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Beethoven on speed

By Lawrence Toppman

Between 1996 and 2000, musicologist Jonathan Del Mar oversaw a new edition of Beethoven’s symphonies known as the Bärenreiter Urtext. It aimed to follow Beethoven’s original intentions, mainly via stricter adherence to his printed tempo markings.

Conductors John Eliot Gardiner and David Zinman quickly adopted this approach, and their complete series can be heard on the Deutsche Grammophon and Sony labels respectively. To my ears, these interpretations have all the depth, charm and beauty of a paper plate.

I came to know Beethoven via conductors who valued crisp execution (George Szell), high drama (Leonard Bernstein) and a clear musical arc that revealed the composer’s intentions (Andre Cluytens, whose series with the Berlin Philharmonic would be the complete set I’d grab in a fire). All sought Beethoven’s soul; none obsessed over his metronome markings.

I generally admire attempts at historical accuracy, whether from groups trying to reproduce the sounds Bach heard to orchestras that shrink or expand to replicate original performances from Mozart to Mahler. But exact fidelity to Beethoven’s markings, perversely, seems to deliver something the composer really didn’t want.

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel patented his wind-up metronome in the early 19th century, and Beethoven took it up by 1815. (Mälzel also made ear trumpets for Beethoven, at least two of which he seems to have used, and designed the noisy Panharmonicon Beethoven employed in his trashy battle symphony “Wellington’s Victory.”)

In 1817, Beethoven oversaw publication of his first eight symphonies with metronome markings. (He later approved insanely rapid ones for the Ninth Symphony, draining it of majesty if played that way.) Most speeds were faster than current performance practice, a few slower.

But he couldn’t hear his music by then, let alone judge the resonance in rooms where it was played, so he couldn’t adjust his ideas. Also, the general public found his symphonies long and difficult, so he may have been attempting to satisfy them with extra-brisk performances.

Jan Swafford’s excellent biography “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” tells us the composer wasn’t absolute in his demands. He quotes a manuscript note: “100 according to Mälzel, but … sentiment also has its tempo and cannot be completely expressed by this number.” Reports by contemporaries say he sped up or slowed down when conducting, according to his moods.

As a child, I owned a paint-by-number set. I scrupulously chose colors according to instructions and carefully painted inside every line printed on the sheet. The Gardiners and Zinmans of the world seem to me to take the same mechanical approach, producing art that’s just as sterile.

Lenny and Ludwig

By Lawrence Toppman

Next week brings the 30th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s death. As I’ve listened to Beethoven recordings this year, I’ve been struck by the intimate connection between the most charismatic conductor of the 20th century and the most important composer of the 19th.

As a member of Tanglewood’s first class of conducting students in 1940, the 22-year-old Bernstein prepared Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and won the attention of Tanglewood founder Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein became the first American conductor to record a complete set of the symphonies with one orchestra. That version of the Third Symphony, still perhaps my favorite of the “Eroica,” came with a lecture entitled “How a Great Symphony was Written.” As a teenager, I heard this insightful teacher break down a masterpiece for the first time, analyzing the opening movement of history’s most revolutionary orchestral work.

Bernstein later recorded another complete set, rather less convincingly, with the Vienna Philharmonic. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he performed the Ninth Symphony in the German capital, changing the word “freude” in the climactic “Ode to Joy” to “freiheit,” or “freedom.” He augmented the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with musicians from nations involved in World War II: Germany, Russia, England, France and the United States.

Like Beethoven, he was a first-rate pianist. He recorded eight concertos but played only two composers who predated his lifetime, Beethoven and Mozart. Artur Rubinstein called Bernstein “the greatest pianist among conductors, the greatest conductor among composers, and the greatest composer among pianists.” Wouldn’t that description have fit Beethoven in his day?

And in 1990, two months before he died, Bernstein led the Boston Symphony again at Tanglewood for his 50th anniversary there. Though frail and exhausted, he chose Beethoven’s dramatic Seventh Symphony as the last piece he would ever conduct.

What gave him such a deep identification with Beethoven’s music? Bernstein liked big gestures as a conductor, and Beethoven’s work lends itself to those. Both men were musical polymaths who lived at a high emotional pitch and, as Bernstein’s recently collected letters reveal, remained proud of their accomplishments yet insecure about their impact on society.

