Once they had completed their award-winning Bruckner cycle, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrücken set out to record the complete Beethoven symphonies. From the start, the project received enthusiastic comments from the reviewers. The cycle is now complete and the entire edition is available in an attractive boxed set! Stanislaw Skrowaczewski enjoys an extraordinary career in his advanced age: the conductor
was born in Poland, though the first highlights in his career followed in the USA when he was the director of the Minnesota Orchestra. In 2007, he became chief-conductor for the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. Since 1994, he has been first guest conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrücken.
“This cycle remains excellent. As well as fascinatingly unpredictable. (…) Do not wait for too long: Listen and enjoy (yourself)!”
hifi&records, Jan. 2007
Ludwig van Beethoven
* 16 December 1770 in Bonn
† 26 March 1827 in Vienna
A free artist in Vienna
Pure coincidence in history, a matter of a lucky historical moment? In any case, Beethoven was just the person needed. And was as fortunate as should be. Of course, he placed himself in the right place at the right time. When the revolution of 1789 signalled the turn of an era from Paris, the 19-year-old could already look back on a short, colourful career as a child prodigy and especially on a solid basis as a piano talent and promising young composer. He furthermore had already completed several years’ serious work as a court organist in Bonn in the services of the prince-elector of Cologne. At the age of 22, however, he left the tracks which would have seemed thoroughly satisfactory to others for various reasons, also because of his family. Indeed, Beethoven fulfilled the considerable requirements for a musician’s career in one of the more than six hundred independent political units found on the area of the German Reich.
But he wanted more. He started to create works of a grand and magnificent style. Under the influence of rock-solid Christian Gottlob Neefe, he had not just increased his dexterity
to an enormous degree, but also, and more importantly, had extended his tastes in music, had developed a more acute consciousness of compositional technique and an emphatic ideal of education. The latter was mainly fuelled by the rhetoric of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, the poetry by the members of the Göttingen Hainbund and by young Goethe as well as by Schiller’s dramas – all of which was just about to become “classical”. In January 1793, Professor Bartholomäus Fischenich from Bonn sent a lied composition to Charlotte von Schiller written one year before: I am including a composition of the “Feuerfarbe” and wish to hear your verdict
on it. It was executed by a local young man whose musical talents are generally acclaimed and whom the Prince-Elector has now sent to Vienna. He is to work on Schiller’s “Joy,” too, on each single stanza. I expect something perfect, for as far as I know him, he is one for matters grand and magnificent. For the time being, the Schiller family were in vain waiting for mail including the Ode to Joy, although Mrs
Schiller, handling some of her husband’s due correspondence, answered in a friendly letter asking for it to be sent. It is likely that Ludwig van Beethoven started work at that time – but the results have not been handed down to us. They were probably assimilated in later stages of the work and eventually disposed of. The end product was only brought to public light long after Friedrich Schiller’s death and started its triumphal journey around the world as the final movement of the 9th Symphony.
32 years before that academy at the Kärntnertor Theatre that was the crowning moment in Beethoven’s meteoric rise – the programme
listed the Overture op. 124, some parts of the Missa Solmenis and the 9th Symphony with the final cantata Ode to Joy – the young musician from Bonn was granted a sabbatical to pursue his study. Determined, he went to Vienna and sought out Joseph Haydn as his teacher. He was on the threshold when the doors opened onto a new era in society and aesthetics. Admittedly, he had to knock on the doors strongly and move the door-handle himself.
He soon discovered that he needed almost superhuman performance and great moral strength for his lofty mission and high-flown goals: He sent a note to Nikolaus von Zmeskall, his friend and “favourite Baron Mud-driver” including details on their next pub appointment as well as his life maxim: Energy is the moral standard of people who are distinguished from the rest, and it is mine, too.
Struggles of self-assertion
Ludwig, the student from Bonn, realised soon after he had arrived in the capital that the main point was to become original, as his teacher Haydn put it. I would have never arranged anything like that, he wrote soon after his arrival in Vienna – it was to become his station in life once and for all, something he surely could hardly imagine at that time. He asked Eleonore von Breuning, whom he admired and to whom he dedicated variations for violin and piano which he sent to Bonn, to show some leniency on given occasions for remarkable difficulties in instrument technique: … I had frequently noted that there were certain individuals
in V. who usually, after I had improvised one evening, wrote down many of my unique stylistics and boasted about them. Since I then anticipated that such things would soon be published, I set out to forestall them.
