducting. Open-plan rooms roll through each other like a Brooklyn railroad apartment and I catch glimpses of scores, encased witnesses to Chailly’s career: Verdi, Maderna, Mahler, Stravinsky, Varèse, Frank Zappa’s “The Yellow Shark”…all, unexpectedly, emphasising the centrality of Beethoven. Because no matter how far back history takes you, or how deeply Edgard Varèse defies space-time continuums, beaming us up into a music that is forever the future, Beethoven is the tradition that tells us tradition must be protected from itself; that the most traditional thing about tradition is its radical soul.

Later, as I transcribe the interview tapes, I’m struck by the realisation that Chailly always substitutes “integrated” for my word “complete” when I’m describing his cycle. If this is a quirk of how Italian back-translates into English, the symbolism is still appropriate.

“My way of approaching Beethoven symphonies has always been to view them as a total work,” he explains, “which is not to say they all must be performed each time, but rather they are conceived as an opus magnum.” How does giving the down-beat for the First Symphony’s Adagio molto introduction, while keeping the Ninth’s choral summation in mind, shape the idea of a “cycle” – an “integrated cycle” – rather than an anthology of nine self-contained performances?

“This gigantic ride, so long, so difficult, needs to be shaped logically; thinking about all the symphonies distributes that logic.”

Later we cut into how exactly Beethoven changed music and how vital the idea of “a cycle” was to him. But to set the scene I want to know about the concepts, obsessions, sonic contours of Chailly’s Beethoven. Indeed, does the world need another Beethoven cycle right now? With recent sets from Chailly’s erstwhile boss, Claudio Abbado, from Simon Rattle and the newly released Chambre Philharmonique cycle under Emmanuel Krivine – described by a former reviews editor of this magazine, James McCarthy, as containing a “mini revelation” inside each bar – some might reasonably conclude that we’re all Beethovened out. Over a getting-to-know-you lunch, I tell Chailly how much I’ve been enjoying the soufflé lightness of Giulini’s Eroica, Fifth and Pastoral with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Giulini and the sound of the LAPO is an intriguing combination, Chailly thinks, but a radically different vision of Beethoven from his. He nearly drops his knife and fork when I mention my admiration for Bernstein’s Beethoven but accepts my point about the potency of Bernstein’s personal vision.

The vanguard, as Chailly sees it, starts with Karajan’s 1960s recordings and arrives in the 1990s at the twin peaks of David Zinman with the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra and John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Chailly’s view was informed by their spadework, and by two conceptual starting points: he decided to perform everything at precisely Beethoven’s metronome mark and to resist the current orthodoxy of performing from Jonathan Del Mar’s new Beethoven edition (which nevertheless Chailly finds “very beautiful, very interesting and certainly very revealing”) and return instead to the edition Peters published at the end of the 19th century.

“We know from later editions that Beethoven’s markings were often misunderstood,” Chailly tells me, “and this Peters Edition, which was the second one they printed, was regarded as the most faithful to his intentions. Articulation and dynamics are crucial in Beethoven and the markings are extremely detailed.” Different staccato marks et al are clearly delineated? “Yes. That’s a very important distinction – between a normal staccato, notated as a dot, and staccatissimo, which is written like an arrowhead. And also this edition is rich in dynamics – the shapes of dynamics, sudden dynamics.”

Chailly recalls drooling over George Szell’s scores of the Beethoven symphonies when he was guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, and seeing wisdom shine through the pages. “After studying his scores, I discovered how much the conductor needs to interfere with dynamics to achieve even more clarity within the text.” Interfere with dynamics to achieve an internal balance on a modern orchestra? “Yes, but never by adding instruments; I don’t like this tradition of doubling the woodwind or brass. Having a relatively large string section in Leipzig, I need to work even harder on dynamics to balance the original shape of the wind and brass, which originally would have been heard against a much smaller string section. The power of the strings is a dominant element in the sensational personal sound of the Gewandhaus Orchestra; this way of dealing with dynamics was part of the shock with the orchestra.”

The other upset is, of course, Chailly’s daringly literal approach to tempo, which aims a dirty bomb at the face of mannered, polite, tailored Beethoven. “After the first rehearsal of the First Symphony, the orchestra didn’t know what to think, or where to put themselves, but then they understood the challenge – this is how it’s going to be for the next three seasons.