Most importantly, each believed the arts have the power to inspire us, heal us and make us better than we ordinarily are. Beethoven grew up with the ideals of the Enlightenment; he wanted music not only to move people but to connect them to fundamental principles of the universe. Think of his exhortations to seek wisdom and fraternal harmony in the “Ode to Joy.” They pose an impossibly tall order for most human beings, but Bernstein shared those sentiments all his life.

Naming of parts

By Lawrence Toppman

While re-reading my favorite World War II poem, Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts,” I realized Beethoven was the first major composer to use physical settings in the names of symphonic movements.

Plenty of predecessors embodied actions, animals or people in music, from Telemann’s frogs and birds to the plague of flies in Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” depicts a barking dog, dancing peasants, dripping icicles. But Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony went farther.

He tells us where we are in all five movements. The jaunty “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country” leads to birds twittering in “Scene by the brook.” A “Merry gathering of peasants” offers a town band whose tunes get interrupted by a ferocious “Storm.” When the weather clears, we hear a “Shepherds’ hymn – Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.” The piece describes tangible events while expressing intangible feelings.

Justin Knecht beat him to the punch by 23 years with the 1785 “Le Portrait Musicale de La Nature, ou Grand Symphonie.” (Why it has a French title when he lived and worked in Germany all his life, I have no idea.) Wikipedia claims he was much admired in his day, so maybe Beethoven knew this piece; it also features a storm, followed by a movement titled “Nature transported with joy.” But as the “Pastoral Symphony” can still be heard everywhere, and Knecht is forgotten, I’d call Beethoven the pioneer who inspired others.

Hector Berlioz followed the “Pastoral” 22 years later with “Symphonie Fantastique,” which also includes bird calls on a trip to the country. He, too, wrote five movements, with titles such as “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” Mendelssohn used conventional names for orchestral movements but loosely captured journeys to Scotland and Italy in his third and fourth symphonies. Schumann’s Third Symphony has a movement depicting an archbishop being made a cardinal in Cologne Cathedral.

Liszt’s tone poems, all huge single symphonic movements, bear titles such as “Prometheus” and “Hamlet.” Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 offers sections titled “Dreams of a Winter Journey” and “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists.” Mahler capped this trend with movements such as “Pan Awakes,” “Primal Light” and “What the Animals Tell Me.”

By the 20th century, music became more abstract. Composers seldom asked us to imagine specific scenes or behaviors, letting us give our own definitions to pieces. A raucous clamor was simply a loud noise, not a rural thunderstorm. But for the preceding 100 years, Beethoven’s concept of “pictures in music” reigned everywhere. 

Did Beethoven invent anything?

By Lawrence Toppman

This may sound like a goofy question. He revolutionized genres with audaciously difficult symphonies, complex piano sonatas, a vast Missa Solemnis, etc. His profound string quartets and mysterious piano trios surpassed anything his old teacher Haydn imagined.

Yet in each case, Beethoven reinvented a familiar form. And in other areas, such as dramatic opera and oratorio, he put his own stamp on materials without altering their structures. His piano concertos, great as they are, differ from Mozart’s mainly in length and demands on the soloist, not to mention the keyboard itself.

As far as I can tell, he came up with only one idea from scratch, one we don’t associate with him: the song cycle. As the first major composer to link songs programmatically, he triggered outpourings from every major Romantic composer, all of whom outstripped him. Schubert and Schumann, Berlioz and Brahms, Dvorak and Mahler used Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” (“To the distant beloved”) as a jumping-off point for the great song cycles of the next 90 years.

Scholars debate whether the title refers to a woman who’s geographically far away or in heaven. He wrote these six songs – the only such cycle he composed – in 1816 at 45, though the lyrics express a dreamy passion that sits more easily on a younger man. Tenors usually sing it; my preferred recording comes from Fritz Wunderlich, whose death at 35 robbed the world of the greatest lyric tenor of the 1960s. If you want to see the 15-minute cycle being sung, try this performance by masterful baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore.