Original and brilliant
Beethoven, soon known all over town with his wild hairstyle, was quickly swamped with business, as he proudly informed publisher Nikolaus Simrock from Bonn (also intending to liven up business and raise the fees in his favour). In our democratic times, a short Viennese spring, he set himself up as a free artist, still an exceptional procedure – and remained a freelancer even when the democrats’
arrest and the “Jacobine trials” in the Habsburg Reich’s metropolis put paid to all further Republican endeavours. He kept to his path as a composer headed towards new ideas, increasingly finding respect and being presented as a musical author: Beethoven’s performance was magnificent, powerful and stirring, wrote the Journal for Theatre, Music and Fashion in Vienna in a review of the first works. Novelty and wealth, a lightness in employing the means of harmony, a certain uniqueness of style and arrangement made one expect an original and brilliant composer in this young man, and his great instrumental compositions, some of his symphonies and concerts confirmed these hopes. Those references
to the “divine sparks” run through the reviews of the instrumental works like a lighted path. A heroic fire is the main characteristic
found in them. Admittedly, there were complaints about the rather too bizarre manner,
the extreme length of some movements and works as well as the profusion of ideas – the tendency to wildly heap thoughts on top of each other. Nevertheless, he grew ever more successful and the prices increased.
Grand – solemn – sublime
The fact that the bourgeois concert received such remarkable impetus in Central Europe during the 19th century and that instrumental music was held in such great esteem and had such a high status, was to a crucial extent due to the symphonies – the genre that distinguished itself during the second half of the 19th century starting from the court in Mannheim-Schwetzingen and was treated with that particular mastery by Mozart and in Haydn’s later works in Vienna, and that allowed Beethoven to climb Mount Parnassus. Beethoven thought along the lines of those principles that J.A.P. Schulz had developed in Sulzer’s General Theory of the Fine Arts, remaining almost completely untouched by
the beginning discussion about Classicism or Romanticism in music: The symphony is ideally
suited to express the grand, the solemn, the sublime. To make the works of this genre turn out well, they should not just move deeply and elevate, but also distinguish themselves by a particularly high degree of composure.
The symphonies symbolise Beethoven’s “breakthrough” – together with the piano compositions and the chamber music. For those audiences of people not especially interested in it, and indeed in the history of reception in general, they soon occupied a key position – on the way to the idolisation of the “titan” as well as in vehement defensive reactions that were to come.
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, op. 21
Beethoven’s first symphony, which he composed
almost entirely in 1799, had its premiere
on April 2, 1800 in Vienna’s “Kaiserlich Königlichen National-Hof-Theater nächst der Burg”. The program of this “musical academy”, the net profit of which all went to Beethoven, included many other pieces, including one of the composer’s piano concertos (probably the second), the Septet in E-flat Major op. 20 and a piano improvisation by Beethoven himself – as well as a symphony by Mozart and two songs by Haydn. Compared to today’s concert programs,
it was extraordinarily long, and demonstrates
the amazing concentration as well as enthusiasm for music that audience members of the time must have had. The quality of the performance was only fair, due to quarrels concerning the direction of the orchestra, but audience and critics responded positively.
Conventional and revolutionary
The success of the “First” with conservative Vienna audiences certainly had to do with the fact that – in contrast to Beethoven’s later symphonies – it occupied a solid position within the conventional framework. Its length, instrumentation and form resemble the known Haydn and Mozart models; the work’s motivic and harmonic structure could well have been influenced by Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony. But numerous sections of Beethoven’s first symphonic work, however, must have made tradition-conscious listeners shake their heads in dismay. The beginning of the first movement, for example, is a seventh chord, i.e. a dissonance,
which resolves to the subdominant of F Major. The symphony’s main key of C Major isn’t reached until after a series of further dissonances
and deceptive cadences.
For those times, this was absolutely a revolutionary
beginning, a “coup d’état in instrumental music”, as musicologist Peter Schleunig puts it. And then, listeners are confronted by a passage close to the end of the exposition in which the second theme – now in minor – suddenly appears
in a secretive pianissimo variant.
While the idyllic slow movement is repeatedly
disturbed by Beethoven’s typical sforzati accents on weak beats and occasionally by chords foreign to the harmony, the tempo marking of the “Menuetto” completely contradicts
the essence of what a minuet should be: a minuet entitled “Allegro molto e vivace” is no longer a minuet! The movement’s stormy, rushing motion is reminiscent at the most of a caricature of the courtly dance; much more, however, it reminds today’s listeners about scherzi in the composer’s later symphonies. Like the first movement, the Finale begins with a highly disconcerting Adagio introduction. After the entire orchestra has played a fortissimo
“G”, the first violins gradually feel their way up to the seventh above (“F”) – a motivically
trivial, possibly pathetic-sounding introduction
– but one that proves to be a musical joke in the style of Haydn in the lively Allegro theme that follows.
A study in the Haydn-Mozart style?