“But all I did was choose the tempo Beethoven wrote in the score! The finale of the Eighth is basically on the edge of playability at Beethoven’s tempo. To articulate those double triplets on the strings, we needed to train for special clarity.” Chailly attempts to sing the same passage, stumbles, laughs. Point made. “The first movement, too, is magnificent to do all alla breve instead of in the usual 3.” Chailly’s bel canto voice tongue-lashes the Eighth’s opening phrase, ending with a surprise diminuendo where most conductors stress the final chord. His diminuendo, he says, asks: what’s next? “TheAndante of the First Symphony, at Beethoven’s tempo, radically changes the dimensions of the whole movement. It condenses the perfect shape of Beethoven’s sonata form, and instead of the traditional fast 3/8, it is all in 1, which gives it the character of a Baroque minuet.” And the dancing-through-your-bones finale of the Seventh? At Beethoven’s tempo? “That’s actually a human tempo already. There are many notes but it is to be conducted all in 1. Actually, it’s often done much faster than is written.” The exception that proves the rule.

Velocity, tempo, speed, attack. Viscerally invigorating, intellectually stimulating, but in itself an interpretation? I wonder how Chailly’s tempo choices trickle into other musical parameters. If we’re talking about how music was never the same again after Beethoven, there’s a problem. Harmony has a dynamic function in Beethoven. But, in life, Beethoven’s harmonies have become habitual, accepted, robbed of their capacity to crash the threshold. Music we love listening to. Music we don’t necessarily hear. Classics for pleasure. Could reconnecting Beethoven’s symphonies with Beethoven’s tempi reconnect us with Beethoven’s harmonic sting? “The change of gear between harmonies is even more tangible at these tempi,” Chailly nods. “In the first movement of the Eighth, where the harmony changes all the time, the tempo – his tempo – shows the instability of the harmony. Compare this to Haydn or Mozart: in the moment of harmonic change you jump with surprise; but Beethoven exists in a constant state of change.”

Tonal instability is my pet fascination. How come Beethoven was the composer who changed music more than anybody since Papa Bach? Was it because harmonic development was no longer contained by structure, but rippled through to change the structure? Fire finding its form, as William Blake put it, a direct historical line that led eventually to everything that happened in the wake of serialism, towards the spectral composition of Iancu Dumitrescu and Horațiu Rădulescu, where strategies are deployed to make instruments themselves unstable, to Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics (rhythm, harmony, melody given equality within the unfolding structure) and the self-termed “non-idiomatic” guitar improvisations of Derek Bailey? That would be a nice story to tell but history has its history too. Ives and Tippett said plenty about Beethoven, but Schoenberg and Stravinsky, figures destined to power the motor of 20th-century revolution, had surprisingly little to say. Stravinsky distrusted the Beethovenian spirit. John Cage heard emotional manipulation inside Beethoven’s music and spoke out against it given even half a chance. And composers who responded to Beethoven’s challenges via reconstituted Beethovenian forms were always doomed. Rationalising instability? What’s the point?

Chailly is well placed to discuss the contemporary resonance of Beethoven. His father was the composer Luciano Chailly, an intimate of Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio. In 2004 Radio Netherlands issued a 13-CD box documenting Chailly’s 16 years as principle conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: Bartók, Stravinsky, Berio, Maderna, Rihm, Peter Schat and Tristan Keuris are filed alongside performances of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Mahler and a headbanging Beethoven Symphony No 2 without fuss. Chailly’s 1998 cycle of the complete Varèse outguns any rival. He plays new music like it’s already classic, classical music like it’s mint fresh. What does he think subsequent composers took from Beethoven’s harmonic instability? No hesitation: Robert Schumann is the first that comes to Chailly’s mind.

“What Schumann created in his universe was a direct consequence of Beethoven,” Chailly enthuses. “He was a deep studier of Beethoven and the emperor of harmonic instability. He would go to Gewandhaus Orchestra concerts when he was living in Leipzig and making his living as a critic. When Mendelssohn conducted the Beethoven symphonies, Schumann regularly criticised his tempi. But I think Mendelssohn initiated the way that brought us to Gardiner and Zinman.

“Schumann’s Manfred Overture is breathtakingly unstable. By the end, you can’t take it any more because of the anxiety his tonal instability gives. I hear in Manfred a dramatic, monolithic dark mood, a sense of obsession, territory that Beethoven opened up in his Coriolan Overture.” And how did Schumann process the joyful side of Beethoven’s art? “Well, the first movement of the Spring Symphony is filled with freshness, humour even, the finale too. The shadows and clouds only arrive with the Second Symphony.” And talking of overtures – the set includes five overtures, positioned in chronological order around the symphonies – Chailly perceives other points of departure: “I think Richard Strauss’s tone-poem concept starts with Leonore No 3. Beethoven’s overture is a condensed version of the whole of Fidelio; everything, every character, is there. Strauss tone-poems like Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel are the children of Leonore No 3, reborn, developed of course, but all beginning from Beethoven.”