Vocal works were flowing from Beethoven’s pen at that point: He’d written 42 songs and canons the previous year and would write 29 more in 1816 after “Geliebte.” This cycle musicalizes poems by physician Alois Jeitteles, who at 22 was a published poet; Beethoven asked Jeitteles to provide related pieces expressing loneliness in solitude, pleasure in the contemplation of nature, rapture that the brook and clouds and birds see his beloved wherever she is, and hope for eventual reunion.

Unlike his predecessors, who wrote concert arias or piano-accompanied songs to create single moods, Beethoven wanted to take listeners on a brief but varied emotional journey. We often consider him the first great Romantic composer today, and this modestly pioneering cycle is one reason why.

A disastrous outpouring of genius

By Lawrence Toppman

The concert lasted four hours in an unheated Vienna hall on a December night. The underrehearsed orchestra couldn’t follow the conductor, who started the last piece over after shouting “Quiet! Quiet! This isn’t working! Once again!” The soprano soloist, a terrified last-minute replacement, mangled her part. Yet never before or after have more masterpieces by one composer premiered on the same bill.

Beethoven intended this benefit concert of 1808 to show the world that, on the eve of his 38th birthday, he had no peer in classical music. So he bombarded listeners with brilliance, overwhelming even his fans. Composer Johann Reichardt couldn’t follow other weary patrons out the door, because he sat with Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s patrons. Afterward, Reichardt wrote, “One can easily have too much of a good thing – and still more of a loud.”

Judge for yourself on Aug. 16, when Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival airs a recreation of the concert. That free broadcast comes from a March 1 performance by conductor Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; it offers world-class soloists in pianist Inon Barnatan and soprano Dorothea Röschmann.

The first half consists of the Symphony No. 6 (the “Pastoral”), the 14-minute concert aria “Ah! Perfido,” the Gloria from the Mass in C, and the Piano Concerto No. 4. After intermission comes the Symphony No. 5, the Sanctus from the Mass in C, an improvised piano fantasia and the Choral Fantasy for piano, chorus and orchestra.

The two symphonies, the concerto and the concert fantasy all got their first public performances at that benefit. Beethoven conducted and played the keyboard in the concerto, the fantasia and the long, mostly improvised beginning to the Choral Fantasy. (He never played a concerto publicly again, because of deafness.)

Imagine listeners trying to absorb the weighty drama of the Fifth Symphony after two hours of music and a long, drink-filled intermission. How strange it must have been to have two sections of a mass – translated into German and presented as “hymns,” because it was illegal to put sacred music on a secular program – shoved in among orchestral and pianistic powerhouses.

Stunned critics responded with guarded approval that grew after later hearings. Prince Esterházy, Haydn’s former patron, gave Beethoven 100 gulden to wipe out debts. The composer had proved his point, even if he’d blown people’s minds to do it.

Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

Who knew, right? After the May 1824 premiere of the Ninth Symphony, his longest and most overwhelming orchestral masterpiece, Beethoven turned to another symphony. Though he lived three more years, he never got beyond sketches for all four movements.

His intentions have inspired fiction, from Peter Ustinov’s play “Beethoven’s Tenth” to Sue Latham’s novel “The Haunted House Symphony.” NPR broadcast an April Fool’s Day “story” in 2012 about the discovery of the Tenth. Conductor Hans von Bülow even called Brahms’ First Symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth,” because the main tune of Brahms’s finale resembled a corresponding theme in Beethoven’s Ninth. (Brahms’ response: “Any ass can see that.”)

The reality remains elusive. Beethoven liked to work on two major pieces at the same time, as he did with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and he started the Tenth while polishing the Ninth. In the 1980s, British musicologist Barry Cooper assembled 50 sketches amounting to 300 bars. He then filled them out with another 200 bars to create an andante-allegro-andante opening movement that lasts 16 minutes.

I listened this week to the 1988 recording by Walter Weller and the City of Birmingham Symphony in their complete set of Beethoven symphonies. Sadly, the piece remains forgettable after multiple hearings. It doesn’t break new ground, contain memorable material or even sound especially like Beethoven. Perhaps we’re lucky he didn’t leave enough material for Cooper to rebuild the other movements.

Why didn’t Beethoven finish it? His letters don’t say. He wasn’t completely out of creative juice, because he produced five incomparable string quartets after the Ninth Symphony. He could certainly have gotten the Tenth published, famous as he was, and made money if he’d wanted. Maybe he just didn’t care to complete hackwork in a genre he’d redefined and dominated.