For a long time, however, Beethoven’s First Symphony was preferred to his later ones, which listeners of the time considered to be too “difficult” or “bizarre”. But it is indicative for the reception of Beethoven’s works that this ranking was turned almost entirely on its head in the later 19th century and 20th century: the respect for and renown of his later symphonies grew proportionately the more Beethoven was perceived to be a “titan”. And the First
Symphony quite unjustly acquired the reputation of being “only” a study in the Haydn-Mozart style – only a preliminary work to the major, heroic, “true” Beethoven symphonies.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 36
Beethoven’s Second Symphony was subjected
to an earful after its premiere on April 5, 1803. For one critic, it was a crass monster,
a bloodied dragon writhing uncontrollably that did not wish to die, which – bleeding to death in its departing throes (in the Finale) – still angrily thrashed around in vain with its tail. Others called it ultra-artificial or simply too bizarre, wild and garish. Even in 1811, a Paris reviewer heard only a heap of barbaric chords. It sounded to me as though doves and crocodiles
had been locked up in the same cage.
All of these judgments are a big surprise to today’s listeners, who lump the Second Symphony together with those of Haydn and Mozart, only considering the “new era” to have dawned with Beethoven’s Eroica. But the citations above remind us of the innovative and strong-willed traits that the work – seen in its own times, on its own terms, without knowledge of Beethoven’s later compositions – proffered. Although the slow introduction in the first movement could have been thoroughly
influenced by that in Mozart’s Prague Symphony, the nervous energy of the following
Allegro con brio surpasses anything previously
heard in the first movement of a symphony.
The Larghetto’s cantabile melody offers the listener a relaxed interlude; the Scherzo, however, (the first movement in Beethoven’s symphonic oeuvre to be called this) is full of bizarre schemes: crass dynamic contrasts turn the phrasing on its head. But Beethoven’s contemporaries always reserved their sharpest
criticism for the Finale. It was primarily the unusually wide-ranging modulations that were the source of annoyance and bafflement – a view that is very difficult to comprehend today.
But modern listeners do not only wonder about the contradiction between contemporaneous
criticism (“bizarre”) and their own impression (“traditional”). The discrepancy between the underlying mood of the symphony
– usually perceived as buoyant – and Beethoven’s gloomy state during its composition
is also amazing. We hear his despair in the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” from 1802, but it is also evident one year earlier, when he writes to a friend from his youth, Wegeler, in Bonn: You can hardly believe how empty and sad my life has been these past two years: My weak hearing has appeared everywhere – like a ghost, and I have fled the company of people.
I must seem like a misanthrope, though this is the last thing I am. Why is nothing of Beethoven’s depression audible in the symphony?
Countless 19th- and 20th-century authors
have tried to interpret Beethoven’s work as a representation of his personal, extra-musical drama, but apparently, a composer’s works and external situation do not always fit together as biographers would like.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 55
Like the Second, Beethoven’s Third Symphony after its publication (1805) was criticised as bizarre, shrill and erratic. At the same time, many contemporaries realised form the start that they were experiencing something new, something exceptional in this work. The special importance of the Third is found on two different levels. On the one hand, there is the textual-programmatic aspect: the composer, himself of Republican conviction, had originally intended to dedicate the symphony
to Napoleon Bonaparte, the general of the French Revolution and First Consul of France. When he was informed of Napoleon’s high-handed coronation as emperor in 1804, he (as his student Ferdinand Ries reports) ripped the title page apart, saying: So that one, too, is no different from ordinary men! Now he shall trample on human rights, too, and only gratify his ambitions; he will place himself higher than all the others, and become a tyrant. Eventually, the work was printed under the title of “Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d’un grand’uomo“ (Heroic symphony, composed to commemorate
the memory of a great man).
This anecdote passed on by Ries is, if not true, at least well thought out, for some suggestions
of the music from the French Revolutions can hardly be ignored in the Eroica – e.g. in the signal-like motifs, in the great dynamic range, the heightened importance of the wind
instruments or in the funeral march of the second
movement, inspired by François-Joseph Gossec’s Marche lugubre written in 1793. One can also take the references to the character of Prometheus as a political statement:
Beethoven took the main theme of the finale from his own “heroic-allegorical ballet” titled The creatures of Prometheus. As is well known, Prometheus, the titan from Greek mythology, was the one who fetched fire from Olympus for mankind – also in a figurative
sense: sensibility, culture, the light of enlightenment. And Napoleon for many of his contemporaries was the “Prometheus of the epoch”, an enlightened saviour of mankind.
However, the music itself is also revolutionary,
as can especially be seen in the outer movements. The first movement is already astonishing in its dimensions: in contrast to earlier works of that period, the development – the part of the motivic-thematic work, of struggles and conflicts – is longer than the exposition. Furthermore, Beethoven upgrades the Coda to a true second development. Such a substantial head movement naturally demands an equal counterpart at the end, and thus, Beethoven did not select a traditional form for the finale, but an individual solution combining different types of form and compositional
technique to a very complex structure. The sonata main movement and variation forms, passacaglia and fugue, German counter-
dance and Hungarian verbunkos (a dance often used during the recruitment of soldiers) all play a role in it.
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major,
Even today, Beethoven’s Fourth is still his most seldom performed symphony. It is easy to see, however, why this work never really became popular: it is actually quite modest
in comparison to its predecessor and successor.
It has neither the extensive length of the Eroica nor the heroic posture of the Fifth. And in the course of the 19th century, the Fourth lost even more of its attraction as the image of the “titanic” Beethoven became even more one-sided. Many criticized the Fourth as a relapse into past ages – after all, it uses the smallest number of winds of all the Beethoven symphonies
and remains lighthearted throughout. The comparably effortless composition process in summer and fall 1806 also fits this picture as well. The few extant sketches we have of this work show nothing of the experimentation and revision so often found in Beethoven’s drafts. Evidently, we have here a work of classical simplicity, easily served up by Beethoven.
But was the Fourth received by Beethoven’s audiences in this manner as well? Contemporaneous
reviews suggest the opposite. Take, for example, an article written by Carl Maria von Weber in 1809, in which Weber uses the Fourth to rail against the grotesque in that era’s composition standards. He sarcastically recommends
composing students the following: First, a slow tempo full of short, separate ideas that should have no relationship to any of the others: three or four notes every quarter of an hour! – that is exciting! Then, a somber tympani
roll and mysterious noises in the violas, all embellished with a suitable portion of fermatas
and stops; finally, after the listener has arranged
himself with the fact that no Allegro is in sight due to all this tension, a furious tempo – in which, however, pains must be taken to ensure that no main theme appears and that it is up to the listener to search for such himself. Grudgingly, Weber admits that Beethoven has a fiery, yes almost unbelievable wealth of ideas, but adds that these are completely lost in the confusion of organizing them. Left over is chaos, from which only individual heavenly bursts of genius come through. A lighthearted, unproblematic
work? Despite his negative assessment of the symphony, Weber’s commentary gives us insights into what was considered new, exciting and unheard of.
Secrets and surprises
The first movement begins with a harmonically indeterminate, minor-sounding Adagio introduction
that suggests that a heavy work full of tension
and secrets will follow. But Beethoven does not fulfill this promise: a fast, ascending scale breaks through the dark mood like fireworks and leads to the first theme in the first violins, which like the second theme (with bassoon, oboe and flute), is much more playful than it is heroic. The second movement is characterized above all by its persistent rhythmic pattern (dotted figures, at first in the second violins), which underscore a flowing melody above. Beethoven structured
the movement as a type of rondo (ABACABA), although he varies the main thought at every recurrence. Although the third movement is labeled a “Menuett”, it has little to do with the classical courtly-elegant dance. With its Allegro vivace tempo, irrepressible energy and rhythmic
complexity, the piece is actually more of a scherzo than a minuet. The Finale of the Fourth has often been called a “perpetuum mobile”. It is chock full of surprises: in the development, for example, the expected recapitulation is not performed as expected by the tutti orchestra; no, one lone bassoon plays the breakneck sixteenth-
note theme. And at the end, the orchestra
seems to lose all its power. Some instruments play the theme only hesitatingly, in pianissimo and at half speed – before a last burst of energy precipitously ends the work.
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, op. 67
Fate thus knocking at the door – it was Beethoven’s last secretary and first bio-grapher, Anton Schindler, who handed down these supposed words of the composer to posterity.
But whether this elucidation of the Fifth Symphony’s opening measures was uttered by Beethoven or not, or whether it was only one of Schindler’s fables or notorious inaccuracies,
is irrelevant. By now, the famous four-tone hammering motive at the beginning of the first movement is legendary: Beethoven’s “trademark”,
if you will – possibly even of classical music itself. Generations of authors have further
elaborated upon the myth of “Beethoven’s Fifth” and represented its composer as a titan struggling with every note. But not only did they related the opening motive to Beethoven’s personal
fate, i.e. his well advanced state of deafness
at the time of the work’s composition, they also understood the Fifth as a commentary on Europe’s political fate: these were the years when Napoleon was beginning to betray the ideals of the French Revolution.
“Symphony of Fate”
Whether one wishes to read programmatic meaning into the work or not, however, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has exercised unbroken fascination on listeners for nearly 200 years. The composer began his first drafts of the C Minor Symphony in 1803/04, although he did not complete it until early 1808. Its premiere
in a “musical academy” on December 22, 1808 was not highly successful, but in the course of the next several years, its success became sealed. Numerous arrangement for the most varied instrumental ensembles popularized
the work in the 19th century; when the phonograph record came into being in the early
20th century, Beethoven’s Fifth was the first symphony to be recorded for this new medium (with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1913).
Why has the Fifth in particular come to be seen as the embodiment of the symphonic genre? Possibly because of its great appeal to a broad range of listeners combined with its stupendous compositional quality. The lapidary and brilliant hammering motive at the beginning reveals itself to be the essence of the entire work. Its rhythmic energy dominates the first movement, and it is highly versatile as well. A melodic secondary theme, on the other hand, remains a much more limited episode that occurs
only in the exposition and recapitulation.
