When Beethoven became Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Alex Ross, the brilliant and influential New Yorker music critic, has written a new article about how Beethoven’s immense legacy has shaped and even overshadowed all those who followed him. He writes:

Beethoven is a singularity in the history of art—a phenomenon of dazzling and disconcerting force. He not only left his mark on all subsequent composers but also molded entire institutions. The professional orchestra arose, in large measure, as a vehicle for the incessant performance of Beethoven’s symphonies. The art of conducting emerged in his wake. The modern piano bears the imprint of his demand for a more resonant and flexible instrument. Recording technology evolved with Beethoven in mind: the first commercial 33⅓ r.p.m. LP, in 1931, contained the Fifth Symphony, and the duration of first-generation compact disks was fixed at seventy-five minutes so that the Ninth Symphony could unfurl without interruption. After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty. Listening underwent a fundamental change. To follow Beethoven’s dense, driving narratives, one had to lean forward and pay close attention. The musicians’ platform became the stage of an invisible drama, the temple of a sonic revelation.

In taking a new look at one of history’s most mythologized figures, Ross contextualizes recent notable books on Beethoven. For SPCO audiences, his article is particularly timely in its discussion of the Eroica Symphony, which we’ll perform on this weekend’s program:

[Biographer Jan] Swafford plausibly suggests that the “Eroica” is a tribute to the “power of the heroic leader, the benevolent despot, to change himself and the world”—an Enlightenment document with revolutionary trappings. As Swafford recognizes, too much is made of the hoary anecdote of Beethoven striking Napoleon’s name from the manuscript after hearing that the leader had crowned himself emperor. He did indeed erase the phrase “titled Bonaparte,” but kept the words “written on Bonaparte,” and referred to the symphony as his “Bonaparte” even after Napoleon had taken an imperial title. The subsequent decision, in 1806, to publish the work as a “Sinfonia Eroica” may have had a pragmatic basis: at that time, Austria was at war with France, and a Napoleon Symphony would have been ill-advised.

Swafford has a marvellous chapter on the music of the “Eroica,” restoring freshness to a very familiar score. He shows how Beethoven composed not episode by episode but toward a predetermined climax—a dizzying, collagelike sequence of variations on an impish theme previously associated with Beethoven’s ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus.” The striding E-flat-major theme of the opening movement is related to the variation theme (both are defined by B-flats above and below), and its swift descent to a discordant C-sharp—an inversion of a more innocent-seeming chromatic slide in the “Prometheus” theme—creates an instability that leads to shocking orchestral violence and finds resolution only at the very end. Furthermore, the usual image of Beethoven the furious smith, binding all notes to a fundamental idea, gives way to a welcome emphasis on the composer’s wit and his love of dancing rhythm. Swafford ingeniously connects the “Eroica” finale—whose theme is based on the popular dance known as the Englische—with a passage in Schiller’s correspondence that sees the Englische as a symbol of an ideal society in which “each seems only to be following his own inclination, yet without ever getting in the way of anybody else . . . the assertion of one’s own freedom and regard for the freedom of others.”

Ross describes the many ways in which Beethoven’s music has become larger than life. Through two centuries, it has continually resonated with listeners, leading it to be appropriated for an astonishing variety of ideas and causes. It has also been used to commemorate major events like the reunification of Germany. It may seem natural, then, to perform Beethoven’s symphonies in a season that begins a new chapter in the SPCO’s history.

Throughout the first half of this season, we’ll perform the complete cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies as we prepare for the opening of the new Ordway concert hall. Remaining performances include Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) this weekend, Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) on November 14-15, Symphony No. 4 on January 9-11, and Symphony No. 2 on January 15-18. Finally, we’ll end with the Ninth Symphony on February 12-14 as we say farewell to the Ordway Music Theater, our downtown St. Paul home for the last 30 years.