As I suggest Chailly’s thoughts about Schumann upset the perceived wisdom of a Beethoven-Brahms-Schoenberg historical lineage, he slides a book off his shelf about the relationship of later composers to the Choral Symphony. Documenting Mahler’s retouching of the Ninth’s orchestration, the book also includes a section devoted to Schoenberg, and I see first-hand his analysis of the fifth movement’s opening bars and his additional brass parts. “Schoenberg absolutely understood the core message of Beethoven’s music, but you’re right, it’s forgotten how strong Schoenberg’s interest in his music was. The link between Brahms and Schoenberg is audible but you don’t hear direct traces of Beethoven in Schoenberg. But, looking at this, I see how analytical was his understanding of Beethoven. I hear very close links between Brahms and Mendelssohn in their perfection of form. But Beethoven and Schumann were both barrier-breakers in terms of form, in their limitless wish to expand the barriers of tonality.” Given that Stravinsky’s credo was to expand tonality’s barriers without, until the last years of his life, trashing them altogether, his naked antipathy towards Beethoven was one of his characteristic foibles, although nothing compared with Cage’s downright hostility. Eric Walter White, Stravinsky’s biographer, thought his attitude was “of a creator and not a critic”; Cage rained on long-cherished ideas about Beethoven with parades of benevolent ridicule suggesting that his music was no longer “useful” creatively, sounding, as it did, like “movie music, constantly changing its emotional suggestions”. Apropos Stravinsky and Beethoven, Chailly thinks that programming their work together is, paradoxically, always successful because of their sharp attack and the “uncompromising character of both styles”. And Cage? “That’s very Cage what you say! But I disagree in the sense that Beethoven, as a logical builder of harmonies, is so advanced compared with even half a century earlier, that it remains alarmingly new. And we must not forget that Cage wanted to provoke extreme reactions.”

To love music can be to hate music, and that’s fine. Stravinsky and Cage needed Beethoven – who drove the idea of functional, arrow-headed directional harmony beyond the sublime – as a conflict to be worked through as they found their art: Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, Cage’s so-called anarchic harmony, where sounds were allowed autonomy from narrative targets and the need to obey an internally consistent grammar. Great composers do more than refresh music; they create new contexts for harmony. Beethoven created his, Stravinsky and Cage theirs.

As our conversation turns to the narrative content of Beethoven’s symphonies, Chailly cites the slow movements of theEroicaPastoral and Choral symphonies as moments that changed music for good. He talks about the “triumph of the horizontal shape of the score” (as opposed to vertical harmony) and about “the endless shape of the narrative from the first to last bar.” A paradox of the Fifth Symphony is, I suggest, that the directness of its emotional impact is counterpointed against its labyrinthine narrative structure: material plunges through trapdoors, new windows are there all of a sudden, like internet pop-ups, the narrative direction is no longer solidly A to B.

“This reminds me that, for Mahler, Beethoven was the master,” Chailly responds. “If you compare any of those slow movements I mentioned to the Andante of Mahler’s Sixth, you can hear how Mahler develops the idea of the so-called ‘endless melody’. Mahler is entranced by Beethoven’s endless fantasy. Think for a moment of all the beginnings of Mahler’s symphonies – and I include the 10th and Das Lied von der Erde in that; just think about, say, the first four bars and how Mahler never copied himself. Even when he used a funeral march to spark his creativity, it was never the same. Now do the same thing for Beethoven’s nine symphonies and notice how each one is different; how in the Eroica and Fifth, there is no need for an introduction; how in the Fourth Beethoven has this long, elaborate introduction.

“Hypothetically, my ideal would be to play the nine symphonies non-stop. I have analysed the end of one symphony and the start of the next, and then you see a certain logic emerge; one symphony follows the previous one with a different tonality, shape and character. But all the symphonies belong to this unity of one oeuvre, one opus. Mahler learnt to do the same from Beethoven.”