We might equally well ask why he started in the first place, as neither he nor anyone else could surpass his monumental Ninth. I suppose one mark of genius is that you must never stop trying, even after you realize you’ve peaked.

That explains the mawkish late plays of Tennessee Williams and hollow final works of Igor Stravinsky. Not everyone can end on “The Cherry Orchard” or a great requiem mass; Chekhov and Mozart wouldn’t have done so either, if they’d lived past 45. Geniuses simply have to keep creating, whether the fires of inspiration blaze high or sink feebly to embers.

The journey that saved Beethoven’s life

By Lawrence Toppman

Had Beethoven killed himself in October 1802, he’d be known today as a fairly talented composer of unfulfilled promise – someone on the level of, say, Carl Maria von Weber or C.P.E. Bach.

At 31, he’d premiered one jaunty symphony in the style of late Haydn or Mozart, two amiable piano concertos, a few attractive sonatas for violin and piano and more impressive ones for piano alone, including the “Moonlight” and “Pathetique.” He’d shown only flickerings of the astonishing talent that would emerge over the next decade.

He went that autumn to Heiligenstadt, a resort about a one-hour carriage ride from the center of Vienna, with a troubled mind. He realized his oncoming deafness, which already affected his performances as a piano virtuoso and conductor, would eventually plunge him into silence. He often suffered agonizing headaches and stomach pains and doubted whether he could stand another 30 or 40 years of life under those conditions.

Beethoven poured his thoughts into a document written over two sessions to his brothers, Carl and Johann. The Heiligenstadt Testament, as we now call it, starts with a plea for understanding: “O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will.”

He confesses feelings of humiliation, profound loneliness, rage, terror. He flirts with the idea of dying, at God’s hand or his own. Yet his indomitable will keeps him going: “But little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence…. Patience – it is said that I must now choose for my guide. I have done so.”

In the following year, he triumphed with works of extraordinary emotional depth and musical daring: The tempestuous “Waldstein” piano sonata, the soaring “Kreutzer” violin sonata, his only minor-key piano concerto (No. 3) and the “Eroica” Symphony, his third and the most revolutionary symphony in history. Neither Beethoven nor his compositions would ever be the same after that dark night of the soul.

The strange saga of Beethoven’s skull

By Lawrence Toppman

Metaphorically speaking, contemporaries seldom knew where Beethoven’s head was at when he composed. Physically speaking, that was true after he decomposed. Most of his skull remains in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, along with the rest of him — but not all.

After his funeral in 1827, the body went to a cemetery in Währing northwest of Vienna. On a bizarre note, a grave-digger was allegedly offered money to remove the head, so Beethoven’s friends kept watch over the grave.

In 1863, scientists dug up Beethoven and Schubert (who lay nearby) to study the bodies and re-inter them. Phrenology became popular in the first half of the 19th century, so they may have wanted to “read” skeletal bumps. Romeo Seligmann, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Vienna, reportedly acquired fragments of Beethoven’s skull. (More of him in a minute.) Some of Beethoven’s ear bones also went missing, probably in an attempt to see what caused his deafness.

The Viennese dug him up again in 1888 to move him to Central Cemetery. Historians say elderly composer Anton Bruckner, himself eight years away from the grave, attended the ceremony; by one account, he cradled Beethoven’s skull in his hands and may have dropped a lens from his pince-nez into the coffin, so a piece of him would lodge with Beethoven forever. (He also did his skull-seizing act on Schubert and had to be removed from both proceedings.)

Meanwhile, the skull fragments from Seligmann’s collection made their way through generations of family members and landed at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University. Alas, the Californians discovered in 2015 that these pieces could not have come from Beethoven’s skull, after all.

Why does all this matter? Why did Bruckner, a devout Roman Catholic, treat the skull like a holy relic? Aside from medical questions – would ear fragments really tell us anything? – what difference does it make where the bones lie?

Maybe we’re so awestruck by his genius that we keep searching for a physical explanation. How did this overweight, hard-drinking, frequently ill man produce such an array of masterpieces? Was it simply cerebral hardwiring? A creative spark from God? Or can we find a clue among the remnants of his broken body? The question can never be answered, but we ask it anyway.