Jubilation before the victory
The second movement is a slow sonata-form that uses variation elements. The melodic A-Flat Major theme in the cellos and violas contrasts with a fanfare-like C Major motive in the entire orchestra. The forward thrust of this component could even be interpreted as an anticipation of the Finale – premature jubilation
before the final victory.
Beethoven originally conceived of the scherzo-like third movement in five parts (ABABA). But at the premiere, he found the movement’s 611 bars so long that he shortened
the movement to the three-movement ABA-Coda form we know today. The Scherzo combines a rising bass motive with a four-tone horn motive that harks back to the symphony’s opening measures. The Trio is characterized by fugal themes. An attacca transition leads into the Finale, in effect uniting both movements
into one monumental ending.
This Finale now clearly reveals itself to be the focal point of the entire work. For the first time in the symphonic genre, we have a last movement that is longer than the opening movement, as well as everything but the buoyant
last dance audiences ever since Haydn had expected. It introduces another innovation as well: Beethoven has added three trombones, contrabassoon and piccolo to the orchestration – all instruments which had rarely been used in
the symphonic literature. In addition, the movement
exhibits several features which can hardly
be interpreted as other than programmatic in the sense of “per aspera ad astra” (through hardship to the stars): for one, the key changes from a ominous C Minor to a radiant C Major. In addition, the overall character is indisputably that of a march, which is invariably tied to the idea of struggle and victory. And this victory is so colossal, that the final cadence is one of the longest in the history of music.
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, op. 68
Probably more derogatory articles and letters
from [Vienna] will be published in the Musikalische Zeitung about my last musical academy concert; I would not wish the suppression
of any statements against me. One can see [from these] that nobody has more personal enemies than I; this is all the more understandable
since the musical circumstances here are becoming worse and worse…
The extent of Beethoven’s anger and disappointment
can certainly be discerned from this letter to his publisher, Breitkopf und Härtel, dated January 7, 1809. The concert Beethoven was referring
to had taken place on December 22, 1808 in the Theater an der Wien. That the composer could not easily bear the concert’s failure is understandable:
after all, it had consisted almost entirely of premieres – of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies,
Choral Fantasy op. 80 and Piano Concerto
No. 4. And it was particularly the exceptional
length of this program that played a great role in the Vienna audience’s reserved reaction.
On the other hand, Beethoven presented listeners
at this memorable academy with abundant
variety – not only of instrumental and vocal
compositions, but within the concert’s symphonic
portions as well. One can see the Sixth Symphony as the exact opposite of the Fifth: while the “Symphony of Fate” is characterized by systematic dynamics leading to a triumphant goal, a dramaturgical “through night to light”, the “Sinfonia pastorale” contains hardly any conflict whatsoever. Instead, it is the embodiment
of the purely idyllic for long stretches at a time – the result, of course, of the work’s programmatic blueprint. But Beethoven did not want to write solely illustrative music. This is evident in his famous remark that the Sixth is “more an expression of feeling than painting”. The work’s subtitle “Impressions of country life” also points to the fact that it is not nature in and of itself that Beethoven wishes to represent in tones, but the impressions nature makes on the subject who is representing it.
Of course, the Sixth Symphony certainly contains some “tone-painting”: one can hear a coach rolling along in the first movement or the murmur of a brook in the second, and towards the end of this movement, the call of birds (Beethoven even noted “nightingale”, “quail” and “cuckoo” in the score). The third movement,
which replaces what would normally be the scherzo, affectionately parodies village musicians
and their playing: at the beginning, two village bands alternate – one playing in F Major and the other in D Major. Sforzati stand for energetic
foot-stamping, and in the middle, the oboe seems to miss its entrance by two beats while the bass hobbles along even further behind. Rancorous cellos, contrabasses and tympani accompanied by tremolos and falling arpeggios in the violins illustrate the thunder and lightning of a storm in the fourth movement.
But Beethoven gives listeners something much more profound: musical analogies to what was in his eyes the essence of nature – the principle of constancy in eternal change. Particularly the first movement – often the arena for dramatic conflict – rejects all development
and seems to suspend time with its countless motivic repetition. Devices of musical
change such as leading tones, chromatics
and noticeable modulations occur highly infrequently – major chords all the more. In the second movement, whose murmuring brook is nothing less than a symbol for movement and standstill, change and immutability, Beethoven finds the musical correspondence of variation: the theme remains ever the same but is constantly
illuminated in a different manner. The concept behind the Finale is also plausible. No triumphant apotheosis comes into question,
of course, because the natural force of the movement’s storm cannot be contained; it recedes of its own accord. The only remaining solution is thankfulness and the return of the idyll in the form of a wholly undramatic Rondo in a swaying, natural 6/8 rhythm.
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92
Success capturing the public mood
The classicism of the symphonies of Mr. van Beethoven, the most important instrumental
composer of our times, is widely known. This newest work will earn its brilliant author no less admiration than his older ones; perhaps it will even have an important advantage over them in that all of its movements are so clear, all themes so pleasing and easy to understand – without any less compositional artistry – that every friend of music, even without being a connoisseur, will be powerfully attracted by their beauty and burn with enthusiasm. As this contemporary concert review shows, audiences
and critics alike reacted positively to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, composed in 1811/1812. This may in part have to do with the clarity and understandability mentioned above, but political events of the day certainly contributed
to the work’s success as well. Two months before its premiere on December 8, 1813, the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig had set off Napoleon’s decline, and the major “Academy” concert where the work was heard served as a benefit for the “Austrian and Bavarian soldiers who had become invalids” in the battle of Hanau.
The Seventh Symphony was performed several
more times during the Congress of Vienna (September 1814 to June 1815), when diplomats
from many countries negotiated new boundaries in Europe and indulged in a wealth of social and cultural events on the side. During these first repetitions of the symphony, it was included on programs together with Beethoven’s anti-Napoleon battle description Wellington’s Victory or the Battle at Vittoria and the cantata The glorious moment. This led many to conclude that the Seventh Symphony also expressed a joyful mood of victory and freedom. Well into the 20th century, literature
on Beethoven proposed many further extra-musical suppositions about this work, suggesting that it might be anything from an “antique celebration of the vine” to wedding music, from knightly festivities to a military symphony, and finally, the idea that it was a musical setting of scenes from Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister”. Although none of this can be verified, the idea that there could be some sort of program behind the music is at least understandable, especially after the Eroica and Pastorale. But Beethoven always fended off all too concrete interpretations; he would only accept explanations that limited themselves
to the characteristics of the composition
in general. But in any event – one must be allowed to portray the work as optimistic and mirthful.
A programmatic symphony?
This is true for the opening movement, whose main Vivace section is governed by a dance in 6/8. Before this, however, we hear the longest slow introduction that Beethoven ever used to begin a symphony. With its two independent themes as well as the immense variety of their musical ideas, this introduction almost takes on the part of an independent symphonic movement. The beginning of the following Allegretto, which replaces the slow movement
in the Seventh Symphony, is an effective contrast to the Vivace: a sad wind chord in A Minor casts doubt on the previous mood of victory. A song of mourning then unfolds with increasing power and menace above a two-bar ostinato rhythm – listeners of the times would without question have understood it as a funeral march for those who had fallen in battle. According to a period critic, the movement
was a favourite of both musical specialists
and laypersons, one which profoundly appeals to even those not familiar with the rules of composition, one which irresistibly sweeps all along with it through its naivety and a certain secret magic, and whose repetition
has been compelled by the enthusiasm of listeners at every performance until now. Exhilarating rhythms also characterize the following
Scherzo, which is interrupted twice by a more cantabile trio. Songs from Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s “Egmont”, a highly patriotic
composition composed in 1810, are also heard in this movement. Later subtitles such as “orgy of rhythm” (Romain Rolland) or “apotheosis of the dance” (Richard Wagner) were given to the Seventh Symphony primarily
thanks to its Finale. After two dramatic chords, a veritable storm of rhythmic energy and frenzied movement bursts forth. Although some of Beethoven’s contemporaries held the opinion that this symphony can only have been composed in unhappiness, or a drunken state (Friedrick Wieck) or demanded that the
composer be sent to the madhouse for it (Carl Maria von Weber), many more listeners reacted
with absolute enthusiasm to the ecstatic close of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Symphony No. 8 in F Major, op. 93
Without a “furor”
Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Eighth Symphony in a surprisingly short period of time. After jotting down first sketches in 1811, parallel to his work on the Seventh Symphony, he then completed a major portion of it in summer 1812 in the Bohemian spas of Teplitz, Franzensbrunn, Karlsbad and Eger. He finished the symphony in October while visiting his brother Johann in Linz, before continuing on his way home. It wasn’t until February 27, 1814, however, that the premiere took place. The event: an “Academy” concert presented and conducted by Beethoven himself,
at which the trio Tremate, tempi, tremate
op. 116, the Symphony No. 7 in A Major op. 92 and Wellington’s Victory or the Battle at Vittoria op. 91 were on the program as well. All in all, the concert was an enormous success,
although the new work did disappoint the audience somewhat. One reviewer wrote that the applause Beethoven received was not as enthusiastic as that normally received for a work which pleases all, in other words: it didn’t create a furor, as the Italians say.
Why didn’t the Eighth Symphony impress 19th century listeners as much as its predecessor
(which is still the case today)? Because it’s much better – as Beethoven somewhat cynically explained to his student Carl Czerny. A possibly more precise explanation
might be that the Eighth is less spectacular,
more difficult to grasp and conceals complex
musical processes behind a harmless façade. Beethoven’s Eighth is shorter than some of Mozart or Haydn’s late symphonies and its compositional style seems at first to be moderate, classicistic, and sometimes even reactionary. But its brevity does not mean that it is a light-weight. Its harmony and thematic development are simply compressed to the greatest degree possible – thus placing much higher demands on listeners: it is full of life and humor, but very difficult because of the irregularities of the movements, said the “Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung” in 1818. And Beethoven’s relationship to tradition appears thoroughly broken as well; he often violates established standards or reacts to them with parody and exaggeration.
Moderate, classicistic, unconventional
Other than the Seventh Symphony, which begins with an expansive slow introduction, Beethoven starts the Eighth right off with the main theme: a melodically ornamented, downwards-
moving triad which clearly presents the work’s key of F Major. The regular, four-bar periods of this beginning imply buoyancy and simplicity. The second theme surprises, however, by entering in D Major instead of the expected dominant key of C Major; the “correct”
key is reached only after a quick modulation.
The development primarily handles the first part of the main theme and is followed by a recapitulation in which the themes are orchestrated differently than in the exposition. Before reaching its final conclusion, the coda briefly cites the opening theme once again.
Instead of the usual slow tempo, Beethoven chose an “Allegretto scherzando” for the Eighth’s second movement, a movement which has often been noted in the literature as connected with Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome. According to Beethoven’s first biographer,
Anton Schindler, the main melody is based on a canon that the composer improvised as a farewell to Maelzel during a social evening in 1812. Its text: Ta ta ta ... lieber Mälzel, leben Sie wohl, sehr wohl! Banner der Zeit, grosser Metronom [ta ta ta... dear Maelzel, fare well, very well! Banner of the times, great metronome]. We now know the so-called “Maelzel canon” (WoO 162) to be a forgery by Schindler. But the story isn’t a bad one: the repetitive sixteenth-notes in the winds are quite reminiscent of a metronome. The conflict between this regular accompaniment
and the playful main theme leads to rhythmic
displacement, splitting up of the theme and unexpected fortissimo bursts. These are what give a scherzando character to the movement, which ends with a humorous jab at the ends of Italian opera acts.
It would be impossible, of course, to follow a Scherzando with a Scherzo, and Beethoven thus replaces this more modern variant of the symphonic
third movement with nothing less than an exaggerated, almost “portly” minuet. The stereotypical rocking motion of the accompaniment
at the beginning and the simplicity of the
main theme seem more parody than not, as does the later Landler character of the trio theme, presented later by the horns and clarinets.
In the Finale, Beethoven combines sonata-
and rondo-forms. The movement has two developments and two recapitulations. This made it particularly difficult for listeners of the times to follow the composer’s stream of ideas and decipher the apparently chaotic
confusion (according to the “Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung”). The movement is exceptionally full of contrasts and surprises as well as unexpected changes of key and colour. One example of Beethoven’s enigmatic humor is the fortissimo C-sharp – a tone completely
foreign to the momentary key – before the repeat of the main theme. This note comes up in the exposition and first recapitulation – and seems to be completely unmotivated. Its purpose is not revealed until the second
recapitulation: it now paves the way to F-sharp Minor, in which Beethoven skilfully reinterprets the main theme shortly before the end of the piece.
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, op. 125
What a work: its motives are part of the cell phone ring-tone world, it has been turned into pop and rock music, and is heard wherever people want to express freedom and brotherhood. It has been played at acts of state like the celebration of German reunification at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 as well as at the entrance of the German Olympic teams during the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games. And since 1972, Ode to Joy, the main theme from the symphony’s last movement, has been the European hymn. This melody is as well known and popular as any of the world’s greatest hits and now leads a life of its own, liberated from its confines in the last symphony of the Viennese
Beethoven had in mind just this global feeling of solidarity with all humanity when he set some verses of Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy to music in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony. Beethoven first has this melody played by the strings. After a series of variations, the choir finally enters, including
a powerful choral-solistic roundelay that unites such heterogeneous elements as a Turkish march and a double fugue (Martin Geck).
Beethoven’s contemporaries considered this escalation from the instrumental to the vocal to be simultaneously colossal and intimidating: a thorough bursting of the formal chains of the classical symphony. And this is how the Ninth has come down to us today: a landmark as well as yardstick for all later com-posers.
Beethoven’s ascension to hymn-like realms was the expression of his own thoughts on humanity, which Beethoven scholar Martin Geck interprets with these words: “The best symphonic music that one can play for man is nothing in light of the real horrors he must face. Man is alone in ensuring his own salvation,
and he must do this by joyfully and devoutly
harmonizing with the song that makes all men brothers under the heavens of God the Father, Creator of all Mankind.”
Beethoven had long played with the idea of setting Schillers Ode to Joy. According to a letter written in 1793 by Bonn law professor
Fischenich to Schiller’s wife Charlotte, Beethoven wanted to set every stanza. I expect
the perfect work, for as far as I know him, he is one for the grand and lofty. In 1812, Beethoven had considered working the text into a Schiller overture. But he first expressed the idea of ending a symphony with a choral finale in 1817, when he wanted to begin writing
two symphonies. This project, however, was not yet to be. After finishing his Eighth Symphony in 1812, a future symphony was certainly in Beethoven’s thoughts, but it took ten years before he wrote another one. For his contemporaries, this was evidence that he was going through an “artistic crisis”. In 1821, the Leipziger Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported: Beethoven – as Haydn once did – is working on motives from Scottish songs; he seems to be completely apathetic to writing larger works. Certainly, he had health problems, he was involved in a grueling legal dispute over the guardianship of his nephew Karl, he suffered from the paralyzing Vienna music life, which seemed drawn only to the music of a Rossini, and his progressing deafness
was increasingly debilitating – but he did compose some of his most enduring works in these years: the Diabelli Variations, the Missa Solemnis and the Hammerklavier Sonata.
A concrete opportunity to compose the Ninth Symphony finally arose with a commission
from the London Philharmonic Society, which approached Beethoven in 1817 with
the request that he write two symphonies. Beethoven did have initial difficulties beginning
to compose, but after he finally started, it only took him ten months in 1823 and 1824 to write the greatest part of this powerful work. Beginning such large works always panics me. Once I start, things are better, Beethoven once said this to music critic Friedrich Rochlitz, and it certainly applies to the Ninth as much as any other of his major works.
The premiere did not take place in London, however, and not in Berlin, which Beethoven had also considered – but in Vienna. This was thanks to influential musical enthusiasts who wrote Beethoven stirring letters asking him to present his newest work in “his own city”.
According to today’s ideas of concert length, the premiere on May 7, 1824 in the Kärntner Theater was truly a musical marathon. In addition
to the Ninth, whose duration is over 70 minutes, Beethoven’s Ouverture op. 124 (Consecration
of the House) and parts of the Missa Solemnis were also performed. Kapellmeister Michael Umlauf was the musical leader of the program, but because the deaf Beethoven insisted in conducting as well, he was listed on the program as an assistant conductor with the words: “Mr. Ludwig van Beethoven will participate in conducting the program.” If the musicians had oriented themselves to Beethoven, however, the performance would have been a catastrophe. According to an eye-witness, violinist Joseph Michael Böhm, Beethoven stood next to Umlauf gesticulating like a crazy man. At times he would reach to the heavens, at times he crouched on the ground. He waved with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all of the instruments alone, sing all of the choir parts (…) Beethoven was so agitated that he perceived nothing happening
around him. He didn’t even pay attention to the thundering ovation – which of course he could hardly hear due to his poor hearing. – He always had to be told when it was time to thank the audience for their applause, which he did in an awkward manner. – Beethoven celebrated an immense triumph.
His illustrious work was finally performed in London on March 21, 1825, and printed in 1826 by Schott in Mainz. Beethoven dedicated the work to Friedrich Wilhelm III, the King of Prussia.
By incorporating vocal music into the symphony,
Beethoven ushered in the Romantic era, whose protagonists were highly occupied with fusing text and music or with expressing programmatic or other ideas in music. But not only was the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth exceptional. He had composed the previous three movements as preparation for the Finale. Musicologist Hartmut Krones has summarized Beethoven’s statements on this subject as follows: The first movement reflects humanity’s “desperate condition” and alludes to Tartarus as the symbol of this; the second movement depicts the search for happiness – not only with the aid of various diversions; the third movement is a “devout song” and shows the return to religion; the Finale recalls all previous movements and finds its fulfillment in the glorious song of joy.
Even the unsullied perfect fifth at the beginning
of the symphony is unusual and calls to mind Brucknerian dimensions. The first theme develops from descending intervals; Beethoven doesn’t arrive at the tonic until 17 measures have passed. The second movement
– the Scherzo, normally the third movement
in a classical symphony – also bursts the bonds of previous forms and standards. There is something surly and driven about it; the dotted
octave leaps at the beginning brusque and followed by a wild, ghostly ride until finally, the somewhat more serene Trio, introduced by the woodwinds, offers a bit of restraint.
The third movement, a series of variations, is lyric and highly expressive, almost a reverie – except for the sudden fanfare that evokes the beginning of the symphony.
It is amazing that Beethoven’s “conceptual music”, his hymn-like, almost ecstatic symphonic
song is still so powerful and has so much immediacy and radiance for us today; that it can enrapture 21st century humans just as it did those of the past two centuries – and that it will certainly withstand its monopolization
as cell phone ring-tone or department store background music.
Dr. Beate Früh
Translations: Elizabeth Gahbler