Having chased Beethoven’s legacy towards the Cageian brink, Chailly’s words remind me again of another composer with which he is strongly associated: Edgard Varèse. Like Beethoven’s symphonies, Varèse’s major orchestral works –AmériquesArcanaDéserts – are a unified oeuvre defined by how alike and unlike they are: as alike and unlike as trees. Like Beethoven, Varèse elbowed his way past protocols of traditional form, forms that Beethoven himself established. But I have a vision of Beethoven looking down on Varèse, understanding entirely why he had to destroy to create, and cheerfully waving him on his way. Chailly’s three Barbican concerts take place in October and November, shortly after the release of his cycle. To reinforce the idea of Beethoven as a timeless source of ideas, he has commissioned Colin Matthews, Bruno Mantovani, Steffen Schleiermacher, Friedrich Cerha and Carlo Boccadoro to provide new related satellite works. And I wonder if Beethoven’s greatest legacy – a more profound lesson than developing the style and idiom of his notes – was that he called “open sesame”, giving composers permission to question the assumed parameters of music. What is music? Why music? How music? Questions only fools would ignore. 

Influenced by The Nine...

Schubert Symphony No 9, D944 (1826)

Completed the year before Beethoven’s death, Schubert’s Great C major Symphony was, to square this circle of influences, thought by Schumann to be the greatest symphony since Beethoven’s nine. Early in his career, Schubert doubted “anyone can do anything after Beethoven” and hesitatingly dedicated his Variations on a French Song, D624, to him, a puzzle because the piece had only minimal surface similarity to Beethoven. But Schubert was scooping his own compositional identity from Beethoven. The Ninth, written five years later, finds him grappling with what it means to write a symphony. Schubert’s resplendent horn introduction lays it on the line, and a surreal harmonic fissure in the finale makes it feel like the music is leaping 100 years into the future. 

Recommended recording Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Warner Classics) Read review


Schumann Fantasie in C major, Op 17 (1836)

A monument to Beethoven – literally. The roots of Schumann’s Fantasie date back to 1836, when Schumann composed a piano work to help lobby for funds to build a statue dedicated to Beethoven in Bonn, his home town.

Allusions to Beethoven are embossed into its fabric: a quote from Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte was slipped into the coda of the first movement seemingly without anybody noticing at the time; the message secreted inside the words, “Accept these songs, beloved, which I sang for you alone”, was a subliminal one directed at Clara. 

Originally, the finale was going to riff on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony but Schumann had second thoughts; nevertheless, ghostly traces of Beethoven’s slow movement remain in the bass though.

Recommended recording Maurizio Pollini (DG) Read review


Brahms Symphony No 1 (1876)

After its two-decade gestation, is Brahms’s Symphony No 1 really, as the conductor Hans von Bülow famously described it, “Beethoven’s Tenth”? Well, von Bülow was one of Brahms’s most enthusiastic supporters but he’s right only in the sense that Beethoven’s First is “Haydn 105” or “Mozart 42”.

Beethoven was the undeniable stylistic spur: the symphony’s four-movement construct, including its “listen up” prologue, is a chip off the Beethovenian block; the melodic contours of Brahms’s finale seem traced over the equivalent moment in Beethoven’s Ninth and the persistent “der der der DA” rhythmic rap is hardly unfamiliar. Yet those same melodic contours, the harmonic conflict birthed in the opening, the sound of the orchestration, could only be Brahms. Beethoven has been entirely distilled. 

Recommended recording ORR / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (SDG) Read review


Ives Concord Sonata (1915)

Ives’s Concord Sonata is a meditation on “the spirit of transcendentalism associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts”, a reference to such philosophers as Emerson and Thoreau. But among a trademark Ivesian collage of American folk tunes, hymns and marches, the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are obsessively recalled and re-contextualised. 

To Ives, Beethoven’s music transcended our understanding of what music could be; the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, the most recognisable hook in all classical music, is “dematerialised” by Ives into an open-ended question mark. The addition of obbligato flute and viola parts – in a piano sonata! – implies the format itself must be transcended. And Beethoven is the key.

Recommended recording Varied Air: Charles Ives Piano Music Philip Mead (Metier)


Mauricio Kagel Ludwig van (1970)

Ludwig van exists as both film and spin-off instrumental work. Mauricio Kagel’s original film was a backhanded tribute for the 1970 Beethoven bicentenary, where Beethoven himself arrives at Bonn Station to see how the culture industry is treating his memory. 

The most famous scene is shot in Beethoven’s music room: the camera pans slowly around the room where every surface is pasted in fragments of Beethoven scores. As the camera moves, an ensemble plays these scraps haphazardly, and we hear Beethoven with the syntax removed; familiar phrases trip over one another, gestures are remade as fresh sources of sound. Kagel made a concert version of the music room scene, but his original film remains provocative and refreshing.

Recommended recording The Mauricio Kagel Edition (Winter & Winter) Read